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Overcoming Colonization

Canada's Indigenous peoples have endured more than a century of colonization that has affected their health, their family structure and their political and economic status in Canada. Three credit unions have embarked upon initiatives leading them down the long road of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

This story is about education. No, it’s not about some business-book, MBA-track list of five ways to be a better manager and make more money, revealing innovative ways to help fix customer problems.

The help, in this case, is with reconciliation, a word that has developed a special significance over the past decade and now has deep meaning for Canada and for credit unions.

Thousands of people took part in the Walk for Reconciliation, held in Ottawa May 31, 2015, aimed at renewing relationships among Indigenous peoples and all Canadians.

The story starts 136 years ago in 1883 when Sir John A. Macdonald’s government decided that the best way to deal with Indigenous peoples was to take their children away and put them in special schools that would not let them speak their languages or learn about their own cultures. Over the next 110 years, 86,000 children were placed in residential schools.

Many were abused and mistreated. Even those who escaped direct abuse were damaged by the basic goal of the schools, which was to destroy Indigenous culture. As Macdonald stated, “Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

The last of the more than 150 residential schools finally closed in the 1990s and, in 2005, a settlement was reached on class-action lawsuits by school survivors. The settlement provided money to survivors and their families and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that spent six years touring the country and listening to more than 7,000 people talk about the impact the schools had on their lives. The commission’s final report included 94 calls to action on the ways Canadians need to respond to move forward as a renewed and healthy nation. Many, but not all, of the calls to action involved government activity.

Call to action 92 is specifically aimed at businesses, including credit unions, and sets out what they should do to reach out to Indigenous peoples.

First, the three distinct groups that are covered by the term Indigenous should be defined:

  • First Nations — the most varied group existing from coast, to coast, to coast.
  • Metis — descendants of First Nations and European settlers and associated with a distinct geographic group.
  • Inuit — Maritime circumpolar people of Canada.

In call to action 92, the commission called “upon the corporate sector in Canada to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework.” The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has stated that action 92 is unclear on who should lead and urged the federal government to show the way, while acknowledging that businesses can move ahead on their own.

“This is a long journey, this is not a project. This is a long, long journey that will last beyond my lifetime.” – Brendan Reimer

Adopting the UN declaration means committing to consultation on any major economic development project, ensuring that Indigenous peoples have equitable access to jobs, corporate training and education and educating staff and management on the history of Indigenous peoples.

Murray Sinclair, the Manitoba judge who led the commission and who is now a Senator, has said that the UN declaration should be the starting point for discussions. “Since Confederation the government of Canada has deliberately attempted to wipe out the culture and language of Aboriginal people,” Sinclair said, calling the approach cultural genocide. He further stated that education is the key to reconciliation, noting that the residential schools played a key role in creating the current problems. The Public Health Reviews reported in 2017 that this long period of “colonization” affected Indigenous physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health, manifesting in higher rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as lower educational attainment, loss of culture and language and disconnected family structures.

A totem pole located in Huu-ay-aht First Nations Community of Anacla, BC.

Seven generations of children went through residential schools and it may take us as many generations to fix these profound socioeconomic challenges. As Sinclair stated, “Education is what got us into this mess, at least the use of education in terms of residential schools.”

Commitment declared by credit unions

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report in June 2015. It was followed in March 2016 by a commitment by Vancouver City Savings, Affinity and Assiniboine credit unions to adhere to the UN declaration and ensure their organizations supported reconciliation efforts. The three are members of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values and all felt this step was a natural one for them to take.

At Winnipeg-based Assiniboine (125,500 members, $4.6 billion in assets), Brendan Reimer, strategic partner, values-based banking, says the credit union’s commitment on implementing the call for economic development has focused on “looking at financial inclusion, financial empowerment, as an aspect of creating economic opportunities for Indigenous peoples.”

Assiniboine has programs to ensure access to financial services for people who often face barriers and has “focused on developing new partnerships with Indigenous-led, Indigenous-focused organizations, who we work with to ensure that people are able to access fair, affordable financial services, so that they don’t have to go to the fringe banks.”

“I consider myself a residential school survivor: my mother went to the Duck Lake Residential School for nine years and I had a brother and two sisters that went, so I have some personal experience with what it has done.” – Paul Ledoux

Reimer says the main focus at Assiniboine has been its commitment to education and learning. “We have a variety of opportunities created here to learn about treaties, to learn about residential schools, to learn about different aspects of Indigenous culture, hearing from elders, led by the Indigenous Leadership Circle, an employee-led group of Indigenous employees who guide and plan our collective learning journey. It’s been wonderful to see them step forward and take leadership in this space.”

Reimer says Assiniboine was one of the original signatories to a Winnipeg Indigenous Accord, an agree- ment by local businesses and social groups to implement the commission’s calls to action. Each organization makes a public pledge to act and reports annually on its progress. Assiniboine is continuing to work on its pledge for call to action 92. “One of the first things we did was go talk to our Indigenous leaders in the community and say, ‘we’ve been called to action, we want to respond effectively and appropriately and we really would value your advice on how to proceed,’ ” Reimer says.

“Assiniboine has done a bunch of things but we are learning as we go,” he says. “This is a long journey, this is not a project. This is a long, long journey that will last beyond my lifetime.”

At Vancity (525,000 members, $26.4 billion in assets) Sheryl Ries, director of diversity and inclusion, says the credit union was actively helping Indigenous groups years before the commission’s report. “We understood that this community had been underserved and marginalized and so a lot of work began many, many years ago to really understand the community and learn more about the history and the systemic barriers, so we could meet those unmet needs,” Ries says.

Vancity has devoted much time on teaching employees about the realities of Canadian history, because many did not learn it in school. One valuable tool has been a free, 12-week online University of Alberta course titled Indigenous Canada.

“As employees learn more and understand more their appetite to contribute to the movement and to contribute in a positive way to the right kind of social change grows and grows,” Ries says.

This is a challenge and an opportunity for Vancity, since it has to ensure enthusiastic employees move forward in a sensitive way and don’t plunge ahead causing unintended problems.

Reimer at Assiniboine raises the same concern, noting that it’s best to be respectful and ask your Indigenous partners what they need and how to proceed and be wary of trying to solve what you think the problem may be.

At its annual conference last spring, members of the Canadian Credit Union Association (CCUA) passed a resolution committing the organization to the UN declaration. Its efforts have focused on education for credit unions with several webinars providing background and advice. One of the first questions from credit unions was how they could start the process. A webinar devoted to this topic had representatives from Vancity, Affinity and Assiniboine advising that they approach local communities with humility and mutual respect.

“We have a variety of opportunities created here to learn about treaties, to learn about residential schools, to learn about different aspects of Indigenous culture, hearing from elders, led by the Indigenous Leadership Circle, an employee-led group of Indigenous employees who guide and plan our collective learning journey.” – Brendan Reimer

Reimer says that Indigenous leaders have been glad that the credit union has engaged with them and he urges credit unions to take their first step, even if it just means acknowledging at meetings or in their annual report that they operate on Indigenous territory or on treaty lands. He also suggests credit unions consider simple moves such as including Indigenous businesses as suppliers for anything from branch needs to staff lunches. In fact, the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business is developing a supplier database that businesses can tap for just such needs.

SaskCentral, which has passed a resolution adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, has a staff Truth and Reconciliation Commission committee. It has also undertaken several education initiatives, including setting up an online discussion forum for Saskatchewan credit unions.

Personal experience

Paul Ledoux is a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and a board director at Affinity (125,500 members $5.4 billion in assets) in Saskatchewan. The credit union has a unique governance structure with nine district councils, eight based on geography and one for Indigenous members. The district councils elect members of the board.

Ledoux says he’s a member of Affinity’s cooperative values committee and it reviewed the entire Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. “Over a period of time we read sections and after a meeting we would have a discussion about what we read and what we understood,” he says. “I consider myself a residential school survivor: my mother went to the Duck Lake Residential School for nine years and I had a brother and two sisters that went, so I have some personal experience with what it has done.”

Ledoux says he is proud that the three credit unions that have adopted the UN declaration are “front-runners in the financial industry. We are building relationships with First Nation communities.”

The resolution passed at last year’s CCUA conference encouraged all credit unions to show their support and commitment to building the lives and fulfilling the dreams of Indigenous peoples, actions that will result in a better future and a better Canada. ◊