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'Personally, I work with the aim of Indigenous empowerment and independence no matter where I go, whether I’m working in corporate Canada or in Indigenous communities.'

Chief Lady Bird/The Globe and Mail

Jolain Foster, from the Gitxsan Nation, is a partner at Deloitte. After completing her commerce degree at the University of Northern British Columbia, Ms. Foster began her career in accounting at Deloitte. Two decades later, after gaining significant expertise in education, community development, financial management and business administration within both public and private institutions across the country, she returned to the firm and became one of their first Indigenous partners.

What does being Indigenous mean to you?

I’ve never really thought of myself as ‘Indigenous’ because I have such a strong sense of identity in being Gitxsan. Just like every Indigenous nation across this land, I come from a community with a distinct culture, language and unique history. So perhaps I may better answer the question of what it means to be a Gitxsan. This is a very complicated question with no simple answer. To me, I would have to say that it means that I make decisions in business and my personal life knowing that the lessons I learn in this life and the legacy I leave behind follows me into my next life. The purpose for me in this life is to grow spiritually so that I don’t have to repeat those same lessons in the next life.

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How does your identity as a Gitxsan person relate to your sense of wellness?

I was raised to be aware of and look after the major pillars of who I am. Between the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual, everyone has their own combination of these elements. From a young age, I was warned against ignoring these unique pillars that make me whole. Personally, I’ve found it tough to balance my pillars when I’m living in a city away from my roots and the community that I grew up in. Not being able to participate in the activities that really ground me causes me to feel unwell or unbalanced. Therefore, I always make sure to carve out time to go back home to hike to the blue lakes behind our great mountain we call Stekyoden, pick huckleberries, go fishing on the Skeena River and jar it with family, or just visit my aunts, uncles and many cousins. My Auntie Maise used to call this looking after your Oots’in (spirit).

Tell us a bit about the beginning of your career.

I became a staff accountant at a very early age, so completing reviews and reviewing financial statements day after day allowed me to really understand the importance of cost and revenue in organizations. That formative experience taught me a lot about the value of making companies more efficient. Looking back now, that certainly served as a solid foundation for the rest of my career. With those tools in my back pocket, I explored strategic planning, governance, business development and management with purpose.

What does leadership mean to you?

In my upbringing, community and language, the word for “leader” doesn’t exist as an exact translation. My understanding of the concept of leader is that they are someone who acts as a spokesperson for the people.

I bring this to life in my work by taking on the responsibility of representing my team and my people. This not only includes speaking, but gathering all the necessary information and perspectives, weighing the risks and opportunities and then ultimately making the best decision for the larger group that I’m working within. On a more personal level, it’s also about inspiring my team to be the best they can be, removing barriers so they can do the best job they can, and supporting them to rise up and reach their full potential.

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On a more meta level, I believe that leadership is also about inspiring change, building capacity and awareness for the causes and movements that you care about. Personally, I work with the aim of Indigenous empowerment and independence no matter where I go, whether I’m working in corporate Canada or in Indigenous communities. As a leader, I bring a perspective to the table that comes from many generations before me, and I leverage this to create meaningful positive change in all the work that I’m part of.

How does your identity as a Gitxsan person inform your sense of purpose?

I believe that I’m here to continue the work of my ancestors. They made countless sacrifices over generations so that I could be where I am now, and I feel deeply connected to their spirits and their stories. I feel like it’s now my responsibility to continue their work in the aim of Indigenous sovereignty and excellence. With this in mind, I work to build respectful and productive bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, organizations and communities in everything that I do. I really believe that our future depends on that – on developing relationships and building bridges with one another.

What is the main challenge of being an Indigenous leader in corporate Canada?

It is exhausting having to always represent the experience and/or perspective of all Indigenous people. I would prefer to be recognized as a professional rather than being tokenized as a woman representing the “Indigenous” perspective. But despite this, facing this challenge head-on has been the cornerstone of my success. It is my sincere hope that the places in which I have worked have gained a better understanding about the challenges that Indigenous peoples face. Additionally, I hope my efforts have helped those people and organizations feel empowered to make changes in their respective fields to better work in partnership with Indigenous peoples in a respectful way. Part of being a leader is being willing to blaze a trail.

How can corporate Canada improve its efforts at reconciliation?

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Every individual and organization in corporate Canada have a role to play in reconciliation. At Deloitte, we’ve taken a significant step in the last few years by developing a corporate Canada reconciliation action plan that’s based in supporting education, inclusion, employment and partnership with Indigenous peoples and communities. I think that the more companies that can follow suit, the better off we’ll all be in both the short and long term. Significant and meaningful change requires significant and meaningful action.

What can everyday Canadians do to become better Indigenous allies?

Take the opportunity to go out and to meet different Indigenous peoples and communities. I emphasize peoples instead of person, and communities instead of community, because of the incredible diversity that exists across Indigenous realities. Don’t assume that all Indigenous people fall under one category or one umbrella. On your journey, be sure to hear different perspectives and really listen to peoples’ stories. If you can’t do that, especially considering the current limitations due to the pandemic, pick up some really great books and use them as a starting point for new types of conversations and relationships in your everyday life.

What advice do you have for youth reading this column?

Ask a lot of questions. Don’t just take everything that you read on the internet or that you hear from somebody as the truth. Read, explore and find out the truth that you seek and don’t be shy to do exactly that. There are no dumb questions along your learning journey. We’re all at different phases of our growth at any given time. No matter who you are or what position you hold, I think there’s always an opportunity for us all to continue to learn.

Read more from our Indigenous business leaders series:

Manitobah Mukluks founder says business leaders can learn about sustainability from Indigenous people

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Teara Fraser says leaders should ask: ‘What really matters?’

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

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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.

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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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