A path of learning, recognizing and honouring truth and reconciliation

It was the release of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission reports that nudged our organization to read, reflect and better understand how we could both as an organization and network learn our country’s history and advance truth and reconciliation. We had been intentional about recruiting someone to serve on our board of directors from the Indigenous community as we came to realize that our board’s diversity program didn’t take the Indigenous community, the first peoples of this land, into account. We had started to incorporate a land acknowledgement at the outset of our workshops and events; however, we stumbled and didn’t get things quite right and required some education and guidance.

As an organization we are on a journey to listen deeply, engage and be in true dialogue. Because we are uneasy as a sector about misstepping there can be a chill in engaging with truth and reconciliation. We need to create courageous spaces as there is an urgency to this issue and ask ourselves what are we doing each day towards reconciliation. We need to learn from a place of understanding and not place ourselves as hero or saviour. There is an immense amount of work as settlers, immigrants and as a community as a whole that we need to do related to truth and reconciliation and we cannot expect Indigenous people to continually provide emotional labour by educating us, or holding us and our healing.


It starts with learning and understanding the full history, stories and our shared responsibility as settlers. We need to acknowledge the harm and understand the intergenerational trauma and impact of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and other atrocities towards Indigenous peoples by both settlers and the government. 

Many of Pillar’s staff have participated in the Indigneous Cultural Safety program from Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre, an interactive and facilitated online training program that addresses the need for increased Indigenous cultural safety within the system by bringing to light the service provider bias and the legacies of colonization that continue to negatively affect service accessibility and health outcomes for Indigenous people.

Further, our staff team have participated in programs and learning opportunities that have included an Indigenous learning arc including Banff Centre’s Social Innovation Residency and Foundations of Purpose Program; Social Capital Partners (SOCAP18);  Ontario Nonprofit Network’s Nonprofit Driven Conference; Imagine Canada Sector Champion Roundtable; Resilient Cities Conference; London Environmental Network’s River Talk Conference and EconoUS.

For our network, board and staff we participated in and held sessions of the KAIROS Blanket Exercise. The exercise is an interactive learning experience that teaches the Indigenous rights history, increases our awareness of Canadian history as it pertains to Indigenous peoples’, promotes empathy, and inspires action towards reconciliation. We first hosted it as a public session at Innovation Works, a shared space for social innovation, and it sold out. Since it evoked much emotion and reflection, we decided to continue running the sessions. The second time we hosted it at an Indigenous based partner Atlohsa Family Healing Services, and this was an example of how connecting and going to an Indigenous organization was a more impactful experience. 

Furthermore, we have been hosting decolonization workshops, Indigenous sharing circles and a local Indigenous learning series for the nonprofit sector so that other community members can explore Canada’s shared history, stories and work towards solutions on decolonization to build stronger, more positive relations with Indigenous people.

Recognizing and honouring

Nokee Kwe’s +Positive Voice program supporting urban Indigenous women in creating positive narratives and community connections was the recipient of the 2017 Community Innovation Award for the Pillar Community Innovation Awards. Former Program Coordinator, Summer Thorp remarked, “The wonderful thing about being nominated and receiving the award is the sense of ownership that the Indigenous women in our program feel; this truly is their award. Having their bravery, resilience, and accomplishments recognized by the community on such a large scale is a validating experience that they proudly share when talking about their achievements.”

Like many organizations, Pillar adopted the practice of sharing a land acknowledgement before workshops and events. By making a land acknowledgement you are taking part in an act of reconciliation, honouring the land and Indigenous presence. We started with a fairly brief version and stumbled over the pronunciation. We had an Indigenous colleague come and provide some training in the pronunciation.

All Canadians must now demonstrate the same level of courage and determination, as we commit to an ongoing process of reconciliation. By establishing a new and respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians, we will restore what must be restored, repair what must be repaired, and return what must be returned.

Over time we were hearing that land acknowledgments were feeling like a check box and they should be customized and aligned with the intent of the event and we started to personalize each one to the person who was delivering it and the event we were hosting. Still this did not feel right and we met with various Indigeneous colleagues to seek their guidance. Today, we have an elder open with a welcoming or prayer and then we have a settler do the land acknowledgement and share their role in truth and reconciliation. A welcome and land acknowledgement is only a start and organizations need to understand there is much more we can action together.

Pillar encourages and supports those who wish to participate in smudging ceremonies. Smudging is the burning of sacred medicines and is meant to purify, protect, ground and harmonize people and spiritual spaces and is a common practice among Indigenous people. We have had concerns related to allergies and location in our space and therefore we created a smudging policy that states that it is a welcome practice at Innovation Works and it includes notifying our co-tenants of timing and location. Pillar recognizes the spiritual and cultural importance of Indigenous practices, and is committed to creating an inclusive environment for its co-tenants and the wider community.

Partnering and supporting

Through our social enterprise and nonprofit supports we have worked alongside Yotuni that provides mentoring, guidance, cultural education teachings, workshops and healing circles to provide the tools and life skills for Indigenous children and youth to live positive and healthier lives. Further, Kuwahs^nahawi is a social enterprise that provides consulting, educating and facilitating using Indigenous practices, specializing in teaching truth of Indigenous People and history, and ways we can work together towards healing and reconciliation that Pillar has engaged for several sharing circles and workshops. We have also supported Atlohsa Gifts that sells authentic products from Indigenous artisans throughout Canada to help fund the services of Atlohsa Family Healing Services. We have offered incubation, business planning and market connections. Further, Pillar as part of its social procurement sources the services of these two social enterprises for consulting, workshops and gifts for our speakers and staff. 

When developing new partnerships, it is essential to engage Indigenous-led organizations as partners in the development of the project. When we were seeking interest in having Indigenous leaders on nonprofit boards we were reminded that we had made an assumption that they would want to sit on boards. A group of Indigenous leaders have been coming together to explore about what leadership means to them and how that dovetails with nonprofit governance. It had surfaced questions about how nonprofit boards are colonized and whether they are inclusive. Most recently, we have built a partnership at the outset of a new program with Centre for Social Innovation and Nordik Institute for a new provincial program, Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network funded by the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. This new program is focused on supporting women social entrepreneurs and is based on inclusive design and Indigenous approaches to venture creation.

Through learning, recognizing and honouring our history, Indigenous people and their traditions we are witness to the resilience, courage and determination they have and continue to demonstrate daily. 

Ideas for incorporating work with the Indigenous community into your organization
  1. Learn and acknowledge history – Learn the history and acknowledge the harm and atrocities in our shared Canadian history including reading the Truth & Reconciliation reports
  2. Recognize the urgency – There is an urgency to Truth & Reconciliation because hard and atrocities are still happening today
  3. Make incremental progress – Ask yourself how you can make progress towards  reconciliation each day in  your organization
  4. Follow not lead – Go to Indigenous related organizations, events and training rather than asking Indigenous people to come to you on boards, committees and events
  5. Recognize power dynamics – Acknowledge power in all interactions and be prepared to give up power
  6. Build relationships and trust – This is a critical step before jumping to requesting a partnership
  7. Consider how to redistribute wealth – Look at strategies such as a granting and investments and have the Indigenous community as a priority and focus
  8. Have the right partners – Pause and ask who is missing in the room and be intentional
  9. Create a social procurement policy – Consider purchasing from Indigenous-based social enterprises and business
  10. Go beyond land acknowledgements – If doing them have a welcome from an Indigenous elder and land acknowledgement by a settler to make it meaningful
  11. Explore Indigenous cultural traditions – Learn about the 7 Sacred Teachings and other Indigenous cultural traditions including the medicine wheel and smudging from a place of learning without appropriating 
  12. Create courageous, safe and open spaces – Make sure your organization and community is inclusive of Indigenous people and all people