Overcoming Racism

Lesson: Dignity is Mandatory

Things were not always laughter, butterflies and rainbows when I worked with Carcross Tagish First Nation (CTFN). At one point, about 30 years ago, when I worked for the Yukon Government, I was at a contentious community meeting where, once home, I called my insurance company to make sure my house was covered for fire. And at some community meetings, about 20 years ago, while working for CTFN I had to face serious opposition, which the leadership and Elders always met with the utmost defense of me and my work.

But I learned so much working for CTFN that I have carried forward into my work in the mining industry, and life in general. I had to build consensus and allow dialogue which we achieved through extensive meetings, where everyone had a voice and where Elders spoke until they were finished, without interruption. We often held community sewing circles, which brought out community efforts and random unfiltered conversation, while also producing beautiful button blankets.

I learned the importance of balance. Crow and Wolf clans were to be equally represented as were men and women, this was taught from my first job interview, where I was interviewed by both a man and woman who also represented each clan.

I also learned the importance of traditional roles of men and women for the benefit of families, the clans and the nation, something that as I watch in today’s world, is so incredibly important to survival. Men, traditionally were to act like man, and women like women. It was key to survival and expressed in traditions, customs, songs, dance, everything. As a matriarchal society, I learned the real power of women, but not in the way we see it or experience in today’s world. Women, especially Elder women, are of utmost power and influence, when they speak you listen and you listen until they are finished speaking. Wisdom is valuable but wisdom is earned the hard way, so you listen and learn.

The power of women is not expressed through being the leader or the loud voice, or the man on the stage leading the people. All of that gives away power (I am sure I will be very unpopular agreeing with this world view). The real power is behind the voice or leader, in support of the leader, by providing guidance and direction. The truth, I learned, is you can’t be the voice and direct the voice at the same time, and directing the voice is far more important. Probably something we are all only learning now about elected officials and the unelected advisors directing them.

And one evening in Carcross I witnessed the worst example of racism in my life, to this day, and the power of First Nation people to overcome it with dignity. I am Canadian (also a US citizen) and live in the US and it bothers me that many Canadians come across as “holier than thou” about racism in the United States. So after living in Idaho, Texas and Colorado and working in Wyoming, South Dakota, Florida, New York, Nevada and more, Canadians should really get off their lofty perch about racism in the US, as what I saw up in northern Canada was the worst, it was hurtful and demeaning.

At a community meeting where the Premier of the Yukon was doing his budget talks, the Chief, myself, and 2 CTFN members who were also senior management for the nation arrived late and slipped into the back of the room, unseen by all except the Premier and his team on the stage. Minutes after arriving, some members of the audience, recent arrivals to the Yukon, started into a dialogue of their disgust for the nation who was given so much and did so little. I don’t need to repeat it all, it was harsh, and the Premier tried repeatedly to stop them without success. Finally with no choice left, he advised them that perhaps they should ask the Chief.

The room went silent, and the Chief stood, grabbed the table with both hands, and shaking, he began to speak.

The Chief told the story about being young and as a son of a white man and a First Nation woman he was considered white and banned from attending residential school. His family was poor, lived off the land in a shack without running water, heat or electricity, ate what they hunted, barely owned shoes. He watched all his friends go off to residential school where they slept in beds in a warm building, got an education, were provided 3 meals a day and had brand new clothes and shoes.

We all know the history of residential schools, but at the time no one knew the harsh truth, and what looked great from the outside was not so good on the inside. He stated that perhaps what they see on the outside of his nation was not quite as it seemed either.  And he sat down.

An eloquent speaker and a spiritual man, I later asked him why he was hanging on to the table. He told me he was so angry that he was afraid he would lose control and was trying his best not to raise his voice and start screaming. What dignity, what control.

It gives me comfort that CTFN has developed such a strong self-government and built a local economy. This is how they overcame racism, by being better, controlling their destiny and not being victims. Instead, the Chief and the leaders that followed empowered the nation and its people. Jeez, another lesson our modern world would be well served to emulate.


About the Author

Janet Sheriff

An innovative entrepreneur, Janet brings her extensive experience in all aspects of strategic planning, management, indigenous affairs and communications to start ups, new ventures and the mining & exploration sectors. Janet focuses her entrepreneurial spirit, leadership skills and vision to create new opportunities, award-winning innovative programs and new ways of conducting business. Her strong commitment to community engagement, sustainability and inclusion provides her the proven ability to work effectively and respectfully in cross-cultural environments.