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Jacqueline Ottmann says that leadership is using the wisdom of ancestors to inform decisions today that can also assist generations to come.Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Misiwaykomiguk paypomwayotung, or Jacqueline Ottmann in English, is Anishinaabe (Saulteaux) from Fishing Lake First Nation. She is the vice-provost of Indigenous engagement and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, where she previously earned her master’s degree and PhD in educational administration. She was also recently appointed as the president of the Canadian Society for the Study of Education, becoming the first Indigenous person to hold this position, and is the founding editor of Thrivance: journal of Indigenous ways of being, knowing, and doing. Dr. Ottmann has been recognized as an international researcher, advocate and change-maker whose purpose is to transform practices inclusive of Indigenous leadership, methodologies and pedagogies. She is driven to create schools and communities that foster a deeper sense of belonging and appreciation for Indigenous peoples, their histories, their stories and their ways of knowing and being.

How did your upbringing shape your sense of purpose?

Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, Marjorie Kayseas. She was someone who knew our Saulteaux philosophies and cultural practices deeply, she knew how to identify and use medicinal plants, and she understood the day and night skies – she was very connected to the land. She was also lucky enough to not attend residential school and only spoke our Nakawe language. Later in my life, I learned that was possible because she mostly grew up in the forest hidden away from officials who were responsible for taking children from their families in that era. Fortunately, spending a lot of time with her in my early years allowed me to be really immersed in our language and culture. In that, there was the richness of Indigenous philosophy, perspective and practice.

On the other hand, there was also the harsh reality of racism, poverty and all of the challenges that came along with being Indigenous. When I was growing up, simply completing high school was considered a huge accomplishment. This was not because of intellectual challenges, but because of the social and economic obstacles that students faced inside and outside our community. Even as a young child, I knew that once I left the boundaries of our community, the likelihood of experiencing racism was high. This was something that we learned at a very young age and I think we all developed our own ways of coping with it.

My response was inquisitiveness. I watched. I observed. I listened. I asked questions. I read a lot, sometimes until two in the morning as a high-school student, trying to understand what was happening around me. And that’s when I learned more about the history and sources of the inequalities and inequities that I witnessed and faced. For me, the power of knowledge became evident at a very young age.

Then through my own research, which began with a large community project at the age of 16, I learned the importance of social justice and my passion for it. During this youth-inspired, student-led research, I learned my community’s stories, I learned of the tremendous strength and reliance of the Saulteaux people, and my own story developed more depth and breadth. So, my sense of purpose and drive for social justice leadership actually began developing very young.

What does leadership mean to you?

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. At the same time, you acknowledge that our decisions today have the potential to affect seven generations into the future, to the children not yet born. This means that there is much responsibility in leadership; decision-making and planning encompasses sustainability on so many levels. So, ‘in a good way’ is a very sophisticated and complex concept.

Could you tell us more about the seven-generation philosophy of leadership?

The parallel to seven-generation philosophy in leadership theory or leadership studies is complexity theory. Complexity theory is about exploring the patterns of the past so you could better understand how we’ve arrived at this moment. This knowledge should help us make better decisions for the future. Complexity theory in action encourages leaders to gain more in-depth understanding of their ‘landscape’ by being attentive, being open to new learning, synthesizing, thinking strategically and planning for generations into the future.

So now, how can this be transferred into mainstream settings? All organizations have a vision, a mission and values that guide them. We must not only look at these through an individual perspective and an organizational perspective, but through the lens of community and humanity as a whole. For Canadians who want to bring the seven-generation philosophy to life in their practices or organizations, they can begin by taking the time to recurringly answer the following questions: Who are we? Where do we come from as an organization? Where are we going? What are our responsibilities?

Who are other leaders that inspire you?

I am inspired by the enduring leadership demonstrated by my parents. My late father, Chief Allan Paquachan, was very respected and he led with integrity and heart. My mom, Marjorie Paquachan, is a person of fortitude, perseverance and heart, and is currently in her 48th year of driving a school bus. There is such strength in both of them.

I’m also drawn to leaders who stand for truth, honesty, relationship, wise action, dignity and respect. I often go back to these two quotes in my life and work:

This we know, all things are connected like the blood that unites us. We did not weave this web of life; we are merely a strand in it. What we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” – Chief Seattle.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live within the narrow provincial, outsider agitator idea. Anyone who lives inside his or her country can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds– Martin Luther King Jr.

What does being Indigenous mean to you?

One of the things that I’ve been taught and encouraged to do is to never compromise who I am and to never compromise my identity as an Anishinaabe person. So, in my own life’s work and practices, my Anishinaabe values, philosophies and teachings are really what guide me. Some of these include: the seven-generation philosophy, which has me mindful of purpose; all my relations’ teachings orient me to stewardship and right relations with humanity and creation; the many Anishinaabe teachings that speak to identity, wholeness and belonging; and the medicine wheel teachings that promote balance and holistic health and wellness.

Further, to me, being Indigenous means that I am always mindful of the responsibility I have to community – and I’m not only talking about my own First Nation community, but the larger, larger community, the community of ‘all my relations’ – to each other, and to all of creation and to the cosmos.

What is the difference between indigenization and decolonization?

Decolonization is about identifying and challenging colonizing forces on both the individual and collective levels. This includes learning about colonization and its devastating and intergenerational impacts, as well as the realities of systemic racism. In these reflections, you may learn that there is a colonizer mindset that we’ve all internalized to varying degrees. We all need to reflect upon this and how prevalent it is in our lives and how engrained it has become in society.

To start the process of decolonizing, we can begin with these questions: What is my definition of decolonization? How can I practise it in my daily habits and routines? Through my life’s work, I see that decolonization is directly connected to equity, diversity and inclusion. It’s about fostering respectful relationships.

Building off decolonization, indigenization is more about the centering and uplifting of Indigenous peoples, our traditions, our stories, our practices and our languages. From my perspective, you need to decolonize and indigenize in order to experience deeper forms of reconciliation.

Are there other Indigenous academics who inspire your work?

I am inspired by so many diverse Indigenous scholars, authors, researchers and artists. Of those, one author is Dr. Dwayne Donald (Cree), who wrote and teaches about the pedagogy of the fort and the narrative of confinement. His work has me consider what some of the early explorers and settlers did when they first came to Canada. What did they build? Forts. And why did they build them? They confined themselves within seemingly impenetrable walls to protect themselves from the wilderness – to feel safe. And who were considered a part of the wild? Indigenous peoples. The fort was a safety net for settlers and newcomers and today, in essence, this has been reversed.

So now, who is being confined? When you examine who were targeted in the residential school era and investigate who is predominantly incarcerated and represented in the prison and foster-care systems, it’s Indigenous peoples. Further, Indigenous peoples were confined in reserves through a permit or pass system and were intentionally removed from participating in the Canadian economy. These structures and systems of confinement are manifestations of individual and societal values and belief systems, and unfortunately, they are still evident today.

It’s important that we bring to the surface, examine and challenge demeaning and divisive ideologies and practices. Together, we need to build communities, organizations and a country that embraces and celebrates diversity. Indigenous scholars like Dr. Jo-ann Archibald (Sto:lo), Dr. Willie Ermine (Cree), Dr. Leroy Little Bear (Blackfoot), Dr. Verna St. Denis (Cree and Métis) and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) provide us with important teachings about land and community. We are encouraged by them to reflect on new knowledge, beautiful and hard truths, engage in inspiring and difficult conversations, and hopefully this will lead to stronger forms of reconciliation.

What is your advice to Indigenous youth?

  • There is so much promise and potential for you. You have the power to make an impact in the lives of others in magnificent ways.
  • Along your journey, you don’t have to compromise who you are or your identity in order to achieve self-determination.
  • Always keep exploring who you are, where you come from, where you are going, and what your responsibilities are – and encourage others to do the same.

Read more from our Indigenous business leaders series:

Summers living off the land influenced leadership style of Inuk CEO Clint Davis

For Mi’kmaw educator Marie Battiste, inner growth is essential to be a leader

‘Our survival utterly depends on living in nature, not apart from it,’ Indigenous rights advocate says

For Senator Murray Sinclair, leadership is defined by humility

Trust is the foundation of leadership, says Chief Terry Paul of Membertou First Nation

We must prioritize economic reconciliation, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business CEO Tabatha Bull says

For Tracy Bear, leadership begins with accountability, service and connection to the land

For APTN chief executive Monika Ille, leadership means honouring her Nation’s history

Pause, think, listen: National Bank Financial’s Sean St. John on using Indigenous approaches to leadership

About the series

Canada has a long history of dispossession, oppression and discrimination of Indigenous peoples. The future, however, is filled with hope. The Indigenous population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada; its youth are catalyzing change from coast to coast to coast. Indigenous knowledge and teachings are guiding innovative approaches to environmental protection and holistic wellness worldwide. Indigenous scholars are among those leading the way in exciting new research in science, business and beyond. There is no better or more urgent time to understand and celebrate the importance of Indigenous insight, culture and perspective.

Optimism is rare in media. And coverage of Indigenous peoples often fails to capture their brilliance, diversity and strength. In this weekly interview series, we will engage Indigenous leaders in thoughtful conversation and showcase their stories, strategies, challenges and achievements.

Karl Moore is a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, in Montreal. He is also an associate fellow at Green Templeton College at Oxford University. He was the host of a long-running video series for The Globe and Mail in which he interviewed chief executive officers and business professors from the top universities in the world. His column, Rethinking Leadership, has been published at Forbes.com since 2011. He has established a global reputation for his research and writing on leadership, and he has interviewed more than 1,000 leaders, including CEOs, prime ministers and generals.

Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer is completing her master’s degree in educational leadership at McGill. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and brain sciences from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and has completed graduate work at Harvard University in Massachusetts. She is a consultant in education, leadership and Indigenization for organizations and schools, and has previously held positions at the Kahnawake Education Center, the Quebec Native Women association and the Canadian Executive Service Organization. Ms. Diome-Deer is a traditional Kanien’kehá:ka woman from the community of Kahnawà:ke.

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