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first person

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by Kumé Pather

Most people would never go to their doctor and ask them about how the justice system works and assume they have the answer because they are in the profession of helping people. Yet the same line of thinking is not extended to Indigenous professionals.

There is an unspoken assumption that Indigenous professionals must be experts on all Indigenous cultures, languages and traditions. The simple act of openly self-identifying as Indigenous in the workplace means that all Indigenous inquiries become their responsibility.

This is causing Indigenous professionals to feel inauthentic, burned out and frustrated.

I had the privilege of growing up in a traditional Métis household in Elizabeth Métis Settlement. My family lived with the land. Most of our meals were provided through hunting and gardening, and every summer, we would jump into the back of the truck to head to the treasured blueberry patch. Family dinners were rarely limited to my immediate family. Extra seats were always added for cousins, neighbours or new people my family had met, as we passed around bannock and stew.

I participated in jigging competitions at school as I proudly wore my Métis sash, and I regularly heard Cree being spoken by adults in my community. During the evenings, I would listen to my uncle, aunties and parents share stories about our history while laughing and drinking excessive amounts of tea and coffee.

I grew up being immersed in Métis culture, and I was proud of my heritage. However, as I left my community and moved away to pursue my education and start my career, my foundation of feeling confident as a Métis woman started to crumble.

When I started my career, I developed an interest in Indigenous recruitment and proudly identified as an Indigenous professional. However, at the time, I did not realize that self-identifying within the workplace came with certain expectations and stereotypes.

I often found myself put in a position where I was expected to have answers to all Indigenous-related topics, even if they were unrelated to my job, industry and cultural background.

For most of my career, I worked outside of my home territory. At work I embraced questions about my Métis culture and community, yet I often found myself being asked to advise on the cultural protocol of the local Nations. As I was taught to represent my Métis community and not pretend to be an expert in another culture, I often avoided answering the questions and was left feeling incredibly uncomfortable.

This unawareness of the diversity of Indigenous cultures only highlighted that Indigenous knowledge and experiences were still being generalized within the workplace.

I also found myself frequently receiving random requests to comment and provide an Indigenous lens on projects. I can vividly recall sitting in my office and receiving a lengthy e-mail from someone interested in learning about the impacts of colonization on Indigenous water conditions. They were wondering if I could meet them to help them get started and provide resources. I responded by saying that my background was Indigenous recruitment and suggested they reach out to someone who specialized in that topic and received no reply.

Their silence was telling and I felt used. I did not meet their expectation of being the all-knowing Indigenous professional.

This new stereotype of an Indigenous professional made me feel like an all-seasoning spice mixture. I had to be a dash of Cree, a little Chipewyan, a tiny bit Métis, a bit of Mi’kmaq and a sliver of Syilx. I could not just be Métis; I had to be a bit of everything.

I was constantly trying to figuring out how to the be perfect “blend.” Not too overpowering, not too salty, not too offensive to the taste and easily adjustable based on different personal preferences.

This stereotype made me feel inauthentic and undermined my confidence. I frequently felt like I was letting people down for not having the answers and felt like I had to conform to their stereotypes by working a bit harder.

As I started to reach out to my Indigenous colleagues, I recognized I was not alone. Others were also dealing with the unrealistic pressures and expectations of being an Indigenous professional. Through building an Indigenous community in my workplace and sharing my story, I finally felt understood and that my Indigeneity was accepted.

Without a doubt, building Indigenous communities in the workplace is one part of the puzzle to creating a welcoming and supportive environment for Indigenous professionals, but it is not enough.

Companies need to take some ownership of their own biases and still have considerable work to do in making their workplace a safe environment for Indigenous professionals. One of the first steps includes changing their approach and view.

Indigenous professionals should not have to worry that there will be an extra workload waiting for them if they self-identify in their workplace. They deserve the privilege of entering the work force and having the space to be experts in their field.

As an Indigenous professional, I have stopped trying to be the perfect all-blend spice. I have embraced that my knowledge of Indigenous culture and traditions are localized to my Métis experience. I welcome questions about my line of work and my Métis heritage, but I have also started to understand the importance of boundaries as a professional. I do not need to have an answer for every question about Canada’s 1.6 million Indigenous population. Nor should I.

Sarah Jacknife currently lives in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa (Auckland, New Zealand), but grew up in Elizabeth Métis Settlement in Treaty 6 Territory.

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