Why Communicators must commit to Truth and Reconciliation

On September 29th, on the eve of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, CPRS Vancouver was honoured to host an event featuring  Alison Tedford Seaweed—an impact storyteller, author, consultant, member of the Kwakiutl First Nation of ‘Nakwaxda’xw descent, and one of the key voices in Indigenous Relations in B.C. In the spirit of Truth and Reconciliation, we cannot introduce Tedford Seaweed without introducing her family and ancestors. Tedford Seaweed comes from a lineage of artists and entrepreneurs, and many of her family members are active in language and culture revitalization and education.

“Education got us into this mess, and education will get us out.”
—The Honourable Murray Sinclair

Ultimately, it is everyone’s non-negotiable responsibility to improve relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The corporate sector has a big role to play when it comes to reconciliation in Canada. 

Tedford Seaweed’s presentation covered how professional communicators can become better partners with Indigenous communities and organizations, and included best practices, and concrete actions for designing a vision of inclusion; strategizing how to get there; finding the right words to address difficult topics.

However, there is still much to learn about building and maintaining effective Indigenous Relations Strategies. 

Indigenous Peoples & Communications Issues

Unfortunately, according to Tedford Seaweed, the way Indigenous peoples are portrayed in the media depends largely on who holds the pen.

Tedford Seaweed talked about three specific relatives, Willie Seaweed, Joe Seaweed, and Henry Seaweed, all of whom have a significant history of involvement with art and cultural resistance.  

“Media coverage of Willie Seaweed includes both racist and terrible poetry (in his time) but also rich detailed features that describe his art and cultural legacy (after his passing),” she said.

While perceptions have shifted overtime, some themes emerged that are still relevant to communicators: 
Representation: Historically (and even today), there remains a lack of ethical representation in the media, and Indigenous Peoples do not see themselves represented on screen, in literature, and in popular culture in a way that feels fair, balanced, or understanding.

Misrepresentation: Power imbalances have meant that “the stories that have impacted our people have at times been misrepresented, sanitized or, on the other side of the spectrum, sensationalized into what amounts to ‘trauma porn.’ Indigenous people are also less frequently positioned as experts in the media which shapes how people see us,” said Tedford Seaweed.

Exclusion: Fundamentally, barriers to education create barriers to industry access.  For Indigenous entrepreneurs, funding programs often fail to consider the realities of the lives of Indigenous people, creating barriers to being funded equally with non-Indigenous businesses. 

“There is also a statistically lower access to credit, and that’s compounded by collateral requirements that don’t consider the structure of on-reserve housing,” explained Tedford Seaweed. 

Truth and Reconciliation: Corporate Sector Responsibilities

In 2015, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its report with 94 recommendations. The TRC engaged Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation. 

The report, released in 2015, made a ‘Call to Action’ to specific audiences. 

Recommendation #92 asks the corporate sector and their leadership to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The commission calls for meaningful consultation long-term sustainable opportunities from economic development projects as well as education and training for managers on the history of Indigenous people, intercultural competency, human rights and anti-racism.

Tedford Seaweed stressed that communications professionals need to ensure meaningful consultation and consent, give access to opportunities for Indigenous people and communities, and educate and train themselves and their teams to create environments where Indigenous people can thrive. 

Best practices for working with Indigenous speakers and consultants:

  • Ethical Indigenous relations should not be transactional. It’s not a checkbox in a project plan. If it’s going to involve building relationships, you must be willing to maintain them over time. 

  • Ensure there is flexibility in your processes, and your relationship-building demonstrates reciprocity.  

  • Tedford Seaweed also highlighted the importance of cultural safety and a strengths-based storytelling approach.

  • Be clear about your “ask.”  Do not surprise people with additional last-minute asks or changes, particularly if you are inviting them to speak about a difficult or traumatic topic. 

  • Compensate people for their time. 

  • Be proactive about determining boundaries for Q & A sessions. 

  • Be mindful of the gravity of the topics you are asking people to speak to.

Educate yourself, but partner with experts for the heavy lifting

Overall, Tedford Seaweed emphasized that we must spend time educating ourselves if we want to develop effective Indigenous Relations Strategies. 

However, communicators should not try to go it alone when it comes to Indigenous Relations planning.  Partner with Indigenous firms and engage Indigenous people. Inclusion flows from Reconciliation, but it’s about doing the right thing in response to genocide. 

“Inclusion, in this case, is not just a human resources exercise but a human response to something horrific. Keeping all this in context is key,” said Tedford Seaweed.

In essence, there are no shortcuts when it comes to truth and reconciliation. We must go the distance and keep these principles at the forefront of our professional practice.

Additional resources

About the Author

I have worked for over seventeen years as a technical writer, marketing communications writer, editor, and team lead for both start-ups and Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft Corporation and Business Objects SAP. As a user education professional, technical writer, or marketing writer, I was a valued member of a cross-functional team dedicated to producing quality software, providing a positive customer experience, driving sales, and building community.