Two sides of allyship

Houlahan Chayer (left) and Combs (right) share a Métis sash.
Houlahan Chayer (left) and Combs (right) share a Métis sash.

Allyship more than a checklist

From promises of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, to the Truth and Reconciliation report, Indigenous people have been in the news a lot lately.

It’s one of those things where the more you pay attention, the more you realize how much work needs to be done. As settler Canadians, we have a responsibility to pay attention, but how exactly you go about being an ally to Indigenous people can be tricky to determine. 

I’m non-Indigenous, also known as a settler, who comes from almost 400 years of colonial legacy. I go to school here at Queen’s just like many of you, on the traditional territory of both the Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee people. I’m trying to learn to be a good guest on the traditional territories of Indigenous nations, but I often struggle with how to be an ally.

A common first experience when you start to really examine Canada’s colonial past is guilt. Huge, tremendous guilt. 

My French-Canadian background means that my ancestors systematically oppressed Indigenous people in Canada. Even if that isn’t something I’ve done personally, I benefit from it, while Indigenous people continue to face marginalization.

But wallowing in that guilt isn’t especially helpful to anyone. Acknowledging our history is certainly important, but it requires action.

The first thing we need to do is more listening. Listen. Show up to events where Indigenous people are discussing their experiences. Read the news. Learn about the Indigenous people who live where you do. Ask questions if you don’t understand something — but do so politely, and understand that no one owes you their time to explain. 

Also be aware of how much space you take up, in both physical space if you’re at an Indigenous event or in conversation. Make sure you aren’t unknowingly dominating the dicussion.  

It’s very easy to fall into “checklist syndrome” — thinking that by simply including a few tokenisms in our lives, we can call ourselves allies to Indigenous people: Write an article in The Journal about allyship starting with a land acknowledgement, include Indigenous people in your discussion, and end with the Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee words for thank you and BOOM you think you’ve reached allyship. 

But true allyship is striving for decolonization — questioning and breaking down normative and formal power structures — which needs to permeate your life. It can’t be reduced to a list. 

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Henry Lickers from the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne speak about reconciliation. He explained how the Haudenosaunee language is largely verb based. 

His example was treaties using the word “peace”. In English, we tend to think of peace as a passive state, but the Haudenosaunee understanding of peace isn’t as an outcome, but as an action — you practice peace daily. 

The same concept should be applied to allyship. You aren’t an ally, you’re constantly striving to be an ally.  

Miigwetch. Niá:wen.

Kathleen Houlahan Chayer is a fourth-year Environmental Science major.

More to Aboriginal peoples than you think

Allyship has the potential to be a very important and useful tool in the struggle against colonialism. However, modern allyship has a tendency to become flawed.

Aboriginal peoples across this land have been grateful for support and understanding from our settler friends and allies. Overcoming the discomfort of having privilege while standing in solidarity is difficult, and many of us appreciate the will to remain an active ally despite this.

However, I’ve found that many who hope to act as allies have the false impression that Aboriginal people are a single, monolithic entity. The most important component to being an effective ally is an awareness that Aboriginal peoples are diverse and have diverse histories, cultures and needs.

Settlers have occupied these vast “Canadian” lands for more than 400 years. The nature of relationships between settler groups and the Indigenous have varied over time and between geographic regions, and thus the Indigenous experience has been and continues to be inconsistent. 

We’ve seen the intermixing of settlers and Indigenous peoples, immigrants and Indigenous peoples and historically separated Indigenous groups. 

Modern Aboriginal peoples have no catch-all physical traits and it’s counterproductive for settlers to assume this is the case. 

Aboriginal people can’t be defined by copper skin or dark features; we’re as diverse as settlers are. It’s important for allies to understand this, so that our histories aren’t taken from us just because we don’t fit a predetermined notion of what we should look like. 

Some of us live on reserves, some of us live in the city. Some of us have been raised to understand our ancestors’ ways and, for many reasons, some of us have no understanding beyond modern stereotypes. 

Classifying Aboriginal people as a monolithic group takes away our stories, our struggles and our intentions. 

If allyship is to be effective, it will have to consider the diverse struggles and even privileges that varying Aboriginal individuals and groups have. It’s important to understand that in many cases, this is something to work toward and isn’t necessarily possible to ever fully comprehend. 

There’s no one way to be an ally, and even understanding Aboriginal peoples are diverse doesn’t earn anyone a gold star in allyship. If we truly understand that Aboriginal peoples are diverse, we must be aware that some Aboriginal persons don’t wish to share allyship with settlers — and this must be respected. 

Appreciate that because of the diverse nature of Aboriginal peoples there’s no one way to achieve perfect allyship. However, it’s still important to make the effort. 

In a country defined by historic and contemporary colonialism, truly listening to the words of our Aboriginal friends and neighbours and supporting them in their pursuits is key to dismantling Indigenous oppression. With modern climate and social pressures, remaining allies to Aboriginal peoples and moving toward a more sustainable and equitable world requires all of our best efforts. 


Leah Combs is a fourth-year Environmental Science major with vibrant Métis heritage, hailing from Kamloops, British Columbia.

If you’re hoping to work on your listening skills and allyship in practice, Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre is holding a teach-in this Monday, Nov. 23, from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Robert Sutherland Room (in the JDUC) on the subject of Solidarity and Alliance with Indigenous Peoples as a part of an event called Building Good Relations. 


Aboriginal issues, Allyship, Two perspectives

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