Out in the Open

Three Indigenous people share their stories of what it's like to be seen as the ones who 'made it'

The stereotype of Indigenous communities in Canada is often one of poverty. And poverty is a real issue. But there’s also another story of a rising Indigenous middle class in Canada.
John Lagimodiere is the publisher of Eagle Feather News. (Courtesy of John Lagimodiere)

If terms of money, Jennifer David, John Lagimodiere and Leanne Bellegarde are rooted in the middle class.

"This concept of earning money is very much a colonial concept we've had to adapt and live within," says Jennifer, a member of the Chapleau Cree First Nation.

For Leanne of the Peepeekisis First Nation, the tension comes when you're seen as being "successful" based on mainstream Canadian measures of influence, wealth and acquisitions... and then squaring that with more traditional Indigenous values "that are about community, relationships, giving back and being a part of."

"I think there's some unease for me at times about just how I balance all of those values and make sense of them for myself," she says. 

Some of that tension also comes from how they are seen both within and outside of their communities.

Jennifer says that because there are still a lot of stereotypes about Indigenous people, "anything that falls outside of that stereotype, [Canadians] don't know how to deal with." 
Jennifer David lives in Ottawa and works as a ‎Senior Consultant at NVision Insight Group Inc. (Courtesy of Jennifer David )

She says if she identifies as Indigenous, non-Indigenous Canadians react with surprise at her success and middle class status. 

"They're almost like, 'Wow, I mean you're like middle class. You look…ordinary like the rest of us'."

Both Jennifer and Leanne worry about the dangers of being seen as "the model Indian" and how that impacts other Indigenous people.

"I think the reality is that for many people that I live and work with, particularly non-Indigenous people, I might be the only Indigenous person they really get to know... that it's easy for them, sometimes, to perhaps look at me and say, 'Well, if she can do it, any one of you can do it if you just try harder," says Leanne.

"It's easy to pretend  that it's just about working a little bit harder and to deny the truths that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made so apparent to all of us if we just look a little deeper into those." 

John of the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan says the negative reactions he gets are sometimes from Indigenous community members.

"Poverty is a huge impact in the Aboriginal community. There's no doubt about it. It can make a situation where if you're being successful...you might be called a 'sell out.'"

Jennifer says she's also struggled with this over the years because she left her small community and has not gone back, instead pursuing a life in Ottawa.

"I know there's judgement of people, not just of me but other Indigenous people who have quote, unquote made it," she says.

Jennifer and John attribute this partly to a history of oppression.

"So many of our communities have been so poor and I'm talking about government imposed colonial poverty. And, so people turn around and they oppress other people and they oppress the people that are closest to them. And that's one of the ways that is manifesting itself," says Jennifer.

All three say that although we live in a society where money plays a role in how people view and treat you, they try not to let money define them. Instead, they want to be defined by their relationships, work and roles in their communities.

 "I also recognize that 'success', to the extent I have it...also means I have a responsibility to use whatever measure of influence to give back, to raise each other up," says Leanne.