Trying to do better

This article contains content about residential schools that may be triggering. Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066 or 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.

Each morning when I open the news, I feel a wave of sadness and nausea in my stomach. And each day, I understand more and more why there has been and continues to be so much violence against Indigenous Peoples, Black People, and People of Colour. 

I want to acknowledge the deep sadness and horror that so many people are feeling by the news of what Indigenous Peoples have been saying for years. The discovery of the unmarked graves of the 215 children forced to attend the Kamloops, BC Residential School, on the lands of the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc; the 751 — mostly childrens’ remains — on the land of the Cowessess First Nation at the Marieval Indian Residential School, SK; the 182 bodies at St Eugene’s Residential School, near Cranbrook, BC where children were forced to attend, on the lands of the Ktunaxa Nation; this was and is unacceptable treatment of people, especially the Indigenous Peoples of this land. 

How can we expect someone to get involved with protecting the environment beyond their backyard, especially wild places that they can’t personally experience or that in some cases have been stolen from them, when they are worried about having enough food to eat, paying their rent or heating bills, or even simply walking down the street and making it back home alive?

I come from an enormous place of privilege. I don’t know what it feels like to go to bed hungry or worry about being shot by the police and not making it home to my family. My ancestors colonized Canada and the US from Europe. My ancestors owned slaves in the United States and displaced Indigenous Peoples on both sides of the border. I have to reconcile with this: my family and skin colour have afforded me advantages in life that not everyone experiences. 

What I have realized is that with this privilege comes responsibility, and I don’t see how I can be an ally and start to make amends without taking action. My position as the Executive Director of the West Kootenay EcoSociety comes with power, as does being the head of any organization. With this, I have made a commitment in this role to reflect on why this space has been led predominantly by white settlers for the past 27 years.

Create a safer work environment and team culture for staff and team volunteers.

  1. West Kootenay EcoSociety is a certified Living Wage employer. The Living Wage is a calculation done, by region, to determine what is the basic wage that should be paid to staff for them to meet their basic needs (food, housing, etc.). This means even our temporary student positions are paid a Living Wage because young people deserve to have their basic needs met too. I would like to challenge all employers, even those in non-profits to meet this Living Wage standard; anything less is not just, equitable or fair to employees trying to earn a living to support their basic needs.
  1. Staff have been required to attend justice, equity, diversity and inclusion training (JEDI). In fall 2020, our staff and board members began learning about diversity and inclusion in a two-part workshop with local educator Carla Stephenson. In addition, we co-sponsored the Anti-Racism Day organized by the Mir Centre at Selkirk College, and staff participated for the full day. We continued required staff training that board members also attended with Bakau Consulting. This included Anti-Oppression, LGBTQ+ Inclusion, and Inclusive Language workshops. We will continue learnings and workshops in an ongoing way. All new staff are required to watch recordings of two workshops and pass a quiz to ensure they have the basic understandings of a safe workspace and culture where everyone can feel safe to be who they are.
  1. We’ve formed two staff and board committees populated with people who identify as part of the LGBTQ2SAI+ community and Indigenous and People of Colour communities (we do not have any Black People on staff or on the board at this time). These committees meet periodically to discuss how the training workshops are meeting their needs to feel comfortable at work in the organization. Decisions on what further workshops, training, policies, procedures, etc made by these committees will be taken forward for the EcoSociety.

Actively pursue truth and reconciliation

There is no doubt for me that colonization is still happening right here in the West Kootenays. For two years, as a board and staff, we’ve been trying to understand the history and truth of the West Kootenay region. When the federal government declared the Sinixt Peoples extinct in 1956 under the Indian Act, it wasn’t because there were no longer Sinixt Peoples. If I were to deny that the Sinixt Peoples were the first peoples in most of the West Kootenays, I would be denying my understanding of the truth. Therefore, I cannot begin to contribute to reconciliation. We have been doing this learning about the West Kootenay region, its first peoples, its history of colonization, and more recent politics. We have a working truth and reconciliation board & staff permanent committee and plan to release a statement and policy later this year. 

On June 21, non-indigenous staff and board members and volunteer team leaders observed National Indigenous Peoples’ Day by participating in a ½ day workshop and went through these seven steps. Our Indigenous staff had the day off with pay to mark the day as they saw fit.

Required and paid staff development

We pay staff to attend all learning opportunities, like trainings and workshops, to show that this is a priority in their work and should be a required part of ongoing professional development for everyone. 

Through our commitment to this work, I’m proud that our staff is now more diverse than ever, with senior management from the LGBTQ2SAI+ community, the Indigenous community, as well as women and youth. Meet the team! 

Sharing learnings with our community

We’ve seen most recently at Fairy Creek how Indigenous rights connect with environmental and extraction policies. For example, on the May 31 Fairy Creek BC day of action, we ensured that event organizers outside Minister Conroy’s constituency office observed a moment of silence at 2:15pm with demonstrators to mark the horror of the unmarked graves of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. And as an organization, we are not supporting vigils or other activities led by settlers without the blessing of the Indigenous Peoples in their region. Collectively, we need to support Indigenous People to have self-determination on their lands with their traditional laws and reckon with what that means for people, like me, who are settlers. 

I hope we can further develop campaigns that get at the heart of inequality that results in environmental degradation. We need to make sure people have their basic needs met, and they are safe before we can expect anyone to get involved in defending clean air, water and land. I also believe we need to meet people where they are at on any issue. We are organizing a series of webinars this year for our members to educate our members on how the environment, people, racism, justice, and equity all connect. 

I hope by providing these learning opportunities, our members and supporters can continue individual and collective learning and help the organization move into this new era of advocacy to support people and a healthy environment.

Let’s talk

Please let us know how you are working through and taking action on these significant issues.

  • Tell us what you are doing to further understand truth and the steps you are taking in reconciliation where you live.
  • Tell us what environmental and social justice means to you and why it’s important to you.
  • Tell us how we can support you in your learnings and next steps.
  • If you run a business or organization, tell us what’s holding you back from being a certified Living Wage employer or what made you shift your practices to become a certified Living Wage employer.

You can get in touch with us at

Montana Burgess is the EcoSociety’s Executive Director