mela: shine a light
mela: shine a light. how working in colonial “reconciliation” has left me with so much to reconcile:
a letter to Indigenous folks involved in white working worlds, and to anyone curious about what my experiences were like working for the vancouver park board.
content warning: white reconciliation, workplace trauma, racism, depression, anxiety, imposter syndrome, suicidal ideation
the goal of writing this is to share my experiences with other Indigenous folks who might be considering or are already working in large bureaucracies or organizations, maybe in anything “reconciliation” related. it is to share also with anyone curious about my experiences, and to help myself feel heard so i can continue healing.
this is written casually, conversationally, without proper grammar or capitalizing. it is an honest, vulnerable attempt on my healing journey and should be taken as such. this is a personal narrative from my own point of view, it is not meant to represent all Indigenous people, however in my experiences these things that happened are incredibly common, and are usually much worse.
this is not an invitation for anyone from the organization to contact me. this is not an ask for any engagement other than listening.
yowtz, lisa kelasu noogwa. gee git sohg noogwa. andrew du carole walker we we uxh lins. hello, my name is lisa. i am in beaver clan. andrew and carole walker are my parents. i was born in kitimat bc, i am a member of the Haisla nation. my father is Haisla, my mother was british and was born in liverpool england. i grew up off reserve and disconnected from my culture due to the violent, successful genocidal interruption of residential schools. i am a cis gendered, white passing, mixed Indigenous woman.
i spent almost a decade (jan 2010-march2019) working in “reconciliation” at the vancouver park board, and my experiences have left me with an incredible amount of trauma, chronic pain, suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, and permanent fertility issues. of course, i had free will to leave, but i chose to stay for longer than i should have.
i began as a member of an artist in residence team with the park board, and when the manager of arts and culture found out i was native she brought me onto her team. she would bring me to any and every meeting that was Indigenous related. she tasked me with all Indigenous related things. i was about 25, knew hardly anything about Indigeneity, although i was always proud of being Indigenous i was not brought up with my culture.
throughout the early years i was tasked with taking minutes at meetings with the local Nations, repairing Indigenous art, working with carvers on signage for totem poles, national Aboriginal day. i was always carefully introduced to the local Nations as being Indigenous and that i would help my white woman boss understand things (simply because i am Indigenous). it is wrong for white people to tokenize Indigenous folks by putting large decisions or sole input on one person, as if they represent all Indigenous folks in canada.
eventually i also worked in different departments under different people. i ran an art program at the carnegie in the dtes, i worked as a street outreach worker, i ran a craft night at a women’s drop in centre, and then i was hired to be a full time arts programmer at an east side community centre. it was supposed to be my dream job, but it was definitely one of the worst jobs and most toxic workplaces ive ever been in. my old white woman boss was still one of my bosses, but was incapable of adequately understanding or supporting me.
the eastside community centre staff made many efforts to prevent me from doing work or feeling comfortable and safe. they locked up their office supplies and no one would give me a key. i had to go out and buy my own stapler and pens. i experienced so much direct racism there, and they had such a high population of Indigenous community members using their site. one of the front desk staff said an Indigenous child being taken away on a stretcher into an ambulance was a “waste of taxpayers money”. a high level staff person told me they believed native people didn’t pay taxes. someone brought me a write up they were distributing that helped kids understand Indigenous people and it said something like “native people live like camping”.
the accounting staff told me if i didn’t understand accounting i shouldn’t have been hired. they were never clear with me about my accounting codes or how to access my city budget to run programs or purchase things. the front desk would talk about how i was never working, told me that i took too long of lunches. no one was really informed that i was an east side programmer which meant i was responsible for the entire east side arts and culture programming, so i had to be at so many places. but this was where my “office” was, which was also used by my program assistant who would often be using it instead of me. it was so draining. i had absolutely no support, no training, no allies there to help me. i felt overwhelmed with the amount of educating i felt i had to do.
and still, i ran a “reconciliation” lunch and learn that was at capacity, brought in Chief Dr Robert Joseph to speak to everyone. i ran indigenous youth art programming, tried to connect with the other staff members, liaised with the Aboriginal community policing who warned me that the centre was incredibly toxic and not super safe for Indigenous youth, who had told them they experienced racism there too.
i think i lasted almost a year, maybe less. the time felt like it dragged on forever. i felt so low, so ashamed that i couldn’t hack it. i slipped into my first deep, dark depression. i couldn’t get out of bed and became suicidal. i had to be medicated. after so many years of feeling like i was beating my head against a wall in this work, that i wasn’t indigenous enough, that i didn’t know all the right things to say to change how people were acting. that i never felt safe, and i never felt confident in the work they gave me to do. i felt so guilty and like such a failure for not being able to accomplish my tasks.
i know now, it is impossible to change a bureaucratic system. i know now, that was set up for me to fail. there was nothing i could do to make any impact in such a toxic setting. i did my best and it was ok for me to leave, even when everything felt like i couldn’t. it is always okay for you to leave a job or situation where you feel unsafe. you do not have to suffer.
my own childhood and upbringing made me this perfect type of indigenous staff person for this work. to think suffering, being treated poorly, not being heard or considered was part of my normal everyday life. i was so used to this. most of my relationships up until then had been like this as well. i was also so unsure in my own Indigeneity that i didn’t know how to speak up against things that were wrong.
i believe this is a key that large organizations look for when they are hiring for “reconciliation”: mixed Indigenous folks that are white leaning. that are sympathetic and understanding to colonial “limits”. Indigenous folks that will eventually bend and say yes, or at least not say no, to what is thrown at them. my experience with abuse and trauma, my low self esteem and self worth, was a huge selling point to this organization. i was exactly what they wanted: a timid native woman who was afraid to speak her mind, and listened dutifully to all rules and instructions, abided by them.
i left the eastside programmer job, because i couldn’t return to work due to severe anxiety and depression. i couldn’t even step foot in or near the centre anymore without having panic attacks. i found another job. after a year of working a minimum wage entry level reception job at a non profit that also wildly took advantage of me (laugh face emoji), my old white woman boss took me for dinner and asked me to come back to the park board. she said things had changed, and that she had hired another indigenous person.
i thought i would give it a try, and dipped a toe in by being on contract. i was hired to run residential school training workshops that were now mandatory to all staff due to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action that the park board had adopted. even though the city of course has their own staff training department that has systems in place to run these types of things, for whatever reason they were not taking this on. i had to create a registration system, an invite system, a way to keep track of who was coming, book rooms, make coffee and buy snacks, set up the rooms, liaise with the facilitator, introduce the sessions, do some care taking of everyone by letting people know how to access counseling. i had physically sit through about 20 (3 hour) residential school awareness training sessions. i stayed after and talked to crying white people about how hard this was for them to learn. i had to create evaluation forms and read through them all, people saying awful things. still, i felt like it was making a slight change. at least i could see that some people were understanding. for most, it was the first residential school education they’d ever received. during this time, i found out my own father had attended residential day school. i did not know this. i knew my grandfather had attended, and that this was why i was never allowed to meet him, but i didn’t know my own father had attended. it made the work feel so much harder and more important. if your own intergenerational trauma is being triggered by your work, you need to go slow and be gentle with yourself, take a step back and make sure you are protected and safe.
throughout this last stretch at the park board, it was better working with more indigenous people like me. i felt far less alone, and had people who could empathize with me. however, the system had not changed, we were just finding more disgusting holes that needed fixing. the trauma was almost worse because people were knowingly enacting horrible racism, and we were responsible for doing something about it. i hate to say, that nothing real changed. people started to understand what to say differently, but did not take any real actions to change. no land was given back. no leadership or authority was given to the local nations. no park land that knowingly contained ancestral remains was handed back. the damage and trauma was so much more obvious and i always, always felt like i was on the wrong side. if you are doing things you morally disagree with because your job makes you feel like you have to, it is okay to leave.
there were many, many problematic tasks and work i had to do during this second round in the planning department. many things i just do not feel safe divulging due to the level of confidentiality, and fear of legal action. also some of the events are not mine to share. i can share, that often i felt pigeon holed into being a rubber stamp. often changes i thought needed to be made were scaled back to whatever was palatable. once i was tasked with "indigenizing" an online project and the IT department went in and undid all my work because they said it was inaccurate. i had to deal with things like a white woman manager i didn't know sitting next to me at lunch asking if it was okay for her to say Indian. i had to console white women colleagues who felt their powerpoint wasn't adequately appreciated because of our decolonial work. i watched many staff constantly underestimate the skill and expertise of indigenous folks. i had to sit through training where non indigenous staff were asked to say what stereotypes they held about indigenous people. the daily workings of a bureaucracy are mind numbing to anyone on their own, but adding in daily triggering and traumatic events made it all the more worse.
during this time, i was being paid now as an auxiliary new art programmer (even tho i had 7 years experience) i was advising on director level issues. i helped create the mandate that the entire park board adopted. i was an integral part of high level meetings. my counsel and advice was sought out by managers and directors much higher level than me. i was being paid at least $10 less an hour than my peers doing the same work, and of course far far less than the managers/directors.
i also had no benefits. i had no rights to say no to anything that was handed to me, even if i didn’t believe in it. even if the staff i had to work with were unbearably racist. i had to spend hours and hours of my own personal time doing counseling appointments to talk about the work. i often couldn’t do anything on my weekends because i was so traumatized by the work that i just needed to try and be alone and take care of myself. my health started to take a really bad turn, my relationships suffered, my body started to experience so much pain, and my mental health was plummeting. if you are an Indigenous person working in “reconciliation” and are being grossly underpaid and not treated well, it is okay to talk about this with your manager and advocate for your rights. you are valued and you deserve more.
just some things i learned about working in reconciliation:
when a white woman co worker cries, everything stops.
old white men in positions of power can act like they are listening to you, but nothing will actually change.
people want to be told what to say but not what to do.
non indigenous people will start to feel like decolonizing or reconciling is more like workplace bullying.
the unions are not up to date on any Indigenous history or experiences and will not protect you
all colonial rules are set up for non indigenous folks to maintain power, including employee agreements, union rules, mandates, chains of command, land rights.
after awhile of me being auxiliary, my white woman boss said she was advocating for a permanent position for me. the task was passed down to my indigenous colleague who became my boss when my white woman boss retired. the position they created for me was a planning analyst, rather than an actual planner. it was not the same as the work i was already doing, it was more like if i had a low level assistant. it was not valuing my perspective, intelligence, or unique skills that i had been building over the past decade. i wanted to negotiate the position, at least have it paid more as it was almost the same as what i was already being paid as an aux. program assistant. there was no one to help advocate for me.
so, i studied the union rules. spent hours of my own time combing over every little rule. i found all the ones that applied to me and my rights, copied them and printed them out to show the higher ups.
i met with the director of planning. i told him i wanted to be paid the highest possible wage that position could be paid, i showed him the union rules should allow for that given my incredible amount of experience. i said i wanted to have say over the work i was doing, and be allowed to step away from the work i felt was morally wrong. i wanted to have flexibility in my schedule to allow for healing and ceremony work. i told them in writing, if you want to decolonize, if you are truly going to abide by this decolonizing mandate you have all agreed to, you need to start here.
he said no. i pushed back. he said in no uncertain terms, he spoke to the union head and they told him they do not support me. i would be offered the lowest possible wage, he said that if i was external i would be allowed to negotiate the wage, but because i was internal i would not be allowed.
he said i would never be allowed to say no to projects that i felt were problematic, because the park board commissioners (mainly white men) decided what the reconciliation work was. i said in that case i would not be as interested in the position and would be turning it down. he looked surprised. i packed up my desk, cried in the bathroom, and left.
i was so deeply disappointed that i had put myself in this position again, let myself believe in a bureaucracy and in the people who held power over me there, that they would stand up for me, like they said they would. that they’d believe in me, see me, protect me. but they didn’t.
i did my best to use the tools of the colonial institution to get what i needed from them. i copy and pasted sections of their own union rules and explained how they could use this to treat me better. they refused. there was absolutely no budging. even when i explained, the work of reconciliation they were asking me to do was personal and decolonial. they were not practicing their own commitments to reconciliation by not making any efforts to treat me better, as the indigenous person, who they were asking to do their reconciliation work for them.
the irony of it all is not lost on me. i think about it all the time. i again, slipped into a deep dark depression after going through this conflict with them, and being basically told i was not valued the way i thought i should be, that no one would support me or believe me. again, the depression got so bad i had to seek medical help to prevent suicide. i felt lost, hopeless, useless. i had worked for almost a decade towards absolutely nothing. i had wasted so much of my precious time, and my chronic pain flare ups were now unbearable. another six months of not getting out of bed. another bout of feeling horrible about myself because i was not good enough, not indigenous enough, not strong enough to get through this. it was during this time i found beading, which honestly pulled me right out into the open again, and has allowed me to live my life for myself for maybe the first time ever.
after all this, i have not “reconciled” with the white woman who put me in this position to begin with. although she tried to send me a casual facebook message absolving herself of any wrongdoing a few months ago, she has never made any real attempt to understand how her actions of using me as a token affected my life. i tried to explain to her how her use of me benefited her career. how detrimental it was to me and my life. how often i became suicidal. how i am now living with infertility and chronic pain due to the years of repression and repetitive traumatic stress from the work she created and gave to me. her facebook response simply said: “sending love.” i have since blocked her and deleted her from my life.
i have also not “reconciled” with any of my colleagues. although the work i created and co created is still used to this day, i remain invisible. all the work that i left is either credited to someone else or my name is simply not there, with the exception of some photos i took of indigenous artwork. anyone i run into from that workplace assumes i left for another job, they have absolutely no idea what i went through or how they treated me.
i feel used up, chewed up and spit out by the colonial machine of reconciliation. i feel ashamed and embarrassed of my history with them. i feel the conflict of wanting to be credited and valued for the incredible work i did there, but also wanting to have no association with them so as to not allow anyone to think my connection to them makes them seem better or human.
it feels like a long, ugly, abusive relationship. i feel like my personal experiences with abusive relationships and trauma set me up perfectly to take that work. i feel like my white passing, people pleasing nature made me perfect to take “reconciliation” work. once i became too angry, too capable of articulating exactly what my opinions were, i became too much for them.
after i turned down the job because they would not treat me well, they hired a white woman with experience working with indigenous people. a PERFECT example of reconciliation.
this is usually what these types of positions want at the end of the day: white indigeneity. it is impossible to decolonize colonization. you can never achieve it.
if the vancouver park board was serious about it’s “reconciliation” and “decolonization” they would listen to things i have suggested such as: give the land back. allow the local nations to lead the park board. allow Indigenous staff flexibility and authority to do whatever they need to. pay indigenous folks way better. understand the colonial tools they created and how to put them to better use to protect indigenous staff.
before i officially left my auxiliary position with the park board, i created a survey to give to the 6 other indigenous planners who were doing similar work as me, some not with the city, some had since left. i tried to capture the very real impact that working in “reconciliation” has on us as humans. ironically, i was too traumatized to complete this report i had started. but here are some of the stats:
almost 100% of staff felt their lived experience was not adequately recognized financially or professionally by their supervisors.
5 out of 6 they were told their tone was problematic during the work in “reconciliation”.
5 out of 6 said they frequently felt like they were being asked to speak on behalf of all indigenous people.
5 out of 6 said they very frequently felt they were the only indigenous person being asked to approve something.
all felt like a concern went unheard because they were not in the room.
all felt they did not have adequate access to cultural supports.
all said they had physical symptoms due to the stress of the job.
everyone had cried at work because the work made them so overcome with emotions.
all said their intergenerational trauma informed how they work.
all said they had to repress anger at work in order to remain professional.
none saw themselves reflected in leadership.
5 out of 6 experienced imposter syndrome.
all had had to sit through traumatic training intended for non indigenous people.
all had experienced being talked over at work while they were giving their insight.
4 out of 6 had experienced non indigenous people explaining indigenous culture to them at work.
all had often or sometimes experienced feeling tokenized at work.
most people who have since left the position (this was from two years ago keep in mind) said it was due to some or all of these reasons: mental health suffering, physical health suffering, family relationships suffering, experiencing racism at work, being undervalued, being underpaid, feeling silenced, not being able to do the work you wanted to do, not being promoted to level of work that recognized contributions or experience, not receiving the support needed to complete the workplan, feeling as though you have to assimilate to corporate culture, not being given enough power to make any real change, expected to do work equivalent to multiple people.
i share this to show, it was not just me. i imagine there are so many indigenous people working in colonial bureaucracies who are experiencing similar things. i am sharing this in hopes that indigenous folks stepping into these types of roles will protect themselves. set good boundaries. have cultural supports. leave if it is too harmful on you. or at least know, you are not alone. i see you. i am sending you love and compassion.
for me, a part of the healing process has to include having my voice heard. i have been carrying around many traumas and would like to try and put some of it down. the irony that reconciliation left me traumatized and with so much to reconcile. and that the folks "leading reconciliation" have never reconciled with me, and were able to walk away from me, earning high wages, buying homes, starting families, making no efforts to fix anything, change anything, or apologize to me. it is all such a perfect example of reconciliation in colonial bureaucracy.
i am writing this for any future me's. any young indigenous people who are dipping a toe into any white lead organization. it is dangerous. it can harm your spirit and soul. it might even put your life in danger like it did me. the goal of colonization is always to eradicate the Indigenous folks and this is no different.
please protect yourself.