Want to be an ally to Indigenous people? Listen and unlearn, say 2 community workers

Ahead of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, two Indigenous community workers break down how to be a good ally with help from an Indigenous allyship toolkit.

'You can't just give yourself a sticker and say, 'Well, I'm an ally now,''

Kortanie Kahwennahawi Raye, who is Mohawk and Inuk, says the key to being a genuine ally to Indigenous people is listening to members of the community and recognizing that the journey to true allyship is an uncomfortable one. (Photo by Diego Bravo)

"Ally" is a complex word for Kortanie Kahwennahawi Raye. She defines it not as a label, but as a way of life.

"It's an ongoing practice," said Raye, who works as a community project assistant at the Montreal Indigenous Community Network (MICN). "You can't just give yourself a sticker and say, 'Well, I'm an ally now.'"

That's why, ahead of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, Raye told CBC Montreal's Let's Go this Indigenous allyship toolkit is a valuable resource to keep on hand.

Launched by the Network in 2019, the toolkit provides an overview on terminology, what not to say to Indigenous people, a brief description of different nations, as well as a section that breaks down stereotypes and the realities behind them.

Two contributors who collaborated on the Montreal Indigenous Community Network's Indigenous allyship toolkit, Dakota Swiftwolfe, left, and Leilani Shaw, right, are pictured in 2019. (Leilani Shaw)

"It's a living document, so there's information being updated all the time and to see how many people are not aware of these things, it's upsetting," said Raye, who is Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) and Inuk from Kahnawake, located on Montreal's South Shore.

Following the discovery of what are believed to be hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools in B.C.and Saskatchewan this year, many non-Indigenous people have begun taking steps toward reconciliation and advocating for Indigenous rights, according to Raye. 

But despite good intentions, some allyship can do more harm than good. 

'We are the experts of our realities' 

Stéphanie Héroux says it's important for non-Indigenous allies to recognize the space they're in and where they stand in the conversation. (Submitted by Stéphanie Héroux)

One of the biggest missteps people can make in their journey to becoming an ally is overstepping the boundaries, according to Stéphanie Héroux, the community project manager at MICN.

"[Non-Indigenous people] want to help and they want to get involved, but sometimes it's becoming too much," she said. 

She says it's important for non-Indigenous allies to recognize the space they're in and where they stand in the conversation. 

"Indigenous people have been living their reality for thousands and thousands of years, so we are the experts of our realities and our histories," Héroux said. 

An ally must commit to listening to Indigenous people, says Héroux, but also doing the work to educate themselves and unlearning the history and biases they were taught about members of the community, their cultures and their rights in Canada. 

"You need to really understand that the teachings that the western world has given us are not always correct," said Raye. 

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

The process of allyship is not always a comfortable one, says Raye. 

"There's a lot of people that will have to go through those uncomfortable moments where you're going to ask the wrong questions and the wrong words will come out of your mouth," she said.

"You need to surround yourself with people who will respectfully correct you, and it's really up to you to stay in those spaces."

LISTEN |  How non-Indigenous people can practice allyship:

Sept. 30 will mark the first federal statutory holiday for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour Canada's residential school survivors, their families and communities.

It's not simply a solemn day or a day of compassion toward Indigenous people, according to Héroux. Rather, it's a day to make the commitment to put in the work to self-reflect and push ahead toward positive change, even as Indigenous people. 

"We were disconnected from our culture and our traditions, our language, our practices and our whole way of living," said Héroux. 

She says it's time to do the work to reconnect with those roots. 

"And every year, the 30th will be a reminder to keep going with this work that we all need to do."

With files from CBC Montreal's Let's Go