Words are important…they can wound or they can heal

by Richard Delaney, President, Delaney, the engagement people

Dear Professional Engagement Colleagues: Canada’s history and current relationship with Indigenous Peoples is a sad tale. It is just about the only thing for which I am not proud to be a Canadian.

Cultural genocide combined with colonialism continues today. The relationship between Indigenous Peoples and governments in Canada has been one of oppressor and victim. The results of this oppression include social disenfranchisement and bigotry. It will take many generations to right these wrongs as Indigenous Peoples continue to advocate for justice. Over recent years, some Supreme Court decisions have started to right historical injustices. As engagement professionals, let’s join the movement to right these historic wrongs and to be part of acknowledging these truths. As a group, lets work towards reconciliation.

Here is a small example of how we can do that from an engagement perspective. The word “stakeholder” is typically used in engagement to communicate that an individual, group or organization will be impacted (positively or negatively) by a pending decision. This means they hold a stake in the outcome of the decision, hence they are a “stakeholder”. This word has different meanings to different people.

Its origins date back to the late 17th and early 18th century when several European nations set out to colonize the “new world”. During the colonization of the lands we now refer to as Canada and occupied mostly by settlers, the colonial powers in Britain and France were seeking to extract resources and eliminate the sovereign people of this land. The purpose was to establish a means of trade between themselves and the rest of the world. Despite the sovereign governments of Indigenous Peoples, colonial governments of the day set up land registry offices to encourage resource extraction on lands occupied and governed by Indigenous Peoples.

Settlers were encouraged to extract timber, minerals, water and fur and to establish farms by marking out the territory they intended to occupy, with a series of stakes. They located these stakes on a map and then took the map to the land registry office to register their claim. That claim – referred to as a “stake” – once approved by the colonial government, gave settlers exclusive use to the lands. This process of taking something without permission or compensation would otherwise be referred to as theft – the politically correct language is “colonialism”. Has an official ring to it I suppose. At the end of the day, however, it was the theft of lands and resources that had sustained Indigenous Peoples for millennia. To add insult to injury, Indigenous Peoples were excluded from the benefits of these developments and thousands were killed defending their ancestral homelands.

In more recent times, Indigenous Peoples have fought in the courts and won almost every case they have brought against Canadian governments for not honouring the treaties signed well over a 150 years ago that protect their sovereignty, lands and rights. The cultural genocide perpetrated by government was to erode the ability of Indigenous Peoples to defend these rights. In recent history, the Supreme Court and the federal Government of Canada have, by their definitions and decisions within the Canadian Constitution, acknowledged Indigenous Peoples and recognized they have a government-to-government relationship in Canada. As such, they are not stakeholders; they are the sovereign people of these lands; they are rights and title holders, and (supposed to be) partners in decision making.

To acknowledge and participate in a small way the righting of this long-standing injustice, and as part of my reconciliation efforts, I am deleting the word “stakeholder” from my vocabulary. In its place, I am using “interested and affected parties”, or simply “the parties” to the decision.  When referring specifically to Indigenous Peoples or a group of parties that include Indigenous Peoples, I would say the parties and Indigenous Peoples. Sure, it’s a little thing…but they add up over time.

Words matter. The truth matters. I want my words to heal, not wound.