Is it time to start having a conversation about “checking the box”?

We, as Indigenous people, are diverse in so many ways. For every business, vocation or occupation you can think of, there are relatives of the red race working there. Some of us work in clusters, like a band office or an Indigenous organization, and others work in silos. Those fortunate enough to work in clusters don’t have to navigate the waters of office norms or politics so different from your own, or explain Indigenous issues to people of a different culture. Just imagine what it’s like for the lone Indigenous physician sitting in a meeting with Caucasian physicians discussing policies that have serious implications for Indigenous people. Or the Indigenous educator tasked with developing a professional development day for their non-Indigenous co-workers.

In those odd instances where those lone voices in the wilderness get together with other brown faces in a safe environment and talk about their experiences and frustrations with their workplace, colleagues, bureaucracy and systemic racism, they are usually met with “I know, right?” responses. So I thought I would use this safe space that Red Rising has created to encourage conversation about something we may or may not be seeing in our collective workplaces around Turtle Island.

Declaring Indigenous ancestry for career advancement

This is a contentious issue because we are extremely diverse as Indigenous people. It’s been said that there are three ways in which you can categorize Indigenous people:

  1.    Legally: Status Indians, recognized members of Métis nations, etc. Although it seems pretty cut and dry these categorizations are still painful for many people, another scar of colonization.
  2.    Racially: Those who by virtue of their appearance are easily identifiable as Indigenous people.
  3.    Culturally: Those who practice aspects of their traditional culture as it existed prior to colonization. This includes language, spirituality, and connection to the land, connection to Indigenous community/people and ways of making a living.

Some person may not legally be a Status Indian (because they’re great-grandmother married a non-Status man, for example) but their complexion is very dark and they share the same facial and body features of the local Indigenous peoples (racially obvious). Or they may not legally or racially be Indigenous, but they live on a trap line and speak the language.

So here’s the problem: virtually every organization and profession has what I will term “Convenient Indigenous.” These are the folks who are not racially obvious and, this is the key point, are not connected to the Indigenous community/people.

Rightly, organizations have implemented employment equity policies to repair previous imbalances in hiring and promotion. Often it’s just a voluntary declaration box on an application and people don’t think much about it – but you can bet the Human Resource folks do. In fact, checking that little box can sometimes give someone a minor edge over another candidate. It can be an extra point in a hiring matrix.

The problem, and few are willing to talk about it, is that people who are not legally, racially or culturally Indigenous are being coached by folks in these organizations to declare by checking the box  – and they do not have to offer any proof of Indigenous ancestry, or proof of connection/attachment to an Indigenous community.

In my opinion, those policies and positions were implemented for those who have been immersed in the struggle. Any Person Of Color (POC) knows what the struggle means – but for those who don’t, the struggle is the experience of someone who always wonders how much of a factor personal or systemic racism had in them not getting a job, not being able to rent an apartment, being refused for a loan, etc.

The problem is that we have Convenient Indigenous who are only too happy to benefit from these policies and get hired and/or advance in their chosen field. The major difference, and HR folks and leaders need to understand this, is that a POC or someone connected and attached to the Indigenous community will come to that profession with their family, their clan, their community, their nation and even their race behind them. That is always on their mind while doing their duties as part of their job.

So your company’s great new Indigenous initiative conflicts with the local Indigenous community’s values – then the folks who are connected to the community and people will tell you about it. Isn’t this why you wanted them there in the first place (leveraging diversity)? These folks will give you meaningful advice, input and opinions on anything involving their community; however, they are not great yes-men. In fact, in most meetings, they almost always seem to be the Lone Dissenting Voice in the Wilderness. Alas, those of us who work within systems know that feeling only all too well … trust me, brown people speaking truth to power doesn’t often bode well for one’s career. (As an aside, I know you long standing members of the Lone Dissenting Voice In The Wilderness Club do not get enough recognition and it is tiring work but please don’t give up or get disgruntled. We need you! We love you!)

Conversely, the Convenient Indigenous who is not connected to the community and does not understand the struggle (in fact many of them are the worst struggle deniers) supports your organization’s initiatives and its leaders’ ideas because serving them serves their career advancement and job security . They embrace mainstream society’s meritocracy because it’s working for them. They will be the poster-person for this bad initiative. They will wade through the criticism from the community, often resenting their input, smile to their bosses and tell them it’s all sunshine and lollipops. They will skew results and reports. They will do anything to make it “work” when it really is only working for the privileged and not the marginalized.

Sadly, because of the “success” of that initiative, they are given another, and another … Their career skyrockets. Along the way, they partner with White Saviours (perhaps a topic for another article) and the two of them know only too well how to “fix” our community. The Convenient Indigenous wants the corporate advantage of being Indigenous without the pain, the struggle or responsibility of being Indigenous. They have White Privilege and don’t even recognize it … and in the process they can do more harm than the White Saviours.

So what is the answer? I don’t know. Under the Indian Act umbrella alone you have status, non-status, treaty, registered, C-31 Indians, etc. I like how the Métis make you do your homework and prove your connection to the original Métis communities. That only solves for legally Indigenous however. Connection is what is really important.

So this begs a very important question and one that no one is asking: how does an employer  – or a community for that matter – verify and quantify a candidate’s CONNECTION (read responsibility) to an Indigenous community?

This is something that we, as a community, need to talk about going forward.

This is in no way meant to dissuade those folks who have legitimately discovered their Indigenous ancestry. I encourage anyone to learn who they truly are. I have coached many incredibly respectful “students of the culture” and those rematriating to The People. Just don’t be too quick to assume a position of leadership and speak on behalf of The People until you have earned that right. How do you earn it? Work, hard, consistent work over many years.