Why is Indigenous specific training on anti-racism and unconscious bias important?

By Jennifer David, NVision Insight Group

"We must be honest about the real two solitudes in this country, that between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens, and commit to doing tangible things to close the divide in awareness, understanding and relationships." Commissioner Marie Wilson, Truth and Reconciliation Commission

In this post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) era, Canadians must have uncomfortable conversations about racism, and anti-Indigenous racism in particular. The provocative headline in Maclean’s magazine in 2015 sums it up: “Canada has a bigger race problem than America.” By nearly any standard or indicator, it is glaringly obvious that First Nations, Inuit and Métis in Canada have poor health, well-being and life outcomes.

Looking at numerous reports from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, to various provincial inquiries, to the TRC and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry - there is no lack of research and statistics on anti-Indigenous racism and white supremacy in Canada.

How did things get so bad? Take a course in cultural awareness, and you’ll learn about Canada’s sordid history.

Why can’t we fix it? Take a course in anti-Indigenous racism and cultural bias, and you’ll understand how deeply embedded the racist structures, policies, laws, and institutions are in this country. There is no quick or easy fix. But we cannot address a problem if we can’t see it and don’t understand it, which is why anti-Indigenous racism and cultural bias training is so important.

We have to look outward (to understand the history, stories and perspectives of Indigenous people), and we have to look inward (to understand our own biases, how we carry stereotypes and perpetuate systems of oppression) if we want to truly start to unravel, decolonize and dismantle these structures and institutions and replace them with structures based on equality, equity and justice.

And then we have to act. We have to shift the power dynamics, confront the inequities, re-structure our organizations, decolonize our minds, Indigenize our educational institutions, and demand more from our governments.

Why Indigenous-Specific?

Some might ask, “why not just anti-racism training to include Black, Indigenous and People of Colour?”

This is because Canada has a unique relationship with Indigenous peoples starting with Peace and Friendship Treaties, to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, to various historical treaties, the Constitution Act, 1982 and numerous Supreme Court of Canada decisions. The British Crown signed treaties with First Nations. The Crown, as the Government of Canada, continues to sign comprehensive land claim and self-government agreements with First Nations, Inuit and Métis governments and nations. It does not do any of this with Black or People of Colour communities.

This country we now call Canada encompasses the traditional territories and homelands of First Nations, Inuit and Métis. It has been home “since time immemorial.” Indigenous peoples are not immigrants and have no history, no ties, no memory of another place, nor are there stories about how their people came to Canada. All Canadians need to reflect on this unique relationship and its implications.

It can help to disguise the specific responsibilities that the Government of Canada has with First Nations, Inuit and Métis by lumping Black, Indigenous and People of Colour into one broad category and simply addressing it as an issue of “anti-racism.” We must clearly and distinctly take the opportunity to understand the challenges, barriers and history that are unique to Canada.

Why Anti-Indigenous Racism Training is Not Enough

Learning about the structures, systems, policies and institutions that uphold racism in Canada is not the same as actually working to dismantle them. As Senator Murray Sinclair has said,

If you get rid of all of the racists in all of the positions of government, policing, justice, health – you will still have a problem. Because you will have a system that is functioning based upon policies, priorities and decisions that direct how things are to be done, that come from a time when racism was very blatant.

While it’s important to understand how systemic racism is embedded in all elements of Canadian society, this understanding alone does not necessarily change people’s attitudes or behaviours.

Anti-Indigenous racism training is a good stepping stone on the journey of reconciliation. As outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Call to Action #27:

We call upon the Federation of Law Societies of Canada to ensure that lawyers receive appropriate cultural competency training, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.

But we must acknowledge that these racist systems and structures of oppression were built over several generations. They can only be dismantled and re-built over the next several generations.