Language has the power to respect and honour, or, hurt and offend and that is particularly true when working across cultures. Within that frame of reference, we respectfully recommend that when working with Indigenous Peoples you have an understanding of how the historical context of certain phrases can affect your communication and relationships with Indigenous Peoples.
A recommended activity prior to engaging with a community or individual is to do a self-analysis to determine your degree of cultural competency.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you understand the generational impact of residential schools?
- Have you read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 Calls-to-Action?
- Do you understand the significance of the current prime minister saying he seeks to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples?
- How do you react to uncivil dialogue?
- How do you react to stereotypical imagery and statements?
- Do you, intentionally or otherwise, use colloquialisms?
- Do you recognize and understand the impact of cultural appropriation?
- What do you know about the history, culture, worldviews and challenges of the Indigenous Peoples of the area in which you live/work?
- Do you understand the difference between empathy and sympathy?
For the full checklist, please read Indigenous cultural competency self-assessment checklist.
Now for some phrases to avoid in your communications:
- Historical timeline
Avoid usage of “pre-history” as it implies the history of Indigenous Peoples began with the arrival of Europeans. In reality, each individual Indigenous culture has its own creation story that certainly pre-dates the arrival of Europeans in what is now known as Canada. A better way to divide the timeline is pre- and post-contact.
A related caution is to avoid the concept that the Americas were “discovered”. When Christopher Columbus “arrived” in the Americas there were an estimated 100 million Indigenous Peoples living there at the time.
- Canada doesn’t own Indigenous Peoples
Avoid the possessive “our” when referring to Indigenous Peoples in Canada. They are not “our” Indigenous Peoples and they are not “Canada’s Indigenous Peoples”. Try using “Indigenous Peoples in Canada” or "First Peoples in Canada".
- Indigenous Peoples are not “stakeholders”
Indigenous Peoples are “rights and title holders” not “stakeholders” so avoid this term at all costs. Aboriginal title was first recognized by King George III in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 yet Indigenous Peoples continue to struggle to have their constitutionally protected rights recognized.
- We’re all equal, right?
“Equality” is another term to avoid. When Indigenous Peoples hear the term “equality” or “equal’ they hear that they have to give up their constitutionally protected rights, or they hear we can be equal only if they give up their human rights to be who they are as a people.
If you take a look at the long history of federal policies used to control Indigenous Peoples you will notice not one of them was designed with “equality” in mind.
Hope this article helps you in your communications with Indigenous Peoples.