Nov. 9, 2020

Indigenous researcher puts allyship under the microscope

Psychology research project takes hard look at nature and effectiveness of allyship with First Nations groups
L to R: Miranda Harbourne, Dr. Adam Murry and Elena Buliga are working on a study on allyship with Indigenous groups.
L to R: Miranda Harbourne, Dr. Adam Murry and Elena Buliga. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report in 2015, resulting in the federal government’s commitment to resetting its relationship with Canada’s First Nations, many non-Indigenous people began waving the flag, so to speak, proclaiming themselves to be Indigenous allies.

  • Pictured above, from left: Miranda Harbourne, Adam Murry and Elena Buliga.

But in reality not all allies are created equal, says Dr. Adam Murry, PhD, an assistant professor of Indigenous psychology at the University of Calgary. Some are truly committed to the hard work and sacrifices involved in making societal changes, while others merely pay lip service to the cause. 

Their support can be superficial, sometimes insincere even, more a virtue signaling pose than anything else. Some offer allyship in a condescending, patriarchal fashion, never truly listening to or learning from the Indigenous groups they mean to help. And of course there are those who, perhaps unwittingly, cling to harmful racial stereotypes, a hurdle to any effective allyship they can offer.

“It’s a really tense situation if the people helping you are doing so inappropriately, because it’s a short bench,” says Murry. “You feel like you can’t call those folks out because they think they’re helping you — and you actually need that help.

“Anyone can claim allyship. But it’s a landscape full of pitfalls and false starts. As it becomes popular, more people are getting informed and becoming engaged, and some of it is authentic. But some of it is inauthentic or, at least, really misguided. I feel like we need to have a serious conversation asking, ‘What do you mean by allyship?’ We need to talk about it in a way that’s practical and operational, rather than personal.”

With these concerns in mind, Murry and doctoral student Elena Buliga, along with research assistant Miranda Harbourne, have launched a study on the nature of allyship with Indigenous populations.

Murry and his team recruited 90 non-Indigenous undergraduate students and presented them with 90 statements on the spectrum of feelings, opinions and relationships with Indigenous people, asking the participants to rank how closely they agreed, disagreed or related with each statement.

Three types of allies

From the answers they received, the psychologists were able to identify three ways of acting in solidarity with Indigenous people, with one of the groups breaking into two subgroups. Each of these groups was found to have distinct perceptions and understandings of Indigenous people.

They dubbed one group “friendly appreciators": people with an appreciation for Indigenous culture and who wish to have peaceful, harmonious relationships with First Nations people. However, says Buliga, “They’re not so interested in learning the lessons of history or versing themselves in the politics of the situation and they don’t want to take the steps necessary for moving forward with the reconciliation process. They don’t really want to be bothered by these concerns.”

Another group was identified as “anxious invalidators.” They feel that First Nations should let go of the past and they are generally not in favour of any special repatriations or government assistance for Indigenous people. Interestingly, when asked if they considered themselves to be Indigenous allies, some from this group felt they were.

“We started off thinking this was a negative group,” says Harbourne. “But as we examined it we started realizing we couldn’t label them as strictly negative. They have this general feeling that everyone has the ability to better their lives and that nobody should be given special privileges or concessions. There was often an appreciation that something should be done to better the situation for Indigenous people, but they felt this wasn’t anybody else’s responsibility. They tend to believe that First Nations are holding themselves back.”

The final group was identified as “supporters,” who are in agreement that more needs to be done across the board to address Indigenous oppression. However, this group was split into two subgroups: “passive supporters” and “activists.”

Passive supporters think the government should be doing more to support Indigenous people but they’re less willing to take an active role in the reconciliation process by putting themselves out on a limb, be it by marching in protests or jeopardizing their relationships. Activists, on the other hand, are willing to take on these risks.

Risk in allyship

“Risk is the key here,” says Buliga. “There’s a safety risk when you’re marching in a protest. You put yourself in a vulnerable place where you can be met with aggression. Activists are willing to risk their close personal relationships, too. Say, if you have a family member with racist views, activists are willing to stand up and correct them. Or, in the workplace, they’re willing to say something if someone makes an inappropriate joke. Passive supporters shy away from these risks.”

This supporter activist subgroup generally makes for the most effective and desirable Indigenous allies, says Murry. He adds, however, that this group has its counter-productive members too. “There’s folks that are way too pushy, that take over other people’s agendas and hold themselves as morally superior."

The Indigenous allyship study was inspired in part by a 2018 Angus Reid report which showed that many Canadians disagree with the federal government’s approach to reconciliation, viewing the money and attention going to Indigenous issues as ineffective. “The Angus Reid findings were interesting, but I felt it was more nuanced than that,” says Murry.

While the Angus Reid report examined the attitudes of its participants, Murry’s team takes it further, also incorporating behaviours and intentions. “We’ve shown that people can simultaneously hold positive and negative views,” says Murry. “This binary dichotomy that you’re either an ally or not is not so simple and, frankly, the word ally is getting watered down.

It’s not like we’ve taken God’s measurement stick here and dipped it into our participants to determine who they are. What we’re trying to do is characterize an orientation towards what non-Indigenous people think Indigenous people are or represent.

"We’re trying to identify the ways in which non-Indigenous people are acting in accordance with what Indigenous communities would like. And we’re also pinpointing the ways that they’re not.”

As the study progresses, Murry and his team will also be interviewing Indigenous students and faculty members.

The ultimate goal of the study is to provide a more clear and operational guideline for non-Indigenous people who seek to be Indigenous allies.

“If someone says ‘I’m an ally and I want to help this group,’ this will make it possible to say ‘what do you mean by allysyhip?’ And when they respond we would have some criteria to actually say, ‘that’s not the type of ally we’re looking for.’ It also lays the groundwork for providing training on how to be an effective Indigenous ally. So many of these tense moments and rough collaborations could use a helping hand. In some ways I feel like we’re blowing up the elephant in the room that only half the room is even aware of.”

Faculty of Arts statement on equity, diversity and inclusion

The Faculty of Arts is committed to innovate and promote excellence in academic and creative research, academic programs, student experience, and community relationships. We acknowledge that diversity, equity, inclusion, Indigenization and human rights have to be at the core of this mission. We recognize that this journey involves members of equity-seeking groups and allies working together, and we will continue to develop individual and structural interventions to support and accelerate this process. 

ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. Walking parallel paths together, ‘in a good way’, with meaningful and authentic engagement for all, UCalgary is moving toward genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.

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