This past weekend, the mass grave of 215 Indigenous children – some as young as 3 years of age – was discovered on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School at Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia. The news broke across the country, and for the first time in my lifetime, I saw an outpouring of grief toward Indigenous Peoples – for the collective loss of those souls, who should have grown up and lived full and rich lives. The discovery was not shocking to Indigenous Peoples. Survivors of residential schools have been telling the stories of their missing relatives for decades. They’ve been processing lifetimes of trauma, and children today continue to experience the intergenerational impacts of that trauma. It’s hard to know what to do as a white settler in times like this. Is reposting a tweet going to be seen as virtue signalling? What will your racist grandpa say when he sees your facebook post? More importantly, what are you saying if you say nothing at all?
I don’t have the answers to give you, to help you through every situation. But I do know that empathy will rarely steer you down the wrong path. Those 215 children were no different than the kids that you can hear squealing as they run through their backyard sprinklers in your neighbourhood every hot summer night. If you have ever loved a child, hell, if you’ve ever loved another person, then imagine for a moment that they are taken from you, and never returned. Never returned, and never even acknowledged. Never documented. Never reported. Certainly never investigated.
The Power of Empathy
Empathy isn’t about feeling badly for others. It’s about feeling. Putting yourself into the shoes of those affected and trying to understand what their experience might feel like. In this case, it’s also about reflecting on your own feelings. What is your relationship to our shared history with Indigenous peoples? We all have a story, which complicates our experience. What is yours? And how does your story lead you to feel in this time? Most importantly, now that you feel something (and maybe this is the first time you’re really feeling something deeply as it relates to Indigenous peoples), how are you going to channel that emotion into reconciliation?
If you are in a leadership role, you will experience watershed moments in your career where your actions determine the future. Sometimes the implications are big and public and far reaching. Sometimes, those actions plant seeds that will grow in the culture of your organization over time. When you find yourself in these moments, and you are in the privileged position of leading people, it’s important to ask yourself what you want to plant – weeds or vegetables?
Saying Nothing Says Something
Saying nothing is rarely the right answer, and often can lead to unintended harm. When you say nothing as a leader, your inaction is viewed in many different ways. Does the news not bother you? Worse, are you completely ambivalent? Worse yet, are you ok with history as it is? A tiny seed of doubt in the minds of your team regarding where you stand on the news can grow quickly and spread across your organization – casting doubts on your leadership ability and your very humanity.
I know the alternative can be frightening. These are not easy conversations to have. My personal belief is that if you’re not comfortable being with people as they process emotion, you should not consider a path in leadership. But let’s assume you’re a leader, and your heart is in the right place. You want to say something. And you’re afraid. Afraid of saying the wrong thing. Afraid of offending people. Afraid of triggering them. Afraid of showing your own emotion. Afraid of not knowing how to handle what comes up.
So first, know that the most important thing you can do for your team is to show up and be authentic. Only harm can come from ignoring news of this emotional magnitude. Yes, you might not have the right words. But creating space for others who need to be seen is one of the most important things you can and should do as a leader.
How to Start the Conversation
So how do you do that? What is the playbook? It’s actually pretty simple, which means it’s pretty tough to do.
First, educate yourself. In this case, I’m not suggesting you take a 2 week break from work to read the full report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – though I do hope you will commit to reading it over time. Start right now by bookmarking it. Now read about what’s happened this week, and how Indigenous communities and Survivors of residential schools are affected. Follow some Indigenous thought leaders on social media. Read some articles. Imagine this news through eyes different from your own.
Second, create space for a conversation in your workplace. Call a meeting or repurpose a meeting and devote it to holding space for people. “I want to take some time this morning to reflect on the news we just heard. I am feeling grief, and don’t really know what to say. But I want to create some space if you want to share how you’re feeling.” Make it part of your workday, not something that people can participate in only during their lunch or coffee breaks. Supporting the mental and emotional health of your team is an important part of your job, and it should be a priority during the hours where you get paid.
That said, recognize that some people will want privacy. They may not want to share with a large group. They may need some time away from the office. Don’t ignore them. Check in with them. “I feel like you are experiencing this news in a really deep way. I know I can’t necessarily help, but I want you to know I see you, and if you need time or if it would help to talk, I am here to support you.”
If you have team members who are Indigenous, don’t put them on the spot and make them responsible for carrying the emotions of non-Indigenous people. There is a strong possibility that they themselves are Survivors of residential schools or carry intergenerational trauma with them every day. While this news may be unsurprising, it is still deeply emotional. If they want to share, and feel safe in doing so, honour that. If they don’t, honour that too.
Navigating the Conversation
So what if your team starts sharing? How do you manage that conversation? The key is remembering one thing. You aren’t there to remedy their feelings. You are simply there to hold space, acknowledge, and validate their feelings. “It sounds like you are feeling really fragile right now.” That’s all you need to say. You don’t need to problem solve or fix anything. Just see them. Let them know that you care about them as a human being. That’s it. Yes, be sure to share the phone numbers for your employee assistance program or community support services – but do that in an email later, where you also say that you know that people will feel things differently over the next little while, and that you will be checking in to make sure they’re ok. And then make sure you check in – again, not just with the team members who shared, but especially those who couldn’t share. Listen to your intuition. Who needs to have that extra moment of being seen? Who needs some space?
And finally, close the circle by coming back to yourself. Being in a leadership role can be one of the most rewarding career experiences. But it can also drain your emotional reserves and leave you feeling raw and vulnerable. What do you need to do to soothe your own heart so you can be there for your team tomorrow? Visit a sacred fire and pay your respects? Have a good cry? Call a friend to share how you’re feeling? Go for a walk and feel the air in your lungs? Explore how you feel with your therapist, coach, or in your journal? Light a candle and send a wish into the world? Yes, there is more work for you to do on your own path to reconciliation. But right now, you need to unload some of the heaviness you’ve taken on as a leader, lower your shoulders, breathe deeply into your belly, and restore your heart.
Commit to your own Path to Reconciliation
And then what? Educate yourself. And not just by reading articles written by white men. Read the stories of Indigenous peoples; listen to their voices. Commit to using your influence as a leader to raise awareness of our shared, shameful history with Indigenous Peoples. Build a culture in your team that is inclusive – not just of diversity in faces, but also of ways of thinking and seeing the world. And elevate these perspectives using your platform.
It isn’t up to Indigenous Peoples to advance reconciliation. It’s up to me. And it’s up to you. And as a leader, you have a responsibility to lead the work in your team.
Leadership is hard – particularly as you navigate traumatic and collectively emotional experiences. I can’t give you all of the answers, but hope that you will be brave in sharing space with your team.
I am on my own path to reconciliation and am grateful for the teachings given by the generous and brave Elders and friends in my life. Every day I realize how little I know as I start to learn more. As shared by my dear teacher Elder Paul Guimond recently, “Teachings don’t come with age. They come from paying attention.”
If you have other thoughts about how to support your team through this time where we are all feeling so many feelings, please share them in the comments below. If you found this article helpful, and know others who need to hear it, please pass it on.
Please consider following, re-posting content, and donating to local organizations that support the survivors of residential schools and their families.
An important note: Survivors of residential schools who need support can call the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.