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Sean St. John is interviewed by Karl Moore and Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer.Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Sean St. John is an executive vice-president and co-head of fixed-income, currencies and commodities at National Bank Financial. Mr. St. John is of Mohawk, French and Irish descent. Also a humanitarian, Mr. St. John volunteers his time to several organizations and initiatives that empower Indigenous and Canadian youth through arts, education, sports and technology.

Do your culture and your community play a role in your well-being?

While I work primarily in the urban setting, I grew up in the country and I’ve always valued feeling connected to the earth. After years of living in small apartments and pursuing my career in the city, I found success in business in my mid-20s. With what I earned, I immediately prioritized my relationship with nature and bought a 20-acre plot by a lake in Haliburton, Ont. From that, I built what is now an important place for connection with my family, friends and the land. These connections are essential to my well-being.

What does leadership mean to you?

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.

Do you see Indigenous leadership as different from non-Indigenous leadership?

I believe Indigenous leaders and communities handle issues through a more communal and consensus-building approach. I find it is grounded in values of working together and listening to all the different voices involved. This way of thinking was taught to me as a child, as my dad emphasized being a team player, being a good listener and respecting each person’s voice. In non-Indigenous leadership, there seems to be more of a focus on the individual and a hierarchy structure in decision-making. In my own leadership, I like to consider different paths the group could take and come to an agreement through discussions that enable everyone to see the value of the decision.

How do you build that approach into your leadership on Bay Street?

A leader has to be flexible. Before verbalizing a solution to a problem, I make myself pause and think to ask other people who have a connection to the issue about how they would deal with it. I might have an opinion as a first reaction, but I know that I should take time, pause and listen to others. If somebody comes up with an approach that is better than mine, I recognize that that’s okay. It’s not about me having the right answer every single time and being the backstop who has to figure it all out. There’s more value talking it out as a group and everybody walking out of the room feeling that we’ve done the right thing.

What is the biggest challenge that Indigenous peoples in Canada face when it comes to economic inclusion?

I think the challenges are primarily around education. There’s a disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous education systems in terms of funding, services and opportunities. Eventually, that spills over into the graduation rates, future employment and overall economic prosperity that Indigenous peoples could benefit from.

It’s also important to keep in mind that education comes from diverse sources such as life experiences, diverse opportunities, access to programs and services, and much more. We have to think about ways to enhance diverse culturally relevant educational opportunities in Indigenous communities. That way, Indigenous peoples can be exposed to a variety of different life experiences and then be able to choose whatever most resonates with the path that they want to take.

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There is no better or more urgent time to understand and celebrate the importance of Indigenous insight, culture and perspective.Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Are there any organizations that are working to break down this barrier to educational opportunity?

There are two different organizations that I’m very closely involved with that do this work of creating access to opportunity. Right to Play is in 85 different Indigenous communities across Canada. They provide the framework to use play-based learning facilitated by a mentor in the community. It gives the kids a place where they can meet up after school and connect with their community, while learning these skills that enhance their well-being. Connected North, in collaboration with Cisco Systems, is bringing educational services to Indigenous communities, giving them access to different instructors and venues that they might never be able to access. For example, they might bring a curator from the ROM [Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto] and connect them with communities up North to allow them to talk and share and see these things that they might not otherwise.

Any books that you would suggest for those interested to get a better sense of Indigenous realities?

A book that really impacted me as a young person was Stolen Continents, by Ronald Wright. It gives voice to Indigenous peoples across the Americas and spoke honestly about the devastation, destruction and abuse that happened when European settlers arrived. I think it would be a big eye-opener to most people. I think this book explores the pain that Indigenous people feel to this day and gives context to the intergenerational trauma that’s still happening.

What advice do you have for Indigenous youth?

I was the first in my family to go to university, and I remember getting there and just thinking, all I can do is try my best. It required a lot of hard work and resilience, but I kept going day after day and plugging away. Even though I didn’t know anybody, and I wasn’t connected, I never gave up and always kept working at my dream.

Regardless of where you come from and who you are, we’re all scared, we’re all worried, we all ask ourselves whether we’re good enough. Don’t let that hold you back from achieving your dreams. Don’t limit yourself before you get started. Just take a chance. Fall down, then get back up and keep going.

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 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’s 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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