‘Death by a thousand cuts'

The struggle to get racism under control at Indigenous Services and Crown-Indigenous Relations

Here’s why one elder decided to stand up to the departments’ top bureaucrats — and why some employees feel kind words, strong mandates and promises are no longer enough

Elder Mac Saulis strolls through the empty lobby at 10 Wellington Street, headquarters of the departments of Indigenous Services and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs in Gatineau, Que.


The faded, decaying red-brick building towers over the cascading Chaudière Falls where the Ottawa River narrows and slithers through the scenic core of the nation’s capital.


We pass through a glass door beneath a large medicine wheel before entering the Kumik Elder’s Lodge, a sacred space in one of the country’s most colonial places.


“The racism here in this workplace is often not overt,” Saulis remarks. “It happens in different ways. But harassment, and what I would call devaluation of the person, that happens quite a bit more than I ever imagined.”


Here, after smudging the room, Saulis describes the anguish and despair this racism can inflict on some Indigenous employees.


“I’ve seen several people completely broken down, and the term we use in the Indigenous world is holistically,” says the elder, who is Wolastoqey from Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick.


“Their spirit has been killed, their emotion has been killed, their mental (health) has been killed. The only thing they haven’t done is a physical killing. But for all intents and purposes, they’ve been destroyed by this workplace. And that’s not an overstatement. That’s just fact.”


Due to the pandemic, the streets outside are quiet. But inside, the discontent grows louder.


APTN News spoke with several former and current employees, many of them First Nations women, who are speaking up. They describe a work environment frequently marred by systemic racism, sexism, bullying, insidious revenge and fear.

The headquarters of Indigenous Services and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs in Gatineau, Que. Photo: Brett Forester/APTN

“We saw with the governor general’s situation and the statements by the prime minister’s office that no public servant should ever live in an environment of fear. And yet here it is,” Saulis explains.

“(It’s) no different and more insidious because added upon that layer of fear is the subject of race, marginalization and oppression.”

We agreed to protect our sources’ identities because they worry they’ll suffer reprisals for coming forward. Government employees swear a “duty of loyalty” to the Crown, their employer, which makes speaking out risky.

“When people are told that they have a duty of loyalty to the Crown — and the Crown, represented by officials, is bullying, harassing and/or behaving in a racist manner toward individuals? And you can’t speak out?” says one exasperated long-time employee.

“How do you ever fix systemic racism? How do you ever get to really tackling the problem? You can’t, because they maintain silence and control instead of being honest about what’s not working.”

Nevertheless, APTN has heard hours of stories and obtained internal records, notes, emails, grievances and whistleblower court filings that, staffers say, only scratch the surface of a problem that runs deep.

It’s well known among whisper networks, water coolers and rumour mills. Sometimes the bullying and revenge are out in the open. Sometimes they’re quiet and cunning.

But the thread that stitches all the stories together is fear. Now they’re calling for change.

"It was so poisonous that some of us talked about suicide in that office, where maybe one of us should sacrifice our lives to be heard internally"

“There’s a huge fear for Indigenous people, especially Indigenous women, to speak out against this because there are no safety outlets to protect us,” says Letitia Wells, a student at the University of Calgary and former federal government employee.

“We are the target of violence, and they get away with it because it’s built into their institutions.”

She set her fear aside and agreed to speak up. She says, in nearly 30 years of work experience, the worst racism she experienced was in government.

“My workplace was so poisonous,” she says, “it was so poisonous that some of us talked about suicide in that office, where maybe one of us should sacrifice our lives to be heard internally.”

She describes herself as a traditional Blackfoot woman who was raised with the nation’s songs, ceremonies and laws always near at hand.

She’s also a survivor of domestic violence.

Watch the full story here:

Play Video

She alleges during a “heated discussion” a colleague physically accosted her by grabbing her arm to force her into a boardroom.

It was a trauma trigger due to the domestic abuse she lived through.

In the aftermath, instead of feeling supported, she felt targeted and pushed out.

“They provide no services for an Indigenous woman to go to or express her fears and her unsafety. There’s nobody in HR at all that has the trauma-related experience that I had to understand my trauma trigger,” she says.

“What happened is an exec team worked on my discreditation to dismiss me. After years of service, I wasn’t renewed.”

Now, she’s writing a book about the culture within bureaucracy and believes more people will come forward with stories like hers.

“Even right now, as we speak, someone’s being harmed. Someone’s crying in a washroom. Someone’s in their vehicle praying. Someone’s lighting smudge,” says Wells. “Because that’s a hard feeling to live with.”

For her, it’s about ending a cycle that, our sources say, plays out often when Indigenous people enter the public service.

"She went as far as telling me that I needed to leave my Indian status at the door when I came in. Because when I was in the department, I was no longer an Indian."

From a young age, a source we’ll call Sara knew she wanted to work for what was then known as Indian Affairs. She wanted to get an education and make a difference — change things from the inside.

Instead she wound up leaving the department not once but three times due to varying degrees of bullying and racism.

“I was at the hands of a very racist manager,” says Sara, who explains she confronted her manager about offensive comments. That’s when she says retaliation started.

She says was called to someone’s cubicle and when she came back, her medicine bundle was gone. She was demoted, losing her status as an acting manager herself.

“She (the manager) told me she was going to ruin my career in the government,” Sara says. “That was very demoralizing and degrading, and I was desperately trying to find a job out of there.”

She left the department but decided to return, hoping things would be better. The experience was humiliating and traumatizing once again.

“She (the new manager) went as far as telling me that I needed to leave my Indian status at the door when I came in, because when I was in the department I was no longer an Indian,” Sara recalls. “She also told me that my passion for Indigenous files was going to lead to the death of my career.”

She says this manager tokenized and physically bullied her in the Kumik. Her eagle feather went missing mysteriously. The toxic situation took a toll on her mental health.

“I was almost broken, I was crying at my desk every day,” she says. She sought refuge with the elders in the lodge. “I needed a place to go that was safe, because I was on the verge of burning out.”

Inside the Kumik lodge located in the lobby at 10 Wellington Street. Photo: Forester/APTN

She left the department but was drawn back in, yet again, by the opportunity to work on important Indigenous files.

“It took me maybe three weeks to analyze that it was a very, very bad place to be,” she says. The racism and bullying continued. Sara left for the third time.

While all this was happening, she was “too scared” to file a formal grievance against the perpetrators “because of the repercussions.” She says this was a common mentality among Indigenous employees.

“Just get the hell out. Say nothing, duck and get out. The couple who have had the courage to speak out, their careers are ruined,” Sara says.

“That’s what all that taught me. Keep your mouth shut. It’s kind of like an abusive relationship. I grew up with an alcoholic mother, and what went on in the house, you kept it in the house for the fear of what would happen if it got out. And that’s what INAC reminds me of: You keep it in the family.”

A common experience

APTN has heard multiple stories like this. It’s probably been told many times among employees themselves.


A young idealistic First Nations person — someone like Sara — joins the public service with dreams of big change. But they find themselves inexplicably marginalized, assigned menial tasks or stuck at the bottom of the bureaucratic ladder.


Another First Nations woman we’ll call Emily went through it and also ended up leaving the department following a total mental breakdown.


“That was probably the worst experience of my life, because I had a college degree, an undergrad degree, a master’s degree and I was literally being told I couldn’t handle work,” she says.


“Whatever little work there was, it was very small projects, while people a lot younger than me with less education continued to advance in the organization.”


Those in Emily’s position watch with consternation and dismay as their colleagues’ careers soar. They grumble as primarily non-Indigenous people are appointed to senior management.


Many say they want to speak out about racism and bullying, but don’t. They fear they’ll be branded a “troublemaker.”


Troublemakers, they say, suffer an insidious type of revenge. It takes place through whispers and quiet acts of hostility. There are never witnesses. The recriminations are always impossible to prove.


They seek solace in the human resources sector, but don’t always find it. Multiple sources say they were afraid to file a grievance because it would tarnish their record, blacklist them and limit their careers.


The entrance to the Kumik, a place of respite for non-Indigenous and Indigenous employees of the federal public service. Photo: Brett Forester/APTN

“They (HR) said it’s in your best interest not to log any complaints because your HR file will follow your life, so if you decide to leave the public service and come back, they’re going to see that as a red flag,” Emily continues. “So, it’s in your best interest to just, basically, shut up and continue working.”


They decry the official complaints process as ineffectual and skewed towards upper management. In an internal survey, 22 per cent of respondents at Indigenous Services reported experiencing harassment in the workplace, but less than one per cent filed grievances.


Another First Nations woman, we’ll call her Gloria, tells APTN it’s happening to her right now.


“I’m struggling to work, seriously,” she says. Gloria claims she’s been branded with the troublemaker label. “You’re coming by yourself. You’re reporting these incidents on your own. There’s nobody to back you up. Even when there is other people, they don’t want to come forward for fear of being branded that troublemaker, or for fear of losing their position,” she says.


She says racism is compounded by misogyny that doubly harms Indigenous women. Sexism, she says, is “rampant” in her workplace.


“It’s bad enough I’m Indigenous, but now I’m an Indigenous woman. And I have a mouth and I have a degree and the list kind of goes on,” she says. “It’s more than just being Indigenous. In this case, it’s being a woman.”

‘Polite racism’: A death by a thousand cuts

But it isn’t just women. First Nations men and two-spirit individuals say they struggle too.

Another long-time employee we’ll call Paul watched this cycle repeat over decades. He describes how it often ends.

“These people who are looking to want to make a difference, they get marginalized,” he explains. “They get frustrated, so they end up either leaving the department and moving on to something else or leaving the government in general to go work for a First Nations organization.”

The experience of what he terms “polite racism” is like death by a thousand cuts.

He describes hearing offhand comments by frustrated bureaucrats, “vulgar language” rooted in “paternalistic” attitudes.

“It’s cultural references about Indian time … Most of it is about, ‘First Nations are wanting everything, wanting the moon, wanting a blank check’,” he explains. “It happens enough that one can actually see it.”

Each one is like another little cut, adding to mounting frustration. He too hoped to empower First Nations from within the system. Now he’s fed up with pledges. He wants change.

“Enough is enough. If you’re going to make these commitments then you should live up to them and start to empower First Nations both with the department and within the communities,” he says. “It’s just been seeing 20 years of failed promises.”

Paul believes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has done a good job setting mandates for his ministers. But he gives “failing grades” to the bureaucracy tasked with implementing these priorities.

“It’s the systemic racism, it’s the systemic policies that will continue to have non-Indigenous people deciding First Nations’ future,” he says.

“I can’t see too much of a way around it until there are real changes within the public service commission that, at least specifically to the department, Indigenous people are accorded a little bit more of a standing.”

Elder stands up to top bureaucrats

These issues came to a head earlier this month after CBC/Radio Canada reported on them.


The top four bureaucrats, known as deputy ministers, within ISC and CIRNAC responded with an all-staff email on March 11.


Daniel Quan-Watson, Christiane Fox, Paula Isaak and Valerie Gideon don’t dispute it’s a problem. They believe those who have come forth and pledge to do better.


“We recognize that these unacceptable situations exist, and that they are unfortunately all too frequent,” the email states.


“We know that there remains a tremendous amount of work to do to eliminate discrimination and systemic racism in our departments and throughout the public service. We take all allegations of workplace discrimination very seriously.”

Read the full emails here:

But our sources, both former and current employees, thought it was a little bit tepid — filled with solid promises, kind words but little action.


“It’s lip service. They’re grabbing from their internal policies and producing a sentence that’s long and confusing to people and saying, ‘Hey, we’re tackling this’,” replies Wells. “But I don’t see any action in it.”


Saulis, the lodge elder, reacted in the same way. “In the deputy ministers’ response, you see the acknowledgement of harm. There is no acknowledgment of fear and hurt,” he tells APTN.


So, he wrote the department heads an email of his own, standing up for the employees.


“Fear,” he writes “seems to be an important aspect of the lives of Indigenous employees at ISC and CIRNA and in regards to the CBC inquiry employees feared reprisals from the workplace and from you as leaders who can express wrath for Indigenous employees speaking their truth.”

Elder Mac Saulis is originally from Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick but now calls Ottawa home. Photo: Brendan Hennigan/APTN

Saulis compares the bureaucracy to a residential school. Sitting inside the lodge, he explains why he felt compelled to speak up.


“I saw myself as an Indian living on the reserve all over again,” the elder says. “One of the most significant weapons they used against us, in their use of domination and force, was to try and instill in us a fear — a fear of reprisal. If you behaved badly at the school, the little school on my reserve, you got strapped and punished.”


He suggests, though so much has changed, some things, deep down, remain the same.


“Some of the Indigenous kids in my day school on the reserve were especially targets because they wouldn’t give in to the domination that the educators, who were nuns on our reserve, were trying to impose on them,” says Saulis.


“Maybe inadvertently, maybe consciously, the public service wants to trash out the Indigenous of Indigenous people in the workplace.”

Deputy ministers respond

APTN brought these issues to Crown-Indigenous Relations Deputy Minister Daniel Quan-Watson and Indigenous Services Associate Deputy Minister Valerie Gideon.


Neither denied the problem. In fact, both can relate.


Gideon, who is a member of the Gesgapegiag Mi’gmaq community in Quebec, says she’s found the civil service to be supportive. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t witnessed racism in action.


“I have had to call people out on very bad advice, very bad decisions that they were going to make, or that they made, that actually harmed communities,” she says.


“Absolutely, I’ve had those experiences. I’ve not been the victim of them directly. But I have absolutely been a witness.”


She calls it a “tragedy” that Indigenous women and Indigenous people of other genders have had these experiences.

“It is absolutely a priority for us as a department to not just eliminate it, but also to prevent it,” she adds.


Quan-Watson made the news not long ago for an open letter he wrote about racism he’s endured in response to a National Post column by Rex Murphy.


“The greatest amount of pain, in my experience, that most people feel about racism aren’t from the open, explicit things,” says Quan-Watson. “It’s from the death of a thousand cuts. Those are much harder to get at. And that’s what we need to get at as well.”


Fear of reprisal, adds Gideon, is widespread within the public service, not just one department or one group of employees.

Watch the full interview here:

Play Video

But the bureaucrats believe they’re striding in the right direction.


“The four of us (deputies) stood before several thousand employees and said, ‘This is real. We have no difficulties believing these claims’,” says Quan-Watson.


“I think for that to happen for the first time ever is not tepid. I will agree with people that simply doing that is not a solution. That doesn’t end things. But you cannot solve a problem that you don’t admit exists, and the four of us admit that it exists.”


Gideons acknowledges there’s a long way to go to create a work environment that’s “more trustworthy and more credible.


“For people to make the leap of faith, they have to be convinced that change is coming — and change is here, really, not just coming,” she says. “But you can be part of it and that you can make an important contribution for the generations to come.”


She points to large funding increases, new strategies and policy initiatives crafted under the Liberals.


Those who spoke with APTN, however, point to the gaps — the files where little progress has been made.


They’ll be watching closely, hoping the deputies make good on their promises.


Saulis puts it bluntly in his final message to them: “The worst thing that could happen is that you speak empty words.”

Brett Forester

Brett is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in Ontario. He grew up in Ottawa where he obtained an English degree from Carleton University. Brett is a creative writer, poet, and journalist. He joined the Ottawa bureau for APTN News in December 2019 as a digital reporter.

All Posts