Why we need more Indigenous heroes

Hill Times March 9 2020

On Friday, March 6, Canada’s largest celebration of Indigenous leadership occurred in Ottawa, the Indspire Awards. The national organization notes “the Indspire Awards represents the highest honour the Indigenous community bestows upon its own people.” Watch the ceremony on APTN and CBC on National Indigenous Day on June 21.

It was a powerful experience to honour those who lead with integrity, a celebration of what is possible in Indigenous Canada. Placed against the backdrop of the horrible racism against Indigenous peoples for the past weeks, the night had an even more resonance, starkly contrasted against recent events. The night reminded me of a one of our most famous poets, Buffy Sainte-Marie who wrote the song, We Are Circling, from her album Power in the Blood 2015.

It may feel that we are circling through 1990 again, it might feel like the Oka crisis is simply occurring again. Are we circling? Are we not able to learn from history? It’s not clear yet that we have learned enough. We are circling.

But we also circled at Indspire, we circled together, we sang our heart song, as poet Buffy Sainte-Marie would say. We remembered that we are all here due to the strength of our ancestors.

Gina Wilson, pictured in this file photo, is the senior associate deputy minister of diversity, inclusion, and youth at the department of Canadian Heritage and she was honoured at the Indspire Awards in Ottawa on Friday night. Ms. Wilson is from Kitigan Zibi just north of Ottawa, and 'every single Indigenous employee in the federal public service knows who she is. She is a hero and a role model,' writes Rose LeMay. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Gina Wilson was honoured for her achievements in public service. Wilson is from Kitigan Zibi just north of Ottawa, and every single Indigenous employee in the federal public service knows who she is. She is a hero and a role model. Gina Wilson is the senior associate deputy minister of diversity, inclusion, and youth at the department of Canadian Heritage, and the former deputy minister at Public Safety and a former senior adviser at the Privy Council Office. She has also held the position of deputy for women and gender equality, associate deputy at a few departments, assistant deputy minister in more departments, and essentially is the elder voice of Indigenous employees and policy in the federal government.

I had the honour of speaking to her before the awards, and she reflected on her journey to this place in her career. “I didn’t aspire to become anything special. I didn’t have role models like [the ones celebrated at Indspire] when I was young. I did have two grandmothers, strong-willed determined leaders, who were actively involved in the community. They were kind, and they knew how to make their voices known. I watched them conduct themselves, they helped me become a leader. They were my role models.”

Wilson reflected on her intention to be supportive of Indigenous employees, as well as to non-Indigenous peers. It’s an easy assumption that Wilson has been a role model to many federal government workers.It’s not always easy. Wilson shared that she “doesn’t regret for a minute my decision to join the public service. I won’t say that various leaders in government at times have always appreciated my voice. But you stay steadfast. I believe I have been able to positively influence policy and operations.” One obvious way to build strength in the public service is to hire diverse voices, hire more First Nations, Inuit, and Métis leaders, especially at the senior executive levels. This is a clear expectation on the road to reconciliation for the public service.

In our communities and country, we need more Indigenous heroes. Métis, Inuit, and First Nations youth need to see role models who live their lives with culture and intention. But so do all Canadians. The inclusion of Indigenous leaders and heroes for all Canadians is another way to offset the unconscious bias and exclusion of Indigenous achievement.

Congratulations to Gina Wilson and to all the Indigenous achievers honoured at Indspire this year. Please continue to bring us together, please continue to challenge us all to strive for more.