Allyship, Advocacy, and the Legitimate Role of Non-Indigenous Folks

Chantelle Bryson discusses meaningful allyship at LU

By Kelsey Raynard, Contributor

On January 29, Chantelle Bryson, a celebrated lawyer and community activist, delivered a talk entitled “Allyship in the Context of Indigenous Rights” in the Study coffeehouse at Lakehead University. Hosted by the Aboriginal Awareness Centre, Bryson provided audiences with an engaging and thoughtful discussion on the moral, social, cultural, legal, and economic responsibilities of non-Indigenous folks in the pursuit of equality in Canada.

Bryson’s long list of personal and professional accomplishments demonstrates her committed role as an ally. As lawyer at Weilers Law, Bryson has been engaged in private legal practice since 2002, in the areas of municipal, Indigenous, and human rights, labour and employment, and environmental law throughout Ontario. Locally, Bryson has successfully represented Fort William First Nation in their case against Horizon Wind’s proposed wind turbine project on Fort William’s traditional lands. She has also served as a tutorial instructor at Lakehead University’s Faculty of Law.

While Bryson’s introduction clearly illustrates her continued allyship in the context of Indigenous rights, she began her talk by clarifying the nature of what it means to be an ally. Being an ally isn’t a role you can claim for yourself, she cautioned; rather, it is a state achieved by an active, lifelong, and ever-changing commitment to relationship building with Indigenous individuals and communities. Citing her own growth as an ally, she explained that being an ally demands the continuous re-examination of your role, your motivation, and your commitment. Bryson explained that at the core of all allyship is a selfless desire for social justice rather than for personal or professional growth and the necessary ability to re-examine your relationships as to how they can better serve Indigenous communities.

She also stressed invitation-based advocacy as a cornerstone of meaningful allyship. Cautioning audience members against developing a “white saviour complex,” Bryson consistently reminded non-Indigenous folks that you should not insert yourself into Indigenous spaces or communities to declare your intended role as an ally; rather, with a continuous commitment to building relationships with Indigenous peoples and communities, you may be invited to act as an ally and to use your privilege to amplify the voices and concerns of others.

Bryson spoke of a number of barriers that both Indigenous peoples and allies face in the pursuit of reconciliation and equality. Throughout her talk, she continuously referenced the “Colonial Dream,” or the deeply-ingrained societal desire for complete assimilation of Indigenous peoples as an underlying barrier to meaningful conversations about allyship. Bryson explained that terms like “reasonable,” “practical,” and “financially-feasible” are rhetorical tools of the Colonial Dream used to undermine Indigenous efforts and dismiss their legally, morally and economically-justified goals.

Bryson also cited the “Rule of Law” as a barrier that many Indigenous peoples and allies face, wherein oppositional forces inconsistently apply the law in an attempt to justify the oppression of Indigenous peoples. As an example, Bryson cited Senator Beyak’s open letters to the public defending the residential school systems and explicitly calling for assimilation. While defenders of Beyak are quick to use the “free speech” argument, Bryson explained that they are unlikely to acknowledge that Section Two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms only protects speech that is positive to democracy and is not specifically forbidden by the law (such as hate speech). Bryson explained to audience members that non-Indigenous allies can use their voice to expose the Colonial Dream when they see it, to question the Rule of Law when it is used inconsistently, and to hold politicians like Senator Beyak responsible for their factual inaccuracies and legally defined hate speech.

In addition to these efforts, Bryson provided audience members with a concrete list of actions they can take through the journey to becoming a meaningful ally. One of these actions is through the use of evidence-based advocacy. Bryson stressed that allies must continually advocate for discussions about Indigenous peoples to be centered around the actual lived experiences of these communities and the sources that support these experiences. She provided a number of examples, such as the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Feathers of Hope, Indigenous academics & authors, and various inquests and inquiries.

Talking to other non-Indigenous folks about privilege, oppression, colonialism, and the importance of allyship is another crucial action Bryson encouraged audience members to take. Having these kinds of conversations facilitates understandings of your own privilege, lack of knowledge, and encourages a continued path of learning as an ally. “This type of advocacy costs you nothing,” she explained, “but as a committed ally, be prepared to lose something.” Whether it be the loss of personal or professional relationships, Bryson cautioned that speaking out against racism to those closest to you is not without consequence.

Lastly, Bryson explained that “passing the mic and getting out of the way” is a critical step in developing a meaningful allyship. As a lawyer and legal advisor, Bryson explained that she always lets Indigenous communities set their own priorities and lead the process. She encouraged audience members to ask themselves: when do you get to be the face or voice of this moment? When might it be more appropriate for an Indigenous activist to take this opportunity? When do you need to be paid for your efforts? How can I use my allyship to create opportunities for Indigenous peoples, rather than to take them away? Bryson explained that she has personally turned down and passed along many different opportunities in order to “get out of the way” for other, more qualified Indigenous activists. Realizing when you are taking up too much space, Bryson illustrated, is a fundamental aspect of allyship.

Bryson closed her talk by reminding audiences that as an ally, your relationships must encompass encouragement, mentorship, and support whenever possible. As allies, she encouraged, we can audit our workspaces, relationships, and communities while demanding inclusion and diversity.  If we want to live in an equitable and just Canada, we must examine our roles as allies. If we put in the effort, Bryson confirmed, we can indeed create change.