Grand Challenges Canada

Sara Wolfe        Jeff Cyr

Am I Indigenous? This seemingly straightforward three-word question is, in truth, highly complex and fraught with history, often a traumatic history that was written by non-Indigenous people.  Canada’s legacy of colonization has made it even more complex—who, how and where we as Indigenous people are identified shifts and changes depending on context but has important personal, cultural, and legal implications for us all.  People and organizations crave clear distinctions and clear lines of identity, but human history is more prone to messy and uncomfortable understandings of identity. That discomfort is good, it means to us that we are undertaking the hard work of reconciliation and eschew simplistic and clumsy attempts to define who we are. There is no one ‘right’ answer to this question for all Indigenous peoples and in all contexts. In this blog post, however, we will share some of our thoughts, as leaders of the Indigenous Innovation Initiative, on what it means for us to be Indigenous in the context of our lives and our work.

There is no single, universal definition of what it means to be Indigenous.  The UN defines Indigenous peoples as:

… the inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live1.

The Canadian Constitution, meanwhile, defines Indigenous peoples as:

… a collective name for the original peoples of North America and their descendants. Often, ‘Aboriginal peoples’ is also used. The Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of Aboriginal peoples: Indians (more commonly referred to as First Nations), Inuit and Métis. These are three distinct peoples with unique histories, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs2.

Traditionally, Indigenous identity is rooted in our relationships to the people, the language and the land. Some Indigenous peoples have a clear legal and traditional understanding of who they are and where they are from. For many others however, colonially imposed disconnections have necessitated reclaiming and reconnecting with the teachings, the language, and the land, wherever they are and often with teachers and Elders from Nations or territories different than their own. Indigenous teaching about acceptance and the interconnectedness of all things reminds us to look beyond what is immediately before us to the deeper connections, the interactions of those connections, and to the impact of our actions on those interconnections.

Increasingly, Indigenous individuals and communities are moving towards self-determination, having lost patience with existing bureaucratic and gendered approaches to determining who belongs to our communities and, more importantly, who is excluded. No longer accepting that technical or legal definitions should constrain our identity and shape our lives. No longer accepting that those not of the community get to decide the parameters of who is in and who is out. The answers are to be found, where they have always been, inside our cultural practices and traditional teachings which have long been about creating the broader good for the community.

As leaders in the Indigenous community, each for more than twenty years, we have seen many Indigenous peoples who have been harmed by colonial policies that disenfranchise individuals and by the racism/discrimination that continues to create confusion and trigger shame around Indigenous identity/ancestry.  Narratives too often come from a profoundly gendered past that has disregarded and eroded Indigenous matrilineal lines and traditions, compounding the loss of intergenerational transmission of family stories and histories.

Our purpose as the Indigenous Innovation Initiative is to support innovation and social impact that is led by and/or created by Indigenous peoples, for the purpose of uplifting our communities and our people. We recognize that the profound injustices of the past, ongoing colonial policies, and discrimination based on gender and race has contributed to many Indigenous peoples, communities, and groups being exclusively targeted or outright excluded. It is our intention to be thoughtful about access to our programs, and to make sure that we demonstrate accountability to our communities. This includes being transparent about where each project is from and how it will make a positive impact for Indigenous peoples, inclusive of First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

Not everyone we support or who benefits from our programs will be “registered” with their respective Indigenous governance organization. We will work to support innovation by and for status and non-status First Nations, registered and unregistered Métis, and those who are and are not beneficiaries of their Inuit Land Claims Organization, no matter their gender, sexuality, experiences or gifts, and respecting the variety of ways an Indigenous community might be identified.

No approach is perfect and ours will continue to grow and evolve as we work with and learn more about the needs of Indigenous innovators in Canada.  In the end, however, we will continue to ensure that our work and our programs are informed by the principles of inclusiveness, self-determination and self-identity for the benefit of all.



[1] , accessed on May 20, 2020

[2] , accessed on May 20, 2020