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Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Indigenous scholars are among those leading the way in exciting new research in science, business and beyond. In this series of interviews by Karl Moore and Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer, we engage Indigenous leaders in thoughtful conversation and showcase their stories, strategies, challenges and achievements.

Illustrations by Chief Lady Bird


Monika IlleIllustration by Chief Lady Bird

Monika Ille: ‘Leadership comes from within’

Member of the Abenaki First Nation of Odanak, CEO of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN)

“Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership qualities or attitudes are pretty much the same. The difference resides in what influences your personal type of leadership. Leadership comes from within. It’s who you are. Your history and your culture influence your type of leadership. Indigenous peoples come to leadership with their own history and consequently see things differently. Leadership means to be true to oneself, respecting and honouring your Nation’s history, culture and beliefs.”

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Clint DavisIllustration by Chief Lady Bird

Clint Davis: ‘Dream big’ and be proud of your identity

President and chief executive officer of Nunasi Corp., an Inuit development corporation

The keys to success for Indigenous businesses starts with medium and large companies opening their procurement processes up to support underrepresented businesses beyond their normal suppliers. Establishing hard targets for these businesses will create a new market and customer base for Indigenous businesses. Further, the amount of money that the Government of Canada spends each year versus the amount of money that they could be spending on Indigenous business really pales in comparison to what they could actually be doing. Recently, they have committed publicly to 5 per cent of their procurement spend for Indigenous business. Once this happens, it will have a profound impact on the Indigenous economy.”

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Marie BattisteIllustration by Chief Lady Bird

Marie Battiste: ‘Self-discovery and inner growth’ key

Mi’kmaw educator, researcher, author, speaker and now retired professor from the University of Saskatchewan

One of the most important things about leadership is understanding your own skills and talents and how you can use those to best understand and serve your purpose. While not everyone has the full opportunity to do so in climates of disadvantage and racism, I believe self-discovery and inner growth are important foundations to one’s leadership. Personally, I have brought my own reflections to life within my work in Indigenous education. My research, writing, teaching, advocacy and activism are all grounded in self-awareness and in the respect and honouring of my identity and the assets from my communities’ knowledge systems. This sense of purpose guides both my learning spirit and my approach to leadership.”

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Sheila Watt-CloutierIllustration by Chief Lady Bird

Sheila (Siila) Watt-Cloutier: ‘Leadership is to always check inwards’

Human-rights, Indigenous-rights and cultural-preservation advocate, former politician, writer and educator

“Leadership is to always check inwards to ensure one is leading from a position of strength, not fear or victimhood. A leader does not project one’s own limitations onto those you are modelling possibilities for. To me, leadership means never to lose sight of the fact that the issues at hand are much bigger than oneself.”

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Murray SinclairIllustration by Chief Lady Bird

Murray Sinclair: ‘There’s humility in leadership’

Politician, jurist and community activist

“I don’t know that there’s a word for leader in our language. The closest thing that we have is [an] all-embracing word that means someone who helps the people. Whenever I meet a traditional leader, I see that they are the ones who sit quietly by and wait to be asked. They don’t stand up and grab the microphone. They don’t grandstand. They know that their responsibility is to give the best and most truthful advice to those who come to them and ask for it. There’s a humility in leadership.”

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Terry PaulIllustration by Chief Lady Bird

Terry Paul: ‘Trust is at the foundation of working with people’

Chief and CEO of Membertou First Nation

“No matter where you are or who you’re working with, establishing trust is at the foundation of working with people. Beyond that, I believe the main difference in Indigenous leadership is that our peoples have been part of this land much longer than any non-Indigenous leader. In fact, according to archaeological evidence, we’ve actually been living and trading here for tens of thousands of years. I believe this relationship with the land has a strong influence on our leadership thinking and decision making.”

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Teara FraserIllustration by Chief Lady Bird

Teara Fraser: ‘It’s about more than any one individual’s success’

Métis aviator, entrepreneur and leader

“Creating the conditions for Indigenous businesses to thrive is the most effective, natural and quickest way to economic reconciliation in our country. When Indigenous businesses thrive, it’s about much more than any one individual’s success; it’s about uplifting entire families, communities and nations.”

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Tracy BearIllustration by Chief Lady Bird

Tracy Bear: ‘Reciprocity, accountability and giving back’

Director of the Indigenous Women and Youth Resilience Project

“In my opinion, true leaders understand that leadership is about reciprocity, accountability and giving back to the communities you serve. It is understanding the time when you must stand up, and times when you are needed to help others stand. Our leaders should be as comfortable standing at a podium as they are cutting wet firewood at dawn’s first light or delivering supplies to elders in our communities. There are so-called leaders out there today who could learn a lot from Nehiyawak teachings on humility.”

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Tabatha BullIllustration by Chief Lady Bird

Tabatha Bull: ‘Make space for family and wellness’

Member of the Nipissing First Nation, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business

“I always think about the Seven Grandfather Teachings in all that I do. With them in mind, I accept every employee as a whole person. That includes a real respect and understanding of the importance of family and community, which is so important in Indigenous communities and in Indigenous leadership. My team is a second family, so I’m very honest and transparent with them. I know that I am a better leader if my family is well and I lead knowing that my employees feel the same way. I always strive to prioritize and make space for family and wellness.”

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Jacqueline OttmannIllustration by Chief Lady Bird

Jacqueline Ottmann: ‘Consider the intentions behind our decisions’

Vice-provost of Indigenous engagement and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan

“My definition of leadership is service with people done in a good way. If you were to do a parallel to Western leadership theory, it would probably be closest to servant leadership or to adaptive leadership. But it should be noted that the phrase ‘in a good way’ actually packs a punch because it encompasses a whole philosophy, a way of being, knowing and doing. It means that we have to consider the intentions behind our decisions and actions, we have to be mindful of and acknowledge our ancestors and all that they’ve done and maybe endured in order for us to be here today, and we have to learn from their wise practice, this knowledge should inform our decisions.”

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Sean St. JohnIllustration by Chief Lady Bird

Sean St. John: ‘It’s about the collective’

Executive vice-president and co-head of fixed-income, currencies and commodities at National Bank Financial

“Leadership, to me, is about the collective. It’s about hiring and maintaining the best people, creating confidence in each other, promoting a growth mindset within the team and empowering others. I truly enjoy walking up and down the trading floor, interacting with colleagues and celebrating their successes as often as I can. Within my team, I try to always highlight that everyone is important. I believe that in leadership it’s essential that the collective feels connected, valued and confident.”

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