Transcript: Sitting by the Fire, Episode 4: Indigenous Values and Teachings - A Lesson for All in Leadership
Annie Leblond, Indigenous Learning, Canada School of Public Service: This is episode 4 of Sitting by the Fire, a podcast brought to you by the Canada School of Public Service.
Today's episode is entitled "Indigenous Values and Teachings – A Lesson for All in Leadership"
Most of federal public servants know Michael Wernick as the former Clerk of the Privy Council. And yet, his 38-year career in the public service includes vast collaboration work with Indigenous Elders and leaders across the country.
Elder Commanda is Anishinabe from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation. She is also a professor at the University of Ottawa.
It's impossible to give justice to both of our guests' track records in a few seconds, therefore I encourage you to read their bios on our website.
You will then understand why, when two individuals of such calibre sit together, anything can happen.
Using what is now known as Beyond 2020 as a starting point, our guests discuss the utmost importance of values like respect and equality, the principles of the talking circle applied to leadership, the underestimated skill of leading and chairing good discussions, the spiritual meaning of humility and the value of this Grandfather Teaching for leaders, the leadership of youth, and so much more.
Their conversation focuses on the Inclusion pillar of Beyond 2020, a very timely topic as systemic discrimination is at the forefront of many conversations these days.
Before we start, I want to thank my colleague Benoit Trottier for facilitating this conversation.
Claudette Commanda, Anishinabe Elder from Kitigan Zibi: Seeing that I'm participating in this interview on the territory of my people, I want to begin by saying [Speaking in anishinabemowin – Kwe Kakina...]. I greet everyone with an open heart and kindness in my voice. Welcome. Welcome everyone to the territory of my ancestors. I bring you greetings on behalf of my nation, on behalf of my family. In my greetings and welcome to everyone, there's also a prayer for good health, a prayer for safety, and that we continue to have a very positive outlook. We will get through this COVID pandemic. We're all in this together. It's been said quite often: We are in this together. Indeed we are. What's important is that we continue to have a positive outlook in knowing that we're all good, good health and safety. [Speaking in anishinabemowin Kitchi migwetch...]. I say, "thank you" for being here today. Thank you for having me as part of this interview. Thank you.
Benoit Trottier, Indigenous Learning, Canada School of Public Service: Thank you so much for those words of wisdom, Elder Commanda. It's an honour for us to have you today. Mr. Wernick, would you like to say a few words?
Michael Wernick, former Clerk of the Privy Council: I just want to acknowledge also that I'm participating in the conversation on the other side of the river, on Algonquin traditional territory, and greet Elder Commanda, whom I've known for many years, and thank her for starting our conversation off in the right way in this new technological format.
Benoit Trottier: Mr. Wernick, from the get-go I'd like to hear a little bit about the vision for Beyond 2020. How were these pillars of more agile and more inclusive, better equipped—how were they created and what's the thought behind them?
Michael Wernick: I would roll back the tape a little bit. The public service as an institution serving governments has been around for many, many generations. Every generation of leadership, people that get into positions of some responsibility, start to think more and more about their role as stewards of that institution. Whatever role you play, you want to leave the team and the organization, the institution that you work in, in better shape when you leave it than when you got it. You want to do what you can to make sure that it's equipped and ready to take on challenges in the future.
Every generation of public service leadership has led some sort of exercise, thinking about the public service itself, and how to make it better and how to pass it on to the future. I've participated in a few ways of that and different roles. Some people will remember the Blueprint 2020 exercise led by one of my predecessors as Clerk. That was started way back in 2012 and 2013, coming out of a wave of some pretty tight budget cuts that came from the DRAP (Deficit Reduction Action Plan) exercise. We went through a reflection about where we wanted the public service to go in the future. 2020 seemed a long way off at the time, and that was taken up as a kind of a brand for the exercise, and there was a work plan and efforts and engagement that went with that.
By the time I was in the Clerk position, we're rolling around to 2017 and 2018, and 2020 is coming up very fast on the calendar. We wanted to move beyond the 2020 deadline, and had a long conversation about how to go about that. We decided that what we needed to do was leave it quite open-ended and engage public servants in shaping their vision of their own institution, their own sense of their needs and their aspirations and their values. So we went through about two years of very intense engagement across many, many circles of conversation, more formal interest groups, like the unions and various employee groups, youth groups; different communities of public servants participated in all sorts of aspects.
Then, with the help of a very capable team at the Privy Council Office, we tried to distill it down to a fairly compact set of themes around which we could organize work and effort to move into the future, and we landed on Beyond 2020 as a sense of well, "We know we're going beyond 2020." We didn't want to be overly prescriptive about what that meant. Most of the things that public servants told us that they needed or wanted to be a better public service did fall remarkably easily into these themes about "agile" and "inclusive" and "equipped." They lend themselves to different organizations and different people around the public service, developing agendas and work plans to move forward. It could be relevant to a small work unit, it could be relevant to a whole department, or it could be relevant to the whole public service.
Benoit Trottier: Elder Commanda, how do you think the talking circle can inspire leaders from the public service in becoming more inclusive leaders, and being better at empowering their employees?
Claudette Commanda: Very good question. When you're looking at the principles of a talking circle, and indeed to talk in circle is quite a fundamental element of a First Nation, it's more than in our culture, it's part of our way of life. It's part of how we do our business. It's about bringing people together to find solutions or even just to be that sounding board for someone who is hurting. Just to draw on the principles of the talking circle, what's really important is respect. Respect. It's an opportunity to be heard. We have that responsibility to listen. Listening is very important. We have a responsibility to understand. We have that responsibility to everyone who is in that circle, each and every one of us that's in that talking circle. We have that collective responsibility, but we also have that responsibility to ourselves, as well as a responsibility to others. In that circle, everyone is equal. There are no titles. That circle represents life. It also represents living. It's a collective.
Our talking circles are held for the purpose of finding a solution. Offering solutions; what are the best approaches to resolve a situation or to build progress? And not one voice determines the solution or idea or the process. The goal of our talking circle is to leave with a good mind. Offering compassionate care. Listening is the key. Whatever the issue is, or for whatever reason why we come together in the talking circle. We must start in a good way and we must end with a positive outlook. It's important that we show respect to one another. It's important that we listen to one another. It's important that our feelings of honesty and truth are part of that talking circle. What my elders have always said is that the most important of all is respect. Respect for the person that is speaking, and respect for the people that are in that circle. It's an opportunity for every voice to be heard. We do not force anyone to speak. However, we certainly do provide opportunities, or a time if an individual does want to speak. We do employ the seven Grandfather Teachings in our talking circles as well. It's quite a positive approach.
We use our talking circles in various forums. Even in our political discussions, we use talking circles. When I sat as a band counsellor for my community, we had some deep issues that we had to discuss because we're leaders of our community, and we have to provide for our people. We have that responsibility to uphold to the people that we serve. Our decisions would come by way of consensus. But importantly, before you come to a consensus, you have that talking circle, and every member at that table or that circle—and as a matter of fact, we held our, our meetings in a circle, our table was a circle. Every person at that table had an opportunity to voice his or her concern, his or her expressions, his or her solution. Again, it's about respecting and it's about being equal.
Benoit Trottier: Mr. Wernick, what would you answer public servants, or leaders in particular, that would come up telling you, "We don't have time to talk it over. We don't have time to create a circle and gather information around and create consensus"?
Michael Wernick: Well, I don't think you would find that's a style of leadership which is very common anymore. Governments in general, all kinds of governments, have learned that they can't just come up with decisions behind closed doors, and then send them out into the public with a press release and an announcement and then expect that they're going to go well. Governments have learned the art of engaging people that are affected by their decisions. There's been a lot of progress on engagement, consultation, communication, deliberative processes that build towards the decisions that are made by the people that we give the power to make those decisions, or ministers, or members of Parliament and the people with some authority. That style of government has been around for a long time now. Within, I guess what you would call management, the idea of sort of the "big boss CEO" issuing edicts through messages to employees and expecting them to simply be complied with, that's disappeared by and large in the private sector and in the public sector over the last couple of generations.
The pace of government makes it very hard to find time and space to think and reflect. People have to learn the tools and the sort of approaches to listening. But people in authority—I use the word authority rather than leadership—if you have some decision-making power or some authority within your organization, it doesn't have to be the very top but you have some authority to exercise. One of the things that you have is the ability to convene people. You have the ability to call meetings, to set up staff engagement, to do town halls, "Ask Me Anything" sessions, there are a variety of techniques for that. That's a power which I think people underestimate the use of. You know: the ability to call a meeting and have people show up, and engage on a topic or a conversation, and then listen. Certainly, everything that Elder Commanda talked about, the importance of respectful listening, drawing out different voices, maybe we can explore that in a little more depth. But the person who's really leading creates tone, they create style, they create organizational culture, they walk the talk on values, they create expectations that people want to be like them and emulate them. Or, if they're really bad leaders, people learn from them. You know, "I don't want to be like that person, I'm going to be different when I get a chance to lead." There's a lot that people can do. You have to work at it. You have to try to find the space and the time for that kind of listening and engagement, whether that circle is physical or a Zoom call. I think that's part of leadership in the 21st century.
One of the skills that's also underestimated is the skill of leading and chairing a discussion. Somebody has to be the person who calls the meeting, and usually somebody is going to guide the conversation from its beginning, through the middle, and to the end, and do some kind of wrap-up. A lot of people take that for granted. There's a lot of very mediocre meeting chairing, which wastes a lot of time of people that are there, or allows the conversation to be dominated by a few usual voices. The ability to chair a meeting and get a decision out of it, or some kind of consensus about where to go next, is actually learnable and teachable. I think there's a kind of meeting chairing skill which needs to be worked on—which is relevant to our conversation today—which is to make sure that all of the voices around that table or circle are listened to. There are issues about gender, there are issues about culture, there are issues about generation. There is a tendency in meetings for a few people to dominate or for people to defer too much to the person with power at the table. I think it's worth working on the skills of how to conduct and chair a more circle-like conversation.
Benoit Trottier: If I refer back to the Seven Grandfather Teachings; we've established, Elder Commanda, that applying those teachings could help public servant leaders inspire others. There's something with humility that doesn't necessarily connect with a position of power. People refer to humility as being a position of weakness. What would you have to say about that specific teaching, particularly from a leadership standpoint?
Claudette Commanda: Well, let me explain it this way: My grandfather, the late William Commanda, was a chief, the elected leader of our community, for about 25 years. Then he retired that role to take on his hereditary role. Whether he was that political leader or that spiritual leader, he was a very humble man. Humility. He never, ever put himself first. He'd always put the people first. Humility is not a sign of weakness. It's actually a sign of strength. We have a word in my language, our language, the Algonquin language, ogitchidaa. It comes from the root word ogi. Ogi means "the heart," and we use that word, ogitchidaa, for a leader. That's a proper word to give to somebody who is leading, somebody who represents the people. Because you give of your heart, you give of your life for the people. Humility. You know your strengths and you know your weaknesses, and you are not ashamed or afraid to admit the weaknesses. We're all human. We all learn by trials and tribulations. The teaching of humility as [one of the] Seven Grandfathers, the understanding or the spiritual meaning of humility, what that means is, "Know that you are all equal to everyone else, including nature, no better, no less." Every one of us, we are all a sacred part of Creation. That's humility, to know that. We see it also as [the fact] that there is a higher power, the Creator. We have our Mother Earth and our Sun, and the Moon, and all of that Creation. We are all part of that. As my grandfather and the elders would always say, the only high power, sovereign power, is the Creator. We as human beings, we are all equal and we are part of that sacred Creation.
To go back to humility and how we use that value of humility as leaders: We never put ourselves before anyone. As a matter of fact, it is the people that you serve, you always ensure that you're taking care of the people. When we walk before the people, that's not because of our title, but because you are protecting the people. I've seen my grandfather walk ahead of us, but that was because he had a responsibility to protect the people. Those of us that walked with him. So humility, it's a strength. Absolutely it is. Once you explain it in that philosophical or that spiritual way of the true meaning of humility, people will come to understand that it is not a sign of weakness, but rather, it is a sign of strength. Because true leaders, whether you're a political leader, whether you're a spiritual leader, whatever type of leader you are; a true leader should always be on that foundation of humbleness. And that foundation of humility. Because for indeed, that is where the strength comes from.
Benoit Trottier: Mr. Wernick, I've heard you insist, time and time again, that we were all public servants. Would you like to react based upon what Elder Commanda just said?
Michael Wernick: I certainly agree, and thank Elder Commanda for everything she said. I would just add a few thoughts on the topic of humility. One aspect of it is personal style. When you're in positions of authority, people are always kind of watching and observing you, and they pick up signals, whether they're intended or unintended. I think being more mindful about what you project to other people as you learn is very important. So just your style, your approachability, your friendliness, your civility, makes a big difference in how you carry yourself. The other aspect to it is—and it's related, of course, to some of the other values—humility is admitting you don't know everything, and you don't have all the answers, and that you need to learn and other people can teach you things.
People that often rise into positions of authority are the kind of people that have had positive feedback their whole life. They were good at school, they got good grades, they got into jobs, they got promotions. They basically had a, you know, a ride to the top, which is mostly positive feedback. That tends to give them a bit of a surplus of self-esteem. Sometimes, what you have to learn along the way is, despite all that success, you don't know everything. You're not always the smartest person in the room. You don't have everything that you need to do the job. Having an open mind and an open heart to other people can teach you things and is a really important part of humility. Why it becomes a strength is because it allows you to draw on the experiences and the wisdom of other people in the teams, and in the discussions you're having. It's a form of crowdsourcing, and you end up with better decisions.
Benoit Trottier: Mr. Wernick. In your experience in negotiating, working, collaborating with Indigenous leaders, elders, what have you learned from them?
Michael Wernick: That's a big topic. I appreciate the question. I had the good fortune of being involved in Indigenous issues, as we tend to shorthand it, very early in my career, right near the beginning, and I've been in and out of them in different roles in different departments over the space of about 35 years.
It opened my eyes to a side of Canada and a part of Canada that until recently, and arguably still, far too few Canadians know about. You can grow up in southern Canada in the big cities, and not really have a lot of awareness of Indigenous Canada, and what our brothers and sisters in Indigenous communities are going through, and how they see things, and so on. I had an early exposure to that being such an important part of the fabric of our country, and that affected how I thought about all kinds of issues that I worked on over the years.
In terms of leadership, to go back to today's topic, I saw a lot of the political processes underway, and I saw interactions between First Nations people and the Crown representatives, the government that I was working in. And the generations of political leaders that came through and got us the constitutional protections in 1982, that fought for the first wave of land claim settlements and self‑government agreements, that baby boomer generation, we would call them, just showed not just great courage, but perseverance and resilience.
When I think about the sort of setbacks along the way—and the breakthroughs that turned into setbacks, and so on—Indigenous leaders in the political sphere, which is the group that I knew best for a long time, just have an incredible patience and perseverance, and a resilience to keep going and to keep at it, and to work hard for their communities and their people, despite the setbacks. [They] very rarely show anger and frustration, even though it must have been there, but to kind of dust off, pick up and keep at it, and keep working towards that better future. I think I absorbed unconsciously, more than consciously, over the years, a real respect for persistence, and resilience, and just keeping at it despite some of the setbacks along the way.
Benoit Trottier: In terms of foreseeing what's coming up, do you think that Indigenous leaders have something to teach us, Elder Commanda?
Claudette Commanda: Yes, I'm sure you've heard the expression "lifelong learning." That is one of our beliefs, as well as our way of understanding the process or the stages of life. We're learning from the moment that we are born until the moment that we leave this world. We gain knowledge through experience. Knowledge creates the skills, and our lived experiences are really important. I have definitely learned from those elders before me, from those leaders before me as well. Had I not been given that opportunity to have that lived experience, I would not be in the position that I am in currently, whereby now it's my turn to lend my knowledge and my skills and my experience to the younger generation. Knowledge is power. It's about building expertise. It's about building experience. It's about building teachings. It's about empowerment, but empowerment in that good sense, whereby we have a responsibility to share, to teach our children or those—the younger generation. An example I will give you: How does a child learn how to do things? He is taught through teachings, and he's also taught through hands-on experience. Yes, we will make mistakes, we're only human.
I do appreciate Mr. Wernick adding to this teaching about humility. It's so true that it's okay to say, "We don't know how." We learn how by asking. We learn how by seeing, we learn how to do by hands‑on experiences. It's so, so important. Just recently, I took one of my grandchildren with me. We took a walk in the bushes with my five‑year‑old grandson, to teach him what we do at springtime, how we make that tobacco offering to the water. I taught him, and I gave him the tobacco. He had to put that tobacco in the water. Five years old, but he's learning. He's learning this, and that is how we practise learning. That is how we teach one another. That is so important, and it makes us stronger leaders when we learn from our elders, when we learn from those leaders that have come before us.
I know I've gone all around a very long way to answer the question. I see it as the medicine wheel: It's a process or stages of life. In each stage of life, we gain teachings, we gain skills, we have roles and responsibilities. When we're finally at a place now—and that we'll say the fourth stage of our life, which is aging—we're on that foundation, a stronger foundation of knowledge. Therefore, the insights that have been passed on to us from our elders and from those former leaders, or those past leaders, well, their skills and their knowledge we continue to carry with us. That becomes our foundation to ensure that we're doing the right things for the people that we serve for our children, our families, our nation, and for society at large.
Benoit Trottier: Multiple generations, Mr. Wernick, working well together in government can be challenging?
Michael Wernick: Let me break this into two pieces. If you'll be patient with me. I want to build on Elder Commanda's comments. Because I think that in many ways, respect between generations has to work in both directions. I agree with everything she said about honouring of experience and the possibilities of elders and people with life experience imparting things that are valuable to the younger people coming along. But I think that the reverse is also true, that young people bring energy and courage, and are usually the leaders of social change. We're having this conversation in June of 2020. The leadership on climate change, which is making a big difference, came from a young girl in Sweden, Greta Thunberg. The leadership on gun control issues in the United States came from high school students. The leadership in the wave of protests that started around racial injustice and policing is being led by young people. So sometimes, what we elders have to do is get out of the way, let the young people lead, and support them in any way we can as they move forward.
Probably the most important thing that we can do is the passing on of values and perspectives. Specific knowledges are likely to become outdated and move along and we're constantly trying to learn new technical knowledge, but we can impart values. There's an old Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song that most of your listeners are too young to remember that goes, "Teach your children well." I think that really, it's the imparting of values in particular. And that is relevant to the public service. There are core values of the public service and public sector institutions, which move from generation to generation, and there is an ability, I think too, in working together and workplaces that go all the way from baby boomers to millennials, and now the iPhone generation, to learn from each other and show respect to each other. Yes, it's important that the young people show a little bit of respect and deference to the older people and their experience, but I think the elders have to be on their guard not to become cynical and jaded, and be open, and to listen and respect the contribution that the younger team members can make.
Claudette Commanda: We have to provide opportunities for the young generation. There's no doubt about that. Absolutely. Because if a community does not provide an opportunity for the young generation to learn from the elders, our cultural knowledge will come to a standstill. I'm a firm believer in inclusion and validation. People must be included. People must be validated for who they are, for what they can offer. We value our elders for their knowledge, their lived experiences, we placed them as our experts, as our leaders and we respect their direction. For it is their experiences and their understandings from their elders, passed on down from one generation to another, that enables the younger generation to learn and to gain. Our elders provide the room for others to share their voice and their understandings. It's really important that the younger generation must be included in the sharing and in the learning. I'm a firm believer that no matter how successful a program or an approach may be, nevertheless, you always have to provide room for enhancement. Absolutely. Why not? Because I look at it this way: It's important to respect expertise. Without knowledge, there would be no experience, and without experiences, there would be no skills space, and without skills there would be no success. If we want to have success and carry on the success that our ancestors always had, we have that responsibility to ensure that there's opportunity for younger generation to be part of any process. Teachings are the foundation; teachings, and roles and responsibilities. What we say is, "You're going to set the rules of engagement," put it that way, because it is a collective process. It's an engagement process.
Benoit Trottier: Mr. Wernick, in Beyond 2020, one of the pillars insists on the necessity for inclusion. How can leaders learn how to become more inclusive?
Michael Wernick: I'm glad you asked the question because I want to talk a little bit about inclusion as a value in Canadian society. The public service is part of the country and the society that it serves. About one Canadian in five works for the public sector, for the federal, or provincial, or municipal or Indigenous governments. So we are part of society, and we're shaped by the way that society evolves as much as we influence society by what we do. One of the things that makes me optimistic—and I want to leave with some optimism for people that are listening—is when you look back at our tracks in the snow, and see where we've come from, in only two generations that my career represents, we've seen a huge shift in the value of inclusion in Canadian society.
If we look back to the public service I joined and look at the one that I left, there was an enormous change in the way we think about women, and the role of women in leadership. We're a much, much more gender‑balanced public service. There was a huge shift for Canadians who are LGBTQ. There was a long time where the public service was an overtly hostile and discriminatory workplace; people were at risk of losing security clearances and getting fired. I was proud to take part in an apology to those employees while I was Clerk. The attitude towards mental health, the stigma around mental illness, we've been part of a national conversation around mental health and wellness. And of course, the conversation underlying today's topic, which is reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, and we have made a lot of progress over the last 30–40 years on that.
Obviously, on all of those topics [there is] more to do and more work to be done. But we have seen an evolution in Canada to ever‑growing circles of inclusion and bringing more people into society. Which brings you to the public service, and people that are in positions of authority and leadership. They have to do what they can to make sure that those voices that are joining the public service are part of the teams they lead and that those voices are respected and listened to.
Benoit Trottier: Elder Commanda, would you like to add something on that specific topic?
Claudette Commanda: I really appreciate Mr. Wernick speaking about inclusion. Life is always evolving. I think it's really important there always has to be space provided for inclusion of all peoples, regardless of colour, creed, title, community or whatever, whomever they represent. I go back to what I believe in, called inclusion, inclusiveness and validation. People need to be validated. People need to be included. We can't leave anyone out. When I look at First Nations people: We ourselves in our communities, we are evolving too, to ensure that we're including all people from all various walks of life. I go back to that question earlier about leadership and the importance of our elders. Again, I appreciate how we spoke—both Mr. Wernick and I spoke about the young generation. It is so true that there are roles and responsibilities that we have as elders and as a young generation. We have roles and responsibilities as elders to ensure that we share our knowledge and our values with the young generation. The young generation has the role and responsibility to respect that.
At the same time, I've heard my elders saying that we cannot hoard our knowledge, we cannot hoard our teachings, that they are meant to be shared, and we have to provide room for the young generation. The young generation are the learners, and in essence, they will be those future leaders, they will be. We have to ensure that they are included in all those processes or those stages of life, to ensure that they're being given the best opportunities and the knowledge and wisdom that they need. So they can take their rightful place as leaders. You don't have to be a certain age to be a leader, nor do you have to be a particular age to be an elder.
I also do appreciate, to see the change not only in government, but to see the change in society. How the shaping of different societal norms or values are coming from the young people, because they are given that opportunity, they are given space, they are given the time for their voices to be heard, They're making change not only for themselves, their generation, but they are making change for the future generation. I really appreciate that. We're all part of the change. We're all part of making change. That is a responsibility that we have, regardless of what age that we fall into, from the old to the young. We are all part of that change, and change is going to come, and we pray that it's going to be good change.
Benoit Trottier: Thank you so much for taking the time, Elder Commanda, Mr. Wernick. It's been a privilege to have that conversation with you today, and I think it will inspire leaders and all public servants.
Claudette Commanda: Thank you.
Michael Wernick: Thank you for inviting us.
Annie Leblond: This podcast is a production of the Canada School of Public Service.
For more information on Indigenous Learning, visit our website at www.csps-efpc.gc.ca. Have an idea for a podcast? Write to us using the Contact Us section of the School's website.
This is Annie Leblond, and on behalf of the School, thank you for listening.