Bob Joseph is a member of the Gwawa’enuxw Nation, a hereditary chief of the Gayaxala (Thunderbird) clan and an initiated member of the Hamatsa Society. A former associate professor at Royal Roads University, he is the author of several books, including the national bestseller 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act and, with his wife and business partner Cynthia F. Joseph, Indigenous Relations: Insights, Tips & Suggestions to Make Reconciliation a Reality, and Working Effectively With Indigenous Peoples®. Founder and president of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. and a certified master trainer, Mr. Joseph provides Indigenous relations training to thousands of individuals and organizations every year, including all levels of government and many Fortune 500 companies.
What does being Indigenous mean to you?
I feel very connected to the seven generations before and after me, and part of that connection is understanding my responsibilities to others. And I think this is true for every Indigenous person, not only those holding certain positions or working in certain domains. Right now, more than ever, the survival and growth of our peoples and our cultures is one of the most important responsibilities that we carry. This relates to learning and speaking our languages, practising our unique cultural traditions, participating in our sacred ceremonies, teaching our kids about who they are, and it even extends to practising traditional forms of governance. Furthermore, this responsibility directly relates to our rights as Indigenous peoples. Our rights are inherently connected to our survival and our growth. So, part of my identity and responsibility as an Indigenous person is understanding my rights, making sure that they are respected, and bringing them to life in my family and work.
What is your long-term vision of Indigenous empowerment?
I believe we’re trying to get to a place of what I called the three selfs. Self-determination: Nobody in Ottawa (federal government or INAC, the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) gets to tell us who our people are. Self-government: We get to go back to our own governments, maybe it’s a traditional system or maybe it’s a new system, but the people get to decide and not Indian Affairs. And the most important piece, self-reliance: We’re going to pick ourselves up, look after ourselves and we’ll decide how exactly we want to do that for ourselves.
Does systemic racism against Indigenous peoples exist in Canada?
To put it in hockey terms, if there was a Stanley Cup for systemic racism, Canada’s name would be all over the cup. We would be multiyear champions of the entire world. I believe that title is in large part due to an idea that almost no other country had or has, which is the Indian Act. It makes systemic racism, discrimination and mistreatment omnipresent. In discussing this topic, I like to point out that there’s a department of Indian Affairs of every province and there’s a whole institution dedicated to “overseeing us” in Ottawa, yet people are still struggling to see that systemic racism exists. It’s right there – even at the most official level. You can’t miss it.
Have you ever encountered offensive or racist comments in your work?
A question I’ve been hearing repeatedly is, “When are you going to get over it [residential schools]?” I normally don’t answer these types of questions in the heat of the moment, but there was one instance in which I responded. I replied to the woman with another question, “Would you ever get over it?” Everybody in the room paused for a second, then I continued, “Would you ever get over it if someone took away your child, beat them, indoctrinated them and even murdered them, and then did the same thing to every child in your family, community and nation?” I think walking in someone else’s shoes for a day and the empathy that goes along with that could go a long way in these types of situations.
For those who haven’t read your book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, what is a key takeaway?
The Indian Act will answer all your questions. In my own experience, it has provided answers to many of the questions I’ve been asked in my line of work. For example: “Why do Indigenous people live on reserves?”, “Why do many Indigenous peoples struggle with poverty?”, “Why is there so much substance abuse in Indigenous communities?” Well, when you start to look at the systemic breakdown and context, you start to understand why and how we got to where we are today. Much of the trauma and devastation that Indigenous peoples endured is written right in the Indian Act. Learning more about it shows how entire cultures, communities and family groupings underwent genocide; the vast array of assimilation and indoctrination methods over generations; and the discrimination and prejudice that Indigenous peoples faced for hundreds of years. It’s all there.
Tell us a bit about your work at Indigenous Corporate Training Inc.?
A big part of what I do is bridging cultural divides. Through our training courses, we help individuals and organizations learn how to create and build relationships with Indigenous communities and individuals. Our core course is Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples®. We take learners through the process of reconciliation – learn the history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations, assess current Indigenous relations and consider ways to move forward with increased relationships. Our Indigenous Relations Academy is a location where interested learners – governments, corporations and individuals – can find more information about the courses we offer on a variety of topics, for all types of learners.
How can everyday Canadians make progress toward Indigenous empowerment?
First, we as Canadians, must acknowledge that this is an issue with very complex and harmful impacts. Simply being aware of the truth starts to make the situation a little bit better. But beyond that acknowledgment, there must be personal and collective accountability for things to improve. I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has given us some powerful tools to do exactly that. Their final report gives us the opportunity to recognize that there is a problem, and the 94 Calls to Action provide us with a road map on how to make things better.
So, what that might look like in your everyday life is: committing to learning more about the TRC and the 94 Calls to Action, challenging some of the long-held beliefs in your own life, taking some active interest in local Indigenous initiatives and organizations, then perhaps starting to participate and contribute in the best way you can. I think those are the small steps that individuals can do. It is everyday Canadians and their actions that can really make change happen.
What is your advice to Indigenous youth reading this column?
Referring to the potlatch [feast] tradition in my culture, I like to say that the table was set by those who came before me. That means that I’ve been able to do as much as I have in this lifetime thanks to my ancestors because, without that help, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’ve really been reflecting on this matter and talking to the youth about it, reminding them that there have been generations of people “setting the table” for each one of them. For young people, it’s important to recognize the opportunities that you have, be grateful for those who helped you get to where you are today, and help “set the table” for those to come after you.
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