Hey! I’m Meredith Hall, an Emergency Medicine nurse in Ottawa. I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1982, to a Scottish immigrant mother and a father whose ancestors came from England, Ireland and Scotland, and had settled in what is now North America in the late 1600s. During the American War of Independence, my father’s family were loyalists and moved north to what is now Southern Ontario in 1776, and lived there until the late 1800s, when my father’s branch of the family moved west and settled in rural southeastern Manitoba. Why does all this background matter? Because my father’s family have been part of settler groups that have pushed Indigenous peoples off their traditional lands since the 1600s, but it wasn’t until I grew to adulthood that I started to understand what this actually meant. I would like to share with you today, as we spend this week celebrating and acknowledging National Indigenous People’s Day, how I became an ally and what that means to me.
Growing up in Winnipeg in the 1980s and 1990s, there was not a lot of compassion or empathy for Indigenous Peoples going around. The myth of the “drunken Indian” was rampant, and the extent of most middle- and upper-class people’s exposure to Indigenous people was seeing them homeless in the downtown core, “loitering” on the streets outside businesses, or, in the winter, inside those businesses, trying desperately to warm up. I was explicitly taught in elementary school that Indigenous people are referred to as “the red man”, in the same way that I am referred to as ‘white’. I was exposed to negative biases constantly, creating a very toxic sociologic environment. However, there were two things that made me question, from a fairly early age, how accurate these assumptions and statements were.
The first thing, was that my family lived in an area of Winnipeg that was inhabited primarily by people of lower socio-economic status, which included a higher than average number of Indigenous families. I played with Indigenous kids at the local community center park (this was when I was between the ages of 8-11 or so) and there was a 7-11 nearby. We would go there to get Slurpees (being good Winnipeggers) and penny candies (I know, I’m aging myself there), but I noticed that I was treated differently than the Indigenous kids. I would be allowed in and allowed to browse around and shop unhindered and unbothered. The Indigenous kids were either not allowed in at all, or only allowed in one at a time, or were followed and harassed and hurried out the door. At the time, I didn’t understand why they would be treated in this way and I wasn’t. I understood that we looked different, but beyond that I, in my youthful naivety and innocence, didn’t understand what was so different between them and me that would warrant such differing treatment. I now know that what I was experiencing there is called privilege, but that knowledge only came much later in life.
The second thing was that my mother worked for a group within the University of Manitoba Medical School called the J.A. Hildes Northern Medical Unit. The purpose of this group was to send specialist physicians and advanced care nurses to isolated and remote communities (mostly reserves) in northern Manitoba, and parts of what was then the Northwest Territories, and later Nunavut. Consequently, she had connections with the Indigenous communities in Manitoba that the vast majority of people did not. I remember her taking my brother and I to Powwows when we were kids, and bringing us to workplace events where we met and spoke with Indigenous members of staff (one in particular I remember vividly because he had an artificial arm, which I had never seen before. He told me he had lost it in a fight with a Polar Bear. To this day I have no idea if that was true, but my brother and I were forever in awe of him, because to have survived a fight with a Polar Bear surely meant that he must be some sort of superhero). I was exposed to Indigenous cultures and stories and food in a way that most kids my age were not, and this instilled in me a respect and interest in these things which has had a significant impact upon me tot his very day.
However, none of this is to say that I did not harbour any prejudices or misconceptions about Indigenous people; that I had avoided the colonial mindset altogether. I was still raised and educated in a system where colonial mindsets predominated and Eurocentric views of the world were the norm. I, shamefully, was one of those who thought colonization happened so long ago and me and my family didn’t do it (well, in point of fact, I would later learn that my father’s ancestors absolutely participated in it, but that is a story for another day) so why should I feel guilty and why can’t they all “just get over it”.
I can’t pinpoint an exact moment when things changed for me and I started to really get it, but a few things happened around the same time that, altogether, I think started me on my journey towards allyship. The first was the death of Brian Sinclair, and the absolute horror that something like that could happen in my hometown (I was living in Ottawa at this time). The second was the beginning of the revelations of the horrors that took place in the Residential School system, the true extent of which we are still discovering today.
The third, and most impactful, though, was meeting an Indigenous (Anishnaabe) woman who has now become a dear friend of mine and through her, her mother. My friend’s grandmother was a residential school survivor, and while we have never talked about her experience, it is clear the pain and suffering their family has endured as a result of the residential school system, and intergenerational trauma. They are both highly educated, intelligent, kind, caring, thoughtful, generous women who give back to their communities in many ways. They are women of substance. They have, gracefully and graciously, educated me and empowered me to educate myself about the impacts of colonialism on Indigenous people today. I owe them a great deal.
My journey towards allyship has often been uncomfortable and occasionally even painful, and it is nowhere near completion, but allyship has changed me, I’d like to think for the better. I have become a better advocate for my Indigenous patients and, by extension, for all of my patients. It has made me, I think, a better mother to my two girls because I am now much more conscious of what messages I am sending them and what attitudes, beliefs and biases I am instilling in them. It has also made me more aware of the problems facing our society as a whole, and the need for us to come together to try to solve them.
My journey in allyship is only just beginning, and it is a path that I will walk for the rest of my days. I do not know where this road will ultimately lead me, but I have no doubt that it will be well worth the trip when I get there. Making the leap from “talking the talk” to “walking the walk” is a challenging, emotionally fraught one, but it has also been incredibly rewarding. We need more people to make that leap to allyship if we hope to achieve our goals of equity, inclusion, and safety for all in our society. We just need to be brave enough to take that first step…