Ian Peach on What Allyship Demands

In the journey towards Reconciliation, how can non-Indigenous people show solidarity—meaningfully?

Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation invited overdue conversations about what reconciliation means. For me, as a non-Indigenous Canadian who has the privilege of having many Indigenous friends and mentors and who has worked both with and for Indigenous-led organizations, the starting point is that reconciliation is primarily the responsibility of non-Indigenous Canadians. We are the principal, some might even say exclusive, beneficiaries of the relationships that the Crown established with Indigenous nations since the early 18th century. Our governments made treaties with Indigenous nations across the country, beginning in the 1700s in the Maritimes, with the Peace and Friendship Treaties with the nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy.

Subsequently, our governments breached those treaties. They stole land and resources that Indigenous nations agreed to share with them. They established the reserve system and forced Indigenous people to live on the reserves, usually located on marginal lands away from their traditional territories and the economic opportunities that non-Indigenous settlers wanted to take advantage of. Worse, our governments attempted to eliminate the languages, cultures, and very identities of those Indigenous nations. Policies such as residential schools and the “Sixties scoop,” in which Indigenous children were taken from their parents and communities and made available for adoption by non-Indigenous families, are but a few recent examples.

A call for deep reflection

Non-Indigenous Canadians are the beneficiaries of the relationship between settler-state governments and Indigenous nations. It is therefore up to us to correct the utterly inequitable, damaging relationship that our governments have created, allegedly on behalf of our predecessors, the settlers who came to this land that Indigenous peoples already occupied and built societies on, and us, their descendants. Learning about the reality of Canadian history, the treaties with Indigenous nations, and our governments’ racist policies towards Indigenous peoples is an important place to start. With that knowledge, we should start thinking seriously about questions like “What does reconciliation mean to me? What can I, personally, do to contribute to reconciliation?”

After reflecting deeply on those questions, we should move to conversations with our Indigenous and non-Indigenous friends and colleagues about what reconciliation demands of us. As part of those conversations about reconciliation, I hope all non-Indigenous Canadians will begin to ask themselves, one another, and their Indigenous colleagues, friends, and mentors how they can become allies of Indigenous peoples.

McGill University, as a non-Indigenous institution, hopes to foster such thoughtful conversations. As Neale McDevitt wrote in the McGill Reporter, the University has created an exercise on its Indigenous Initiatives webpage for non-Indigenous members of the McGill community, encouraging them to think about and post answers to three questions. First, what does reconciliation mean to me personally? Second, what is needed for reconciliation to succeed? Third, what is my personal pledge of action to take part in the process of reconciliation? These are important questions for us to ask ourselves and our neighbours; taking the time to answer them thoughtfully should help move us, however slowly, towards a relationship of reconciliation with our Indigenous neighbours.

Earning the title of “ally”

Unfortunately, McGill undermined the value of this initiative in one line: its title, “I Am an Ally.” As a non-Indigenous person who has worked for decades on Aboriginal law and Crown-Indigenous relations, including Indigenous self-government and Indigenous socio-economic and community development initiatives, I have come to learn that it is not my place to declare that “I am an ally.” Dicki Chhoyang, McGill’s Interim Director of Indigenous Initiatives, is quoted in the McGill Reporter article as saying that “being an ally means a lot of listening, a lot of learning and a lot of humility. It means … trying to understand what are the visions and hopes of Indigenous people and figuring out what concrete actions I can take to support them.” She is absolutely correct; allyship must start with humility.

A non-Indigenous person declaring that they are an ally is not an act of humility. To make such a declaration actually harms efforts to create a relationship of reconciliation. We do not have the right to declare ourselves allies; it is not actually about us. Rather, it is for our Indigenous colleagues, friends, and mentors to decide whether we have made ourselves allies.

Allyship is hard work. Rest assured that it is work – actions, not mere words. Recently, the Max Bell School of Public Policy and McGill have promoted an “Indigenous Ally Toolkit,” created by the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network. It is an excellent guide for those who seek to act as allies. On its first page, it begins by noting that:

Recently many critics say that [the term “ally”] has lost its original meaning. Instead of being used to identify one’s role within a collective struggle, it has come to symbolize a token identity – a kind of “badge” that people wear to show they are one of the “good guys."

This is what declaring oneself to be an ally does to the very idea of allyship. Instead, as the Toolkit says, “being an ally is not a self-appointed identity and requires you to show your understanding through actions, relations, and recognition by the community.” It is “about disrupting oppressive spaces by educating others on the realities and histories of marginalized people.” By acting in a way that seeks to bring an end to oppression, the unjust, even cruel exercise of control over individuals or groups by placing severe restrictions on them, devaluing them, marginalizing them, and exploiting them, one can come to be recognized by the community as an ally.

Three steps

Step one in the Toolkit’s guide to allyship gets at the central problem of the title of the McGill University exercise. Step one is to be critical of any motivations and ask yourself “Does my interest derive from the fact that the issue is currently ‘buzzing’?” and “Am I doing this to feed my ego?” The Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network wants us to understand that “Being an ally is about a way of being and doing … a continual process; it is a way of life.” If we seek to be allies and seek to foster a relationship of reconciliation with our Indigenous neighbours, we must make allyship a way of life.

Step two is to educate ourselves. We must learn about the history of the Indigenous peoples of this land and Crown-Indigenous relations and apply what we learn in a meaningful way, while recognizing that Indigenous peoples are the experts on their own realities, histories, cultures, and ways of life, in a way we can never be.

Step three of the Toolkit is the most important of all – to act in accordance with what you have learned, both about Indigenous histories and realities and about what is required of you to be an ally.

To become an ally demands that we take action to express our opposition to the denial of Indigenous peoples’ history and their understanding of the treaties that they made with the British Crown, and to the oppression of Indigenous peoples that has grown out of that denial. In New Brunswick, where I currently live, recent events have shone a light on who, among non-Indigenous New Brunswickers, is an ally and who is not. I mentioned earlier the Peace and Friendship Treaties that the British Crown negotiated with the nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy in what are now Canada’s Maritime provinces and along the northern part of the U.S. eastern seaboard. The Peace and Friendship Treaties were exactly that – treaties of alliance through which the British hoped to make peace with the Wabanaki, originally to secure their support for the British in their war with the French and later in the American Revolution. They did not cede or surrender Wabanaki title to their lands to the British Crown; they even guaranteed that the Wabanaki could use the resources of their territory as they had always done, “unhindered.”

The Wolastoqey (formerly commonly known as the Maliseet), who have lived along the Wolastoq (the beautiful and bountiful river, commonly known to non-Indigenous people as the Saint John River) since time immemorial and are one of the nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy. They have launched a court action seeking a declaration that they have Aboriginal title to the Wolastoq watershed. As the Wolastoq watershed is approximately 60 percent of the province of New Brunswick, it should come as no surprise that the provincial government is opposing the Wolastoqey nation’s claim.

In light of this effort by the Wolastoqey nation to secure recognition by the courts that they retain Aboriginal title to the lands of the Wolastoq watershed, the New Brunswick Attorney General, Ted Flemming, issued a memo to all New Brunswick public servants on October 14 of this year directing them not to speak of New Brunswick as “unceded” or “unsurrendered” Indigenous lands in any land acknowledgements. Within days of it being sent out, this memo was leaked to the press and, in response, several organizations, such as the New Brunswick branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers, and the RCMP in New Brunswick, have expressed their opposition to Minister Flemming’s directive. CUPE New Brunswick and the RCMP went so far as to acknowledge anew that New Brunswick is the unceded and unsurrendered land of the Wolastoqey, the Mi’kmaq, and the Peskotomuhkati (Passamaquoddy) nations. These organizations’ acts small of defiance in the face of Minister Flemming’s directive are, to my mind, acts of allyship with Indigenous peoples.

As the Toolkit says, becoming an ally requires us to acknowledge that we are guests, invited by the Indigenous nations to share this land with them, to recognize the multiplicity of nations that had already built societies on this land when we arrived, and to respect the cultural protocols and traditions of the Indigenous nations on whose territories we reside. Becoming an ally also requires us, as non-Indigenous Canadians, to build relationships of mutual respect and trust with Indigenous people, and seek, and respect, their mentorship. Reconciliation starts with committing to a life of respect for, and learning from, our Indigenous neighbours and friends. If they decide that our actions make us worthy of that name, they can then choose to grant us the privilege of being recognized as allies.

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I want to thank the Indigenous people who I have worked with and have had the privilege to call friends over the years for giving me their friendship. In particular, I want to thank my friends and mentors David and Imelda Perley for all they have taught me about the Wabanaki Nations, and in particular Wolastoqewiyik (people of the beautiful and bountiful river, known to the non-Indigenous as the Saint John River) and for their friendship. You do me an honour that I cannot adequately put into words.


About the author

Ian PeachIan Peach

Executive Director of the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council

Director of Research and Projects, Wolastoqey Language and Culture Centre

Having grown up in the Maritimes, central Canada, and the West, over the course of his career Ian Peach has held a number of senior positions with federal, provincial, and territorial governments in Canada and universities in the West and the Maritimes, has been staff to Parliamentary committees, and has been a consultant to various governments and non-governmental organizations. His specialties are constitutional law, constitutional negotiations, federalism and intergovernmental relations, Aboriginal law, policy, and self-government negotiations, and the policy process. Beyond these fields, he has extensive senior experience in addressing a wide range of public policy issues and with institutional design, strategic planning, and policy implementation.

Early in his career, after serving as staff on two parliamentary committees on constitutional reform, he was a negotiator for the Yukon Government on Canada’s last attempt at undertaking major constitutional reform, which became the Charlottetown Accord. His 15 years of service with the Government of Saskatchewan included time as Director of Constitutional Relations in the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs and as a Senior Policy Advisor in Saskatchewan Executive Council, where, among other things, he was responsible for the development and testing of Saskatchewan’s approach to key horizontal strategies for government, along with participating in a number of intergovernmental negotiations and negotiations with Aboriginal peoples.

Later, he was Director of the Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy, a university-based public policy institute, and he then went on to develop the Aboriginal Policy Research Network at the Office of the Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians. Having received his B.A. from Dalhousie University and his LL.B. from Queen’s University in the 1980’s, Mr. Peach returned to Queen’s and completed his Master of Laws degree in 2009. He was appointed Dean of Law at the University of New Brunswick on August 1, 2010. He served as an advisor to the Mi’kmaq-Wolsatoqey Centre at the University of New Brunswick, providing the Centre with research and analysis, advice, and event organization, a tutor for St. Thomas University, and a Senior Policy Advisor with Status of Women Canada. Currently, he is the Executive Director of the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council and Director of Research and Projects, Wolastoqey Language and Culture Centre. He also continues to produce scholarly works on his topics in his areas of expertise and writes a bi-weekly column for the Fredericton Daily Gleaner newspaper.

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