Author Archive

Gneg wetagutijig – Grieving for my Relatives-in-Spirit

Trigger warning: This article deals with Residential Schools and anti-Indigenous violence. Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools.  The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be contacted toll-free at 1-866-925-4419.

By Deborah Richardson
Deputy Solicitor General

Today, the flags at all Government of Ontario buildings will fly at half-mast.

I have asked that the flags at all Ontario government buildings and establishments across the province be flown at half-mast in memory of the 215 Indigenous children whose lives were tragically lost at the former Kamloops Residential School.

Doug Ford, Premier of Ontario

There are so many people that take pride in their Canadian heritage, and the many proud moments in this nation’s history.  But this is not one of those moments.  For Indigenous people across Canada, along with many like-hearted Canadians, we are grieving yet again.  It’s the latest example of how the Residentials School experience, and their victims, have quite literally, been buried only to be forgotten.

But this episode provides us a stark reminder that these were children.  The loss of life should be incomprehensible for any Canadian.  It something that cannot be forgotten.

It is a sombre and tragic affirmation that the Residential School experience was all too real, and it was horrific.  It is also a realization that there is still so much work to do to on the long journey of Reconciliation in Canada.

As an Indigenous woman, I wept to learn that my relatives lay forgotten in a mass grave on the other side of the country.  They are not my blood relatives – but my relatives in spirit.  I grieve them like I have a lost a sister, a nephew, a cousin or a friend.  In my language, the Mi’gmaq language, we would call them “gneg wetagutijig” (my distant relatives).

It is a great time to reflect on our respective roles in Reconciliation, in allyship, and understanding the truth about Residential Schools.

As public servants, we also need to examine, from both a contemporary and historical lens, how governments and their officials contributed to the many forms of racism experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada.

We may not like to admit it but it was the public service who created and instituted the Indian Act, the oldest piece of legislation in Canada.  It is a colonial piece of legislation that continues its role in assimilation and inequity today.  It was the education provisions of that same Indian Act that enabled the creation of Residential Schools and required mandatory attendance of children beginning at the age of five.  This led to wide-sweeping forced and systematic removal of children from their parents and their communities.

It should have been the role of governments and the public service to look after the best interests of children.  That is arguably the greatest failure of all.

According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, at least 4,200 children died in the care of the government-run, church-operated schools.  Of those, we can only identify 2,800 names.  Those names are immortalized by a 50-metre long, red cloth memorial kept by the Centre.

Children died from wide-spread disease, especially tuberculosis.  They died from violence and abuse at the hands of their captors.  Many more died trying to escape from the schools.  

The story of 12-year old Chanie Wenjack came to national prominence when Time Magazine published the story of his tragic death in 1967.  He froze to death at the side of a railway trying to escape the Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in Kenora the year prior.

Government could have done something about the conditions at the Residential Schools and prevented this loss of life.  In 1907, Dr. Peter Henderson-Bryce, a respected physician and public servant wrote his “Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories”.  He used a survey to gather statistical information and found that 25 per cent of the 1,537 students that were part of his study had died.  Another school reported that a full 69 per cent of former students had died from tuberculosis.

In his report, Dr. Bryce outlined clear recommendations to improve health and safety conditions and prevent the unnecessary deaths of students.  Despite this damning evidence, government did little to implement his recommendations to protect children and prevent this loss of life.

There are lessons in these stories for all of us.  We owe it to Black, Indigenous, and racialized peoples to begin to explore the truth of racism in the public service.  That racism is not only overt, or historic, like during the Residential School era – but it is also systemic and continues to this day.  Racism can still be found in policies, regulations, and yes, even in legislation. It appears in our biases and our interpretation of policy.

It is my belief, that public servants are the purveyors of the public good.  We serve at the pleasure of government, to bring all Ontarians, all Canadians, policy, programs and services that will improve their lives and enable, safe, healthy and equitable communities.  But truth also requires us to look back on our mistakes and learn from them. We cannot have reconciliation without truth. That will be the toughest lesson of all.

In response, many of my colleagues and even you, the reader, will say: “that was not my fault” or “that happened so long ago.”

But it is our responsibility as Canadians to remember Residential Schools.  We can choose to hear and embrace truth. We can learn much from the perspectives of Indigenous families who have lost their children. We can grieve with them and console them.

Through our personal, sustained actions, we can do so much to remember the lives of those 215 young ones – my relatives – who have passed on and died at the Kamloops Residential School.  



“That’s not right”: Correcting microaggressions in the workplace

By Deputy Ministers Deborah Richardson and Shawn Batise

  • “We have to circle the wagons.”
  • “I really don’t see colour.”
  • “I have a lot of Indigenous friends.”
  • “You don’t look Indigenous.”
  • “We should be treating everyone fairly.”
  • “You’re so lucky to be First Nations.”
  • “The low man on the totem pole.”
  • “Too many Chiefs and not enough Indians.”
  • “Off the reservation.”

These are all phrases that we have heard right here in the Ontario Public Service.

These are known as microaggressions. On the surface, these phrases or “expressions” may not seem overtly offensive. But for many Indigenous people, including ourselves, having to hear these statements over and over again, among friends, acquaintances and co-workers alike, is truly hurtful, demeaning and generally creates a harmful and unsafe working environment.

Microaggressions are indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative inferences towards a group of people. Microaggressions are particularly damaging to Indigenous, Black, racialized and LGBTQ2S+ communities, as well as people with disabilities and women, as they subconsciously add to the racist, discriminatory and stereotypical discourse that we face.

We shouldn’t have to break these down. After all, “we should be treating everyone fairly,” right? But when this phrase is used to challenge policies advancing Indigenous rights or equity programming, it infers that Indigenous people are getting an advantage over others.

When we hear, “you don’t look Indigenous,” it tells us that our complexion isn’t as dark as expected. It suggests that there is an accepted, singular look of an Indigenous person. There is no such thing.

Have you ever been told by a colleague, “But, you aren’t like ‘them,’” in reference to you identifying with a cultural, ethnic or religious group?

This is an example of biases based on stereotypes and being viewed as the token exception.

I hope that we public servants can see how the cumulative impact of these seemingly innocuous comments are hurtful and harmful.

Microaggressions by their very definition are “small” and subtle – they can go unnoticed. The person making the microaggression may be completely unaware of what they did and the impact it had. But for the target, the constant barrage of microaggressions feels like an assault by a thousand little knives.

Another common microaggression is when Black leaders are described as, “so articulate!” While it may seem to be framed as a compliment, it is actually insulting, condescending and demeaning. This is because it implies surprise that a Black leader can engage in intelligent communication. In fact, why do our figures of speech so often rely on “black” to express something negative (black balled, blacklist, black sheep, blackmail, black mark, etc.)?

Microaggressions can also be faced by women and people living with disabilities.

There is one common microaggression that is particularly damaging: “She has sharp elbows.” It diminishes leadership competencies by suggesting that a woman leads in an aggressive way, as opposed to an assertive way. Men would never be described in this manner. It also diminishes a woman’s humanity, especially those who demonstrate being a kind and empathetic leader.

Sadly, far more microaggressions go unaddressed. For example, there were dozens of people on a recent video call when a fellow OPSer was described as being the “iron lady,” a so-called compliment referring to her ability to use “handbag diplomacy.” This is an unflattering reference to former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Silence places an unfair burden on ourselves and other racialized people. Sometimes you can’t ignore the ignorant.

For example: “That’s not right. There is no one look for First Nation, Métis or Inuit people. The Indigenous community is incredibly diverse.”

You know there is a lot of work to do when the term “whipping boy” was used in very a recent conversation. Thankfully, that one was also called out and addressed. 

How to change workplace culture

We are all human beings. We may not always be aware that the things we say, and the way we say them, can constitute a microaggression. But we are all blessed with the ability to learn. We must be willing to listen and strive to be more conscious of how our words impact others.   

We encourage you, when you hear or experience a microaggression, to call it out. It may be uncomfortable and take a whole lot of courage, but those who use microaggressions must be corrected. 

And we can all do it by starting with one simple phrase: “That’s not right.”

The other key to changing our workplace culture and addressing microaggressions is building self-awareness. We must challenge the use and assumptions of some of the colloquialisms and analogies we use. We must create an awareness of microaggressions, especially when they target Indigenous, Black and racialized people, women or people with disabilities.

We all have the right to a safe workplace. We all can play a role by taking personal, sustained action and calling out microaggressions and other forms of racism and discrimination.

Deborah Richardson is the Deputy Solicitor General of Ontario. She is Mi’gmaq from Pabineau First Nation in New Brunswick. Shawn Batise is the Deputy Minister of Indigenous Affairs Ontario. He is Anishinaabe from Matachewan First Nation in Ontario.