Each June, Canada observes National Indigenous History Month (NIHM). For many organizations and individuals, these 30 days are, rightfully, an opportunity to reflect on the violence European colonizers enacted against Indigenous communities during the theft and conquest of the Americas.
However, we must recognize that Indigenous histories do not begin with colonial contact. For centuries, Indigenous Peoples thrived on the lands we now call Canada. First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples had deeply equitable cultural, spiritual, political, and economic practices that were disrupted and destroyed by the legacies of colonization along with patriarchy, capitalism, and religious universalism.
As settlers on Indigenous lands, we have a responsibility to honour Indigenous histories. We must also be committed to decolonizing our minds, practices, and organizations. In this post, we will examine how colonization disrupted and destroyed historical Indigenous ways of being and doing that were rooted in equity, and how we can learn from their traditional practices to decolonize our organizations.
Indigenous Peoples Valued Women as Leaders | Colonization Subordinated Indigenous Women
Prior to colonial contact, many Indigenous cultures were matriarchal and matrilineal. This meant that, unlike Western patriarchal societies that subordinate women, in these Indigenous communities, authority, status, property, and cultural affiliation were determined through female lineage.
Women held important responsibilities in shaping social, political, economic, and spiritual norms for their nations. Men of these communities were expected to treat women with respect and humbly accept correction from women if they behaved dishonourably.
When European colonizers arrived, they were shocked by matriarchal cultures. At the time, European women were treated as weak and dependent, and seen as little more than property. To colonizers, the gender equity they observed among First Nations communities indicated that Indigenous women were out of control.
Patriarchy played a fundamental role in the colonial project, with colonizers implementing legislation, policies, and violent action to ‘tame’ Indigenous women. This included residential schools that separated Indigenous families, restrictions on women’s access to political access and property ownership, and physical and sexual violence against Indigenous women and girls.
Cyndy Baskin notes, “This treatment of women completely goes against the value that Indigenous peoples traditionally placed on women, who were the life-givers and held leadership roles in various areas such as economics, spirituality, and politics within their communities.”
There has been continued and consistent sexism against Indigenous women and girls. From the hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) to the underrepresentation of Indigenous women in corporate and political leadership, Canada has continued the legacy of patriarchal oppression that began through the process of colonization.
Indigenous Communities Respected Queer Identities | Colonization Enforced Gender Conformity
In Indigenous cultures, queerness was not seen or treated as deviant or unusual. The term ‘Two-Spirit’ is used by some Indigenous communities to describe people who exist beyond the gender binary (what we might now call trans, non-binary, or gender non-conforming).
Two-Spirit people were not only accepted but respected as spiritual and cultural leaders. They held roles such as counsellors, matchmakers, healers, mediators, and social workers. In some cases, Two-Spirit people were revered as holy, and their skills, perspectives, and spirituality were valued in their communities.
However, in the same way that colonial patriarchy subordinated Indigenous women, it worked in tandem with religious universalism in an attempt to erase Two-Spirit people. Colonizers viewed their Christian values as law, asserting that heterosexuality and ‘traditional’ gender roles were the only acceptable options.
As Trans Care BC explains, “The western religious values and belief systems that were imposed on Indigenous people condemned any sort of sexual or gender diversity, and Two-Spirit people were killed or forced into assimilation and hiding.”
Today, Two-Spirit people (and LGBTQ+ folks of other racial identities) continue to fight against queerphobic discrimination and violence. Indigenous people with queer identities are still trying to reclaim their sense of belonging and acceptance in their own communities and society at large.
Indigenous Peoples Practiced Restorative Justice | Colonization Imposed Retributive Justice
Prior to the arrival of European colonizers, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit societies had their own political systems. These included practices and policies for addressing wrongdoing. The goal of Indigenous justice systems was to address harmful behaviour in ways that prioritized restoring peace. These approaches encouraged reconciliation between perpetrators and their victims and communities.
Many Indigenous communities embraced egalitarian principles and consensus decision-making, which was also reflected in their approach to justice. In some nations, like the Shawnee, Cherokee, Winnebago, and Natchez, women played a critical role in determining how justice would be served.
Unlike the restorative, community-centred approach Indigenous Peoples took to justice, European justice systems are more punitive. Western ideologies about justice are focused on controlling people’s behaviour with little regard for what caused the wrongdoing or how it can be effectively corrected.
The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission (AJIC) states, “The emphasis is on the punishment of the deviant as a means of making that person conform, or as a means of protecting other members of society.”
In Canada’s present-day justice system, this retributive approach continues. Despite evidence that our approach to criminal justice does little to prevent recidivism (re-offending) or promote genuine rehabilitation, we have not shifted to more restorative approaches. Additionally, the over-policing of Indigenous Peoples, a lack of resources and supports for their communities, and racist stereotypes about First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people have led to their overrepresentation in Canadian prisons.
Indigenous Communities Treated Land as Sacred | Colonization Exploited Land for Resources
In many Indigenous cultures, land itself was an essential part of their spirituality, and they viewed their connection to it as a source of wellbeing. As John Douglas Belshaw describes, “The origin stories of most of the groups [Indigenous to this land] provide … [a] view, stressing the intimate relationship between “the people” and the land in which they lived.”
For centuries, Indigenous Peoples lived in what we now call Canada, coexisting with the land. Most First Nations, Métis, and Inuit cultures did not practice land ownership. Instead, they acted as stewards of the land, taking only the resources they needed and acting as stewards of the land, water, and living creatures. Though Indigenous Peoples participated in their own forms of commerce, trading meats, crops and other products made from natural resources, they were not exploitative or destructive in the name of profit.
However, the arrival of European colonizers introduced the capitalist idea of land ownership. The legacy of the theft and conquest of the Americas began with settlers laying claim to the lands Indigenous Peoples lived on for their own gain. Whether through violence or broken treaties, colonization pushed Indigenous communities out of the lands they had called home for centuries.
In place of stewardship, colonialism and capitalism treated the land as a resource to be exploited. Settlers overhunted animals, polluted water sources, and created an unsustainable fur trade, decimating resources that Indigenous Peoples revered and relied on. This forced First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities to participate in the capitalist practices that disrespected and desecrated their lands simply to survive.
To this day, Indigenous Peoples have still been unable to reclaim the lands that were stolen from them. Colonization has forced them onto reservations where conditions are poor and often unsafe. Still, Indigenous Peoples continue to resist further destruction of their sacred lands, fighting back against corporations and government bodies who seek to further exploit and pollute natural resources for capitalist gain.
Colonizers Gave Us Our Current Systems | Indigenous Histories Can Teach Us to Do Better
Indigenous Peoples are valiantly working to reclaim and preserve the cultures and practices that colonization stole from them. Even in the face of a system that upholds colonial values and continuously enacts violence against them, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities continue to demonstrate what it means to resist colonization.
We should all be following in their footsteps. Reflecting on Indigenous history prior to and after colonial contact shows us that there is much to be learned about equitable and ethical behaviour from their cultures. Their traditional approaches to gender, sexuality, justice, and the environment offer something of a blueprint for how we can decolonize our organizations.
That decolonization might look like:
Acknowledging and addressing disparities in how women experience your organization
In many organizations across Canada, women are underrepresented in positions of leadership. The gender wage gap is also a persistent issue that denies women fair pay for their labour.
- Examine data to understand if women, especially those who are Indigenous, Black, and racialized, are having disproportionately poor outcomes in your organization.
- Review leadership criteria and hiring and advancement policies to ensure they do not privilege men or exclude women
- Foster a culture of gender equity where the perspectives, insights, and skills of women are welcomed, valued, and amplified
- Be clear in your code of conduct about your organization’s position on gender discrimination and the consequences for sexist or misogynistic behaviours and actions
Make 2SLGBTQ+ issues a fundamental part of your equity strategy
The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion found that 30% of 2SLGBTQ+ professionals in Canada have experienced harassment and discrimination at work. Despite Canada’s progressive stance on queer issues, there is still work to be done.
- Use disaggregated identity-based data to understand how 2SLGBTQ+ people are being impacted in your organization in terms of discrimination, advancement, and retention
- Clearly articulate your stance on homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, and other forms of 2SLGBTQ+ discrimination in your employee code of conduct
- Practice gender-neutral language in written policy and promote the use of preferred pronouns in written and verbal communications
- Create a culture where 2SLGBTQ+ staff feel safe to show up in their full identities at work if they choose
Implement approaches to justice that focus on reconciliation over punishment
Our justice system’s punitive approach to dealing with wrongdoing is also an issue in many organizations’ disciplinary policies. This can lead to people being more concerned about breaking rules than harming others and being dishonest about behaviours to avoid punishment.
- When dealing with employee misconduct, especially when it involves interpersonal conflict, focus more on who was harmed and how to repair that than on the rules broken
- Work to identify the root cause of the misconduct, prioritize accountability, and determine pathways to correct that behaviour long-term
- Train Human Resources staff to lead restorative justice processes like healing circles, mediation, and accountability practices
Be intentional about being stewards of the land you operate on
Capitalism has played a major role in the climate crisis we are currently experiencing—from fracking, deforestation, and dumping waste to everyday things like electricity use and transportation. It cannot be ignored how the environmental impacts of these activities disproportionately harm marginalized communities, including Indigenous Peoples.
- Explore ways to make your business eco-friendly and avoid actions that pollute or exploit natural resources for profit
- Make environmental protection a part of your corporate strategy and social responsibility initiatives
- Practice land acknowledgements to honour the Indigenous communities who are the traditional stewards of the lands your organization operates on
Decolonization is a responsibility for all of us. If it has not been a part of your organization’s corporate or equity strategy, consider this National Indigenous History Month an excellent place to start this important work.