Holding space: A new era of mindfulness in Indigenous allyship

Sometimes, doing the right thing is not always easy... and for many people, becoming an ally to a marginalized or systematically oppressed population is just that – the right thing, but far from easy. Many questions can begin to surface, such as: Where do I start? What if I say or do the wrong thing? I don't have a personal tie to this particular marginalized community, so how can I really help? These are the questions that can keep potential allies up at night.

On this week's episode of Diversonomics, our co-hosts are joined by Gowling WLG associate lawyer Alyssa Flaherty-Spence. Alyssa shares the pros and pressures of being an Indigenous lawyer in big law, tips on how to effectively create and hold space for meaningful Indigenous representation within the legal space, and what all Canadians can do to dismantle the status quo when it comes to the mistreatment and underrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Episode tip:

"I think it is okay to say the wrong thing. I think what's more important though, are for allies and for others to [...] not take things personal if someone does acknowledge that it is wrong, but to be open to hearing that. It's one thing to be wrong or too scared to say something wrong, but it's another thing to get defensive when someone calls you out on it."

— Alyssa Flaherty-Spence, associate lawyer, Gowling WLG



You are listening to "Diversonomics", a Gowling WLG podcast   Episode 2 Season 5

Cindy:  Hi everyone. Welcome to Diversonomics, the podcast about diversity and inclusion from Gowling WLG. I'm your co-host, Cindy Kou, joining everyone from Toronto.

Roberto: And I'm your co-host, Roberto Aburto from Gowling WLG's Ottawa office/my basement. How are you doing today, Cindy?

Cindy:  I'm great. Thanks, Roberto. How are you?

Roberto: I'm good. It's nice that we're kind of getting into Season 5 and I'm excited for our conversation today.

Cindy:  Me too. I really look forward to these conversations. They're sometimes very challenging and I find that I always learn a lot preparing for it and then learning from the wisdom of a lot of our guest speakers. So on that note I'm pleased to introduce today's guest but first a special shout-out to anyone tuning in for the first time. Welcome and a friendly reminder that our previous episodes can be found at gowlingwlg.com/diversonomics and also on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. Ontario lawyers you can also get your EDI credits just for listening.

Roberto: This season we're using our platform to shed light on systemic racism in Canada, specifically anti-black and anti-indigenous racism. These are huge and complex topics and we hope our short conversations can serve as springboards for listeners to start or continue to do the work in breaking down systemic racism. Joining us today is Alyssa Flaherty-Spence, an associate in the non-indigenous group of the Gowling WLG office, who I consider a friend. Hi, Alyssa. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.

Alyssa: Thank you, Roberto and Cindy. Thanks for having me today.

Cindy:  I have the pleasure of briefly introducing Alyssa. Alyssa works on indigenous claims and litigation matters including class actions, such as the Federal Indian Day School settlement. She has worked extensively with indigenous organizations particularly with matters within Inuit Nunangat. Alyssa has also worked with Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, Maliganis Tukisigiarvik Legal Services, the Government of Nunavut, the National Inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Alyssa currently sits as Vice-President and Chair of Inuuqatigiit Centre for Inuit Children, Youth and Families. She is also a member of the Community Liaison and Resources Committee for the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. Before I pass it over to Alyssa I just wanted to thank her for coaching me on the Inuuqatigiit pronunciations in her bio. Thanks, Alyssa and over to you.

Alyssa: I think I'll leave it as that. I don't want to take over the podcast with any other information from my background or my CV. I prefer to get right into the conversation.

Roberto: There's a lot there and in your pre-Gowling life, outside of your big law practice, you bring a wealth of experience working in government and not for profit organizations that support and advocate for indigenous peoples. You've got a very unique perspective and degrees of cooperation across industry professions in both the public and private sector that are needed to address systemic issues that indigenous people face. Do you think lawyers have a special role to play in addressing systemic racism and, if so, what do you believe that role to be?

Alyssa: Absolutely. I think us as a self-regulating legal professionals we do have a role in addressing systemic racism in Canada. For sure I think that whether your client is indigenous or not, or whether you represent an indigenous nation or community, I think that we all have a role as professionals to dive a little bit deeper in terms of upholding our profession. Especially in Canada and I acknowledge in our history of where we are and the acts of colonialism in our country, that alone and understanding and upholding entire racism within Canada, we do have a role in that and I think that we should play an active role regardless if our client has a diverse background or not. I think we do have a role for sure.

Cindy: So picking up on that I think that a lot of our listeners might be thinking, "Well, I don't practice indigenous law", or, "I don't represent indigenous clients so what role do I play as a lawyer or what role does my day to day practice play in either maintaining or dismantling the status quo?" How would you respond to people who are wondering how to incorporate anti-racism work, specifically, anti-indigenous racism work into their practice if they don't practice representing an indigenous law or representing an indigenous clients?

Alyssa: I think that's a good question or a good conversation piece because I think that the listeners on this podcast, regardless of if they have an indigenous client or represent indigenous client, they live in Canada. As Canadians I think that we have or we should play an active role in understanding the history of our nation. Regardless if you have a client of an indigenous background I think that we have an obligation to know our history. Part of that is understanding the colonialism that happened within Canada and with that comes certain policies and laws that were subjugated to indigenous people and other diverse groups within Canada. So I think that you don't necessarily have to practice within the area of indigenous law, or have indigenous clients, but I think that we do have this role to play as Canadians to understand dismantle the history that we have. I always encourage individuals especially within the legal profession who have a certain degree of education and awareness to be able to use their skills and their tools to take certain steps. Even if it's small steps to start and to start understanding their role in our society. I think that we do, as professionals, have a role in our greater nation and our society to play. I think part of that is understanding and educating ourselves on the history. Plain and simple regardless if you have a client who is indigenous.

Roberto: We've been asking our guests to share their reflections on how individuals and organizations can address and dismantle systemic racism within themselves, particularly as it relates to anti-indigenous and anti-black racism, and you've been involved and done some of the heavy lifting for some initiatives at Gowling WLG and reconciliation. In particular this year Gowling WLG published it's Reconciliation Action Plan. You were a key contributor to that so, first, thank you for sharing your expertise and knowledge in this way. Can you tell us a bit about what the plan is and what it aims to do?

Alyssa: So the plan behind this Action Plan, and the reason why it kind of came about was, I think it was driven by the Diversity and Inclusion Council and as many individuals know that Gowling WLG does have a Diversity and Inclusion Council, and part of that was to acknowledge with the indigenous practice group how do we put that to light? How do we shed some light on this? How do we actually move forward within some of the Diversity and Inclusion Council wanted to do and some of their work that they thought was important with the firm's principles aligned as well. One of them is to incorporate a firm wide action plan on reconciliation with indigenous people. Part of that was to build diversity and inclusion and reconciliation within the firm. That's something that Gowling WLG is committed and I think that this action plan really starts to put those types of commitments into place at a concrete level. I think that this Action Plan is a start. I don't think it's the end result. I think that it's a growing piece for our firm and I think it's a step in the right direction. Part of that was the incorporation of indigenous views, including mine as an indigenous lawyer, and I think that's an important piece from when we build these types of documents and actions within the firm. I think that was how it got started and my involvement, as an indigenous associate within the firm, was to provide my perspective as an indigenous person and how to actually make concrete action and any kind of long term commitments within the firm, real.

Roberto: Just maybe want to pick up on what you were saying on the Action Plan, Alyssa. Big organizations, it takes strategic plans and written plans and direction from the top, ... can be endorsed by our executives to really give teeth where we're trying to implement individual changes. I think that was huge but I can't thank you enough in terms of your input, in putting your time, because in terms of anti-indigenous racism we don't want to lean on you to do all the work but your willingness to provide the input, I can't thank you enough for that because I think the initiative wouldn't be what it is without that. We still've got a heck of lot of heavy lifting to do but I did want to sort of especially thank you for all the work you've done.

Alyssa: I think part of my willingness to participate is the outreach pieces and the acknowledgment from the firm to see what I can contribute to something like this. Part of my voice heard in an Action Plan like this, or any kind of other policies or actions that the firm does create that has something that I can participate in, as an indigenous person, I appreciate that and I think that's something that the Plan really targets. For example, one of them is to support indigenous staff and lawyers and articling students and law students and to recruit as well. I think that for me it's really important, and I can mention this later on, but I think part of these Action Plans are really to build up indigenous people and indigenous clients within our practice, and whether it's within the firm or just having our firm take an active role in understanding indigenous history, indigenous impacts from our laws, our polices. I think that's another example the Action Plan and what it includes in terms of the firm's commitment for this.

Roberto: Another initiative I had the privilege of working with you on is the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls Book Club which is presented by the County of Carlton Law Association's Diversity Committee. I really enjoyed working with you on this and I've learned a ton about the history. The chapter that highlights the history, specifically, is one of the toughest reads I think I've had this year. In a year that's been a tough year that was still grueling and I'm a little embarrassed how little I know about the history. You can tell us, Alyssa, a little bit about the Book Club? What it aims to do, how it works.

Alyssa: Like you mentioned, Roberto, it is a monthly book club. It started here in Ottawa but I think that it's because with COVID it's grown maybe a little bit more virtually within at least Ontario but it is a monthly book club. It started out as that to review to on a monthly basis the chapters within the final report of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls findings, their final report. As we know that report was issued to Canada and it comes with calls to justice and findings from the Commission itself. What we sought to do is go chapter by chapter, each month, and to read them. They are large chapters but part of it is to, like I mentioned as our role as professionals, is to dismantle that and have an open and respectful conversation about it. I think, me as an indigenous person, I'm always challenging and I always want to challenge, non-indigenous folks to really ask questions. In my role, what I see in terms of this type of conversation, is to really allow people to ask questions and to challenge things and to challenge perspective, in a respectful way, obviously, but to keep the conversation going. One thing that I was always, like you mentioned, Cindy, I did do some work with Inquiry and so one of my fears, and I think some of the other individuals who participated or took an active role in that report and the Inquiry, was to not lose sight of what is there and to really let Canadians be a part of it. It's not an indigenous issue. It's a Canadian issue and more particularly so it's, I think, an issue that legal professionals should be participating in. I think this book club really allows the report and the issues on MMIWG to really live on. I think that it's not going to solve everything but like we always mention, education is key, and I think that having those conversations with lawyers that are practicing in all areas of law, it's not just big firm, big law type of lawyers that are there, it's lawyers, and professionals as well who are not within necessarily the legal profession, but practice in maybe policy or still within the legal profession at some point, can talk and to come together and to have a conversation. Right? I think that whether they're in family, whether they're practicing within indigenous law, whether in criminal law, everyone is welcome and everyone brings a different perspective. Myself, I learn every time I go to these book clubs and I think that's what we envisioned and I hope that it does continue on to bring some light into some of the issues that are affecting indigenous people.

Cindy: So, I'd like to circle back on some of your comments regarding outreach by the firm and, as we've discussed, the heavy lifting you've done to help the firm and colleagues like myself progress in our own reconciliation learning at work. So we know that indigenous folks are not very well represented in law, yet, and that obviously includes representation in big law. Just to give our listeners a sense of numbers, in 2017 543 lawyers in Ontario self-identified as indigenous in the Law Society of Ontario's statistical snapshot of lawyers, out of a total number of 43,660. First I want to recognize that this obligation to educate, or requests to educate, can be a heavy burden and I really want to thank you for taking the time to speak to us and educate us today. I'd also like to ask you about the experience of being an indigenous lawyer, in this moment, and the pressures and maybe opportunities that come with being asked to represent your backgrounds at work and to educate and help the rest of us progress. Do you ever struggle with this and does being a relatively junior associate factor into the picture at all for you?

Alyssa: I think that as an indigenous lawyer, in my practice of what I do right now, is primarily working with indigenous clients. So I feel privileged to be able to work for indigenous people. Given my background, I'm an Inuit and Cree indigenous person, and there's something that feels like home for me when I work with these clients. The other part of me is that I sometimes question, today, as a junior associate is how did I even get involved with indigenous law? Part of it is, or maybe solely, working within indigenous law and part of me, what I like to do, is challenge students, law students or indigenous articling students to really broaden their expertise. For me, yes, I do love practicing within indigenous law but I also have been exploring other areas. The reason why is because I found more recently that within law school, I think because the fact that we've had to educate law students, we've had to educate professionals, we've had to educate professors, we've had to educate the staff, that it's kind of been pushed on me as an indigenous person to practice within indigenous law. So I think part of me is starting to explore, as a junior associate, some other smaller areas of law that are not indigenous law. Indigenous law typically includes indigenous rights and title to land, among others, but I think that indigenous people, as a whole, are just regular clients. I think that that is something that I've started to explore in my practice and even within the firm we have an indigenous law group and many of them are not indigenous. I think that for me that's the struggle as an indigenous person who was going into this profession is feeling the need and the pressure to always just only do indigenous law. I think given my background within advocacy and other areas its just felt natural, to a certain degree, but what I always recommend is to find what is right for someone without feeling the need to be pressured to do it, and that's something that I've always felt worked for me, and I think that part of my, and as a junior associate, you start to figure out at least a couple of years in your practice where you really feel comfortable. That's just something that I've done, and I don't have all the answers, but that's just something that I've done and part of it is that I do encourage professionals and law societies to really, I guess really look at these numbers, concrete, and why don't we have indigenous lawyers within our profession. The extent of lawyers that I think we need, whether it's not just an indigenous law practice in indigenous law, but we do have a significant amount of indigenous. Whether that's in corporate, in tax, in trust, we service these clients and they are, I think, a pretty large clientele within our firm, if not the largest in Canada. I think that we do have an obligation as professionals, especially within the firm, to do more outreach in terms of fostering that opportunity for indigenous students, indigenous professionals. Not even that. Whether it's our support staff, whether it's our students or articling students, I think that we do have an obligation for that and I think, really, this Reconciliation Action Plan does start to do that, for sure.

Roberto: There's always been tension between the need for allies to listen but also to amplify in a represented voice and try to not leave the work, in this case of anti-racism, to be done by the individuals from those under-represented communities. What's your experience been in navigating this tension in your work supporting indigenous communities and do you have advice to offer for people trying to strike that balance? A message for your allies.

Alyssa: I think within my work experience, kind of going off of what we just mentioned in terms of the number of indigenous people within the Law Society of Ontario, if indigenous folks were to only do that work it would be a huge burden. So for me, realistically, we do need allies and I am someone who does encourage that and support that. Indigenous people I think are relationship people and I think that that is something that needs to be built in this type of work. The other piece is to also keep this space open for indigenous people at all levels, including ... level. I think that that is applicable, not just within this type of work, but within any kind of firm, any kind of organization, any type of decision making table, whether it's with our client, indigenous people need to be given the decision making opportunity. I think that, yes, I do like to work with allies. I think that they are important and I think that if I were to give any kind of piece of advice, in terms of striking the balance, one thing I tend to mention is to not take things personally for people who are allies and who are working with indigenous people on this, is that it's not a personal situation. It's understanding the history of indigenous, or diverse individuals, who are doing this work and that the relationship and building that relationship is key, for me. Understanding that it is not personal and my piece of advice is further to tell all in this space to have their voice heard. I think that's really, really big and to not overstep or take over the room.

Cindy:  I can ask a follow up question on advice for allies. Sometimes we hear people say that one of the barriers to speaking out, or taking action, is a fear of doing or saying the quote/unquote wrong thing. Do you have any advice for allies or allies to be, future allies, for people with that kind of concern?

Alyssa: Yeah, I think when I'm involved in these conversations I really try to, as an indigenous person, just let the conversation or let it be known that it is okay to make mistakes. I think it is okay to say the wrong thing. I think what's more important though are for allies and for others to, like I mentioned, not take things personal if someone does acknowledge that it is wrong or that it is a mistake of what they said. But to be open to hearing that. I think that one thing is to be wrong or to scared to say something wrong but it's another thing to get defensive when someone calls you out on it. I think that just saying, "Okay. Thank you for calling me out. Can you explain this further? Can you explain why it's wrong?" Having that second thought I think is really, really, important and that's where I think a lot of the anti-racism conversation goes is that people get defensive if they're wrong. If you're going to be open to this idea you need to really, really put your guard down and to let the space be open.

Roberto: So let's talk about action. Do you have a call to action for our listeners?

Alyssa: I think the biggest one I always thing about is educating yourself. I know that's hard. We're all super busy. For me, sometimes, it is even hard to read through a chapter of our book club but you know what? There's different ways to educate yourself. I think there's different platforms to educate yourself. Whether you prefer audio or a podcast, or whether it's by video or by a movie or film, or whether it's reading, there's so many different opportunities out there these days. Especially given this last year and the last couple of years, at least, there's so much material out there on indigenous issues. Not even issues. Indigenous culture. Indigenous traditions. So I think that, for me, educating yourself on the history is key. The most, I guess, in your face example that I can always think about is, when someone is walking downtown Ottawa and seeing an indigenous homeless person struggling, I think that part of your stigma and part of our initial thoughts are dismantled when you know the true history of that. You know, our history of indigenous people. You don't have that stigma. You don't have that initial stereotype of them. So educating yourself and understanding our history may be will have an impact on your day to day reactions. So just a simple thing like that, in my opinion, really goes a long way. I think the next thing is, like I mentioned, it's hard for me as an indigenous person at times within the firm, because I come from a family where my parents were both residential school survivors. My father was a day school survivor. Both my parents speak their language, their native tongue, ... and Cree. I don't speak either. So for me I think that what I struggle with, as an junior indigenous associate is, seeing the fact that I've had to go through, for some reason, go through law school and get the right education but I lost my indigenous culture, a lot of it. I think that finding a balance is always hard and so I think, in my opinion, part of the action that needs to be had is how do we support students in the legal profession without losing the indigenous culture at the same time? That is a really hard, and very specific, but for me I always think back at who can take my spot from Nunavut? Who speaks their language? Who can speak to the client in their native tongue, but also understands the law, at a big firm and can get themselves here? So I always try to find that balance and so for me, part of an action which is in our Action Plan, is to do active recruiting for indigenous staff, lawyers, articling students and law students at our firm. But I think another step further than that is, for me as a firm line, is to really get down to community. That's hard for me to do at a big firm.

Cindy: Thanks for that really thoughtful answer. You already gave us a really good example of trying to be open and humble if called our, or called in, for saying something wrong. Then we also know that big changes often start in very small increments and it takes a lot of repetition of small things to develop a good habit. So I'm curious what daily habit would you challenge our listeners to form in service of dismantling systemic racism in Canada?

Alyssa: I think one piece is to read or to watch, as an example, read a couple pages of something. You read how many pages of documents a day probably with your practice so take a break and maybe read something that warms your heart, for a second, and take a couple pages and just read. The Inquiry, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry. Read two pages of that. Something like that. Maybe the Truth and Reconciliation, Calls to Action. Those are available online as well. One part of both of those reports state that, essentially, they're calling all Canadians to read both of those. Not to say, it's something that you can do at home, it's something you can do while you're on a walk, while you're in your car. It is something that you can do. The other thing, like I mentioned, is our videos and a lot of people are on social media. There are indigenous advocates, whether it's Twitter, whether it's Instagram, Facebook, there are people that do talk about these issues on a regular basis and so maybe looking at how to get actively involved in the community through those means. Having them on your radar on a daily basis is something that you're allowing that information into your brain on a regular basis. Right? Whether it's through reading, whether it's social media, allowing some type of information to come into your life on a regular basis and figuring that out, I think is an important piece.

Cindy: Thanks, Alyssa. I definitely found that making a conscious effort to diversify my feed has really changed the quality and the types of information that I come across on a daily basis, when I'm doing my scrolling, some days the doom scrolling, so absolutely. That's a great tip.

Alyssa: Yeah. I mean right now you're thinking about do I watch CNN or do I the US Election or do you talk about something or review or look at something more relevant in your life, in my opinion. My opinion is one thought.

Cindy:  Alyssa, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today.

Alyssa: Thank you for having me, so much.

Roberto: Thank you so much. For our listeners if you ever have any questions, comments or ideas for topics and guests, please look us up at gowlingwlg.com/diversonomics and get in touch with us. We'd love to hear from you. Also make sure to check out our show notes.  Last, but not least, you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify so you don't miss an episode and while you're at it leave us a review. Hopefully a positive one. You can follow me on Twitter @robaburto and I know that from a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Book Club, County of Carleton Law Association website has that, and it's a free sign up and there are monthly events. Alyssa, anything else you want to plug in social media or anything?

Alyssa: No. I've taken myself off of social media.

Roberto: How nice. Wise.

Alyssa: Yeah. Yeah. But I would just add, as you mentioned Roberto, in terms of I always encourage people to enjoin the book club. It's a good group of individuals. I don't know more than half of them at all but I think that it's a warm group that welcomes everyone to join.

Cindy: I'm not quite as wise as Alyssa and I am still on social media. So you can follow me on Twitter @ckoutweets.

Roberto: Diversonomics was presented to you by Gowling WLG, produced by Rachael Reid who is always keeping strong, keeping us looking good, and edited by Matt Rideout. Thanks for listening.

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