How We Can Work Together

    Three educators discuss how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can work as allies

    May 24, 2017

    For more than a decade, Pat Makokis and Fay Fletcher have worked together to bridge two worlds. A young educator asks how she can emulate this “ally work” in her own life.

    Pat Makokis, ’79 BEd, is from Saddle Lake Cree Nation and has a doctorate in education. Fay Fletcher, ’84 BPE, ’94 MSc, ’04 PhD, is associate dean in the Faculty of Extension and was born and raised in Edmonton. Etienna Moostoos-Lafferty, ’09 BEd, is from Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation and works educating teachers about reconciliation.

    Etienna Moostoos-Lafferty: This is really a mentorship conversation for me. I’ve seen you two ladies talk and I felt the universe aligned that day and I was meant to be there, so thank you. Part of the work I’m interested in is ally work. Is ally work or allyship the right term?

    Fay Fletcher: It’s come up often, that the terms “ally” and “settler-ally work” are problematic. We’re aware of that and we’re working through what the language and terminology should be. But we’ve found it’s a useful way to guide the relationship with each other. It’s relational work, and ally fits for now.

    Pat Makokis: The other day, we were at a workshop and I thought I’d help people to understand where I’m coming from [when I speak of ally]. I have a two-spirited son [an Indigenous LGBTQ person], a member of the gay community. I’ll never be two-spirited but I’m connected to my son biologically. I am connected to that community relationally for the rest of my life. I have a personal obligation to lift that [community] up. I see myself as having a deep responsibility to be an ally in that context. I must walk with them, do what I can.

    FF: Early in the work, the concern was, “You’re not Indigenous so who are you to do this work?” It’s something I struggled with for a long time. Then I met Pat. The way she’s described being an ally fits well. I’ll never live the Indigenous reality, but I do want to walk alongside and open those spaces for the relational work we need to do together.

    PM: In service to our children, when we reflect upon that, it calls all of us to a deep responsibility for humankind. If we want a better world, we need to think about our role in understanding the colonial history in this country, because when we understand the history, then how do we move into that space of what is an ally and how will I become an ally?

    EM: What are examples of how people can be an ally?

    FF: We as a faculty have done this work for years. It was a dream come true when Pat came to the Faculty of Extension. It’s really impacted the work we do because of Pat’s desire to teach people the impact of the history. People get paralyzed. They fear that they might do something wrong, so they slip into doing nothing. Or they might face legitimate anger. One thing as an ally is just beginning that journey. That might mean starting to read, having conversations, sitting down with Indigenous peoples and respectfully engaging in conversations. My role as an ally at the university has been .... to use that space to bring Indigenous knowledge into the university and extend the richness of the university.

    EM: A lady in the North once told me this quote: “nothing about us without us.” What does that mean for creating that space? What does that look like in institutions?

    PM: I would say that’s inviting us to think about how will we work together in the different faculties to thread Indigenous knowledges as core. If that’s the case, humanity will be better for it.

    EM: In the book A Knock on the Door [2015], they describe reconciliation as creating mutually respectful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. What does this mean for Indigenous people?

    PM: Indigenous peoples have to walk through the pain. We’ve experienced and continue to experience blatant racism, and we carry pain and trauma. With that comes the anger, and we have to be gentle with ourselves and figure it out. The first part of reconciliation is figuring out what is truth. People have to look at this history. I think people will be horrified when they realize that people could do this genocidal act. It’s a hard walk.

    EM: In my conversations with elders, reconciliation is about time. What I tell teachers is that while we’re ready to talk about reconciliation, there’s still people in pain.

    FF: We have to acknowledge that.

    PM: It’s a journey and it’s going to be lifelong.

    EM: It’s good work, but difficult. For me, it’s the uplifting piece that keeps all of us going in this work. Charlene Bearhead [project co-ordinator for the Alberta Joint Commitment to Action: Education for Reconciliation] said there is a window open and we need to do as much work as we can. Someone else said there’s a light. I’m wondering what we can be doing while the window’s open.

    PM: We have to jump. We have to go into those spaces and places; we have to have conversations with potential allies. In the alumni community, it would be the same. It would be inviting grads into these conversations. The window of opportunity is here and now and we must take it. The hardest part of that journey is going to be from our head to our heart, when we explore our training, our education, our belief systems and what these [university] walls have contributed to that. And when we think about what the heck has happened in this country, because that’s been the biggest secret. It’s kept us from knowing each other. Reconciliation will allow us to ask how we can have positive relations with each other. Let’s have coffee and conversations about having good relationships.

    EM: Thinking about Roberta Jamieson’s message [at the Visiting Lectureship in Human Rights at the U of A; see page 61]: you’re no good to us in the reconciliation process if you’re consumed with shame and guilt. Honour that, recognize that, but move on. Would that be your message to other people?

    FF: I was one of those paralyzed people. You can ask people to move beyond that, but unless you provide people the space to move beyond that. … Pat was the person who created that space for me to come out of that. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to ask someone who’s angry and in pain to create a space for people who represent that history, but it’s an important piece of moving forward. Every day in my heart I thank Pat for her persistent humility. It’s a huge ask, but everybody’s going to have to step outside their comfort zone.

    EM: You mentioned that the TRC can’t just be another moment in time. How do we sustain and maintain this momentum?

    PM: We have to push and push hard politically at all levels. ... I would say that we need to invite a conversation into exploring that we are all treaty people. Figure out what that means in the relationships going forward. It’s an invitation to look into that history of the treaties when the elders were signing them, the Crown were signing them … to explore what they mean today.

    FF: It’s never out of the ordinary for an Indigenous person to say “I’m a Treaty 6 person,” because they’re labelled Indigenous people by treaty. But the reality is my ancestors as non-Indigenous people are also a part of that treaty agreement. We are all Treaty 6 people.

    EM: As a young Indigenous educator, what is some advice you can give me to walk in both worlds and take care of myself? For a lot of us, this isn’t a job, it’s personal. I got into this [education] because of my grandma and her story. She always talked about the nuns and the mission but I didn’t really know what she was talking about. It wasn’t until college that I asked her about it. And she cried. If you’ve ever seen your grandma cry — it’ll break your heart. It moved me so much that I decided I wanted to change this for her. She went to Sturgeon Lake residential school from about age five to 15. She attended with her twin sister, Elsie. They were fortunate to have each other. She’s a brave old lady now who’s so adorable. I’m fortunate that she can tell her stories. And I think it’s healing for her, too. And she’s one of the elders who will say, “It’s about time this work is happening.” Her story keeps me going.

    PM: I stay close to community and I stay in ceremony. I’m part of the fasting community and other ceremonies. That grounds us and keeps us spiritually strong and reminding us of our responsibility to our community, and to do that in a kind and loving way and think of the children seven generations ahead. I bring my allies into the ceremony. We’re all related, and if we’re all related, how do we treat each other in doing that collective lift?

    This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.