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'Being a mother has really allowed me to stand in a place of real leadership in every sense of the word,' says entrepreneur, activist and artist Sarain Fox.

Chief Lady Bird/The Globe and Mail

Sarain Fox, Anishinaabe from Batchewana First Nation, is a multidimensional entrepreneur and creative. Ms. Fox is a dancer, choreographer, stylist, activist, brand ambassador, television host and content producer. Her screen highlights include the award-winning series Rise (Viceland), Cut-off (Viceland) and APTN’s Future History. In fashion, she has lent her voice to international brands such as Sephora, Canada Goose, Nike N7 and Manitobah Mukluks. A storyteller at heart, Ms. Fox has combined these various media to create a compelling social platform for amplifying the voices of her people.

What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership is about thinking beyond yourself and being able to understand a strategy in which to take care of, care for and lead a community that has asked you to represent them.

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A lot of people might say that leadership is about being blunt and tough love, but I deny all of that. I think that true leadership can always exist through kindness. My mom would say that the most important part of leadership is kindness and kind honesty. She always taught me to lead with your heart, and if you can’t do that, then that leadership might not be the right thing for you.

Is there a difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership?

Indigenous leadership frameworks are circular rather than pyramidal. I find non-Indigenous leadership tends to be organized according to a hierarchy, where certain people control another group of people. On the other hand, I think Indigenous leaders tend to stand among their people, listen to them at every step and speak for them when chosen to do so. I think the main differences are in the qualities of the relationship between the leader and the people they are representing.

How did your childhood influence your leadership?

My family was affected by the trauma of residential and day schools, so when it came time for my mom to raise her family, she fought hard for her children to have the opportunity to exist in as much of a decolonized way as possible. I really benefited from my mom being mindful about reclaiming her culture. I grew up knowing who I was and being really proud of my culture and being engaged in ceremony. My home life was really being immersed in the culture. She would even bring me to protests with her from the time I was a young child, so I think that’s a big part of where my spirit for activism comes from.

Unfortunately, while growing up, my interactions outside of my community were a totally different experience. Going to a predominantly white school, I felt like I couldn’t belong and couldn’t express who I was. The stories of my people and culture that I was proud of as an Indigenous person weren’t the stories being told by my peers. In fact, quite often, they were hearing a totally different story from the education system. A big part of the work I do now is to bring that Indigeneity that I am so proud of into the mainstream, helping to create a world and a universe where those experiences and people can be celebrated.

How has becoming a mother affected your views on leadership?

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Motherhood is everything in my worldview. For a very long time, I knew that I wanted to be a mother and part of my desire to be a mother was to be able to raise a baby who will know her language, wear her moccasins, dance with pride and not ever feel ashamed to be Indigenous.

So I think for me, being a mother has really allowed me to stand in a place of real leadership in every sense of the word. Being a mother means caring for life at all costs, making sacrifices to protect others, and being vulnerable in the aim of a better future. So that’s probably been and will continue to be the most profound experience I will ever have in terms of what it means to lead.

How has your understanding of Indigenous identity changed over time?

When I was younger, I always felt like I had to exist in two worlds. But now, I’ve really come to be against that notion because it means that I have to be Indigenous in one world and not myself in another. That way of thinking means that as an Indigenous person living in Canada, I’m supposed to veil myself in some ways in order to be accepted. But for me, being Indigenous is about living fully and wholly as you are. Empowered by your identity. Enriched by your history. Connected to your community. Immersed in your own stories.

What role does “purpose” play in your work?

I grew up in dance and theatre, so I always thought my purpose was to be on stage. Spending a lot of my life pursuing that, I truly loved that work and it allowed me to appreciate the importance of the arts in our society. But about five years ago when I started to transition into more journalism and activism, I realized that all of my work in the arts empowered me with the tools to tell our stories in this next chapter of my life.

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Since then, I’ve been focusing mostly on amplifying Indigenous voices and representing Indigenous people in every way that I can. I do this through my work on social-media platforms, as well as in my work with my production studio, LandBack Studios, which exists to serve as a platform to allow Indigenous people to claim their own stories and reframe narratives.

There’s some really revolutionary work taking place with Indigenous peoples of all ages right now in terms of how we are able to reclaim our voices by sharing traditional knowledge through Indigenous hashtags, social-media storytelling and language reclamation online. This kind of work is what I love and find purpose in. Searching, finding, reclaiming and uplifting Indigenous voices and stories and perspectives.

Tell us about your experience as an Indigenous entrepreneur.

When speaking about Indigenous businesspeople and entrepreneurs, I find the narrative is often about how we’ve come to succeed as individuals. But I don’t think there’s any such thing as being self-made. I think we are all a product of our communities, of the people who we trust, of those who believe in us and of our ancestors who fought for us to be where we are today. I think that this is a profound and important piece of Indigeneity, that we always exist as part of our community.

Your advice for furthering Indigenous empowerment in Canadian business?

I think you have to be on the inside to make real change. That means that Indigenous people should be inside every industry working right from the top down. In all my partnerships, especially with Canadian businesses who are representing Canadian culture worldwide, I make sure that they are representing Indigenous people within that, because that’s a part of the Canadian landscape and you can’t deny it no matter what industry you’re in.

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Your advice to Indigenous youth reading this column?

My advice for Indigenous young people is to be curious about who they are and the ancestors who fought for them to be here. Then with that knowledge, to dream themselves into the future as they are. They don’t have to change anything about who they are to be successful, they should exist as they are – whole and beautiful.

Read more from our Indigenous business leaders series:

Canada must face its deep systemic racism against Indigenous people

Deloitte partner Jolain Foster on leadership, reconciliation and what it means to be Gitxsan

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

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

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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

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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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