By Kimberley Puhach
One of the most common questions I am asked — in my personal and professional lives — has to do with appropriate use of terminology when referring to certain individuals and groups. It is usually focused on Indigenous Peoples, but sometimes includes a broader conversation on gender and persons who identify within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, and two-spirit — or LGBTQ2S — community.
Often, these are informal discussions with those who are comfortable sharing their thoughts and who are genuinely interested in understanding more, while hoping not to offend anyone at the same time. After all, it is an important conversation. What’s behind the fear and sensitivity in addressing it? How do we have respectful dialogue on these critical topics?
It seems complicated, doesn’t it? That’s because identity is a complex issue. The good news? It doesn’t always have to be, if we take the time to consider a few things when we broach these seemingly touchy situations.
First, ask yourself: Why don’t we know? Look at where we are as Canadians today. Look at the world. Yes, times are a changin’. Diversity and inclusion are being discussed with great prominence in most organizations. Human rights are at the core of this dialogue and, in some cases, basic rights such as equality are a large part of the conversation.
Civility in the face of the current world context and events that surround us become more punctuated. It’s hard to imagine that we still have so much work to do considering who we are as Canadians and how we rank as one of the top countries in the world to live in. We are a friendly, happy, and apologetic bunch! All of this makes the topic of language and terminology worthy of some head-scratching.
You are likely wondering by now what this has to do with how we talk about and refer to other groups of people. Well, it has become clear that it starts with us. It is about educating ourselves as a first step. To know where we are going, we need to know where we have been. Knowledge is our most powerful weapon against ignorance. When we come to understand that the how, what, and why of our language and actions have many meanings and consequences, then it becomes much easier for us to understand how we navigate these sometimes choppy waters.
There is so much information available to us today. Go out and research at least the basics of those areas you are unsure about. Education will provide you a greater comfort level while engaging in sensitive topic areas. There is no substitute for doing your homework.
We are living at a time when reconciliation and Indigenous inclusion efforts are underway through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which are the foundations to Canada moving forward together. Canada is just learning about its own history. And then there is the #MeToo movement. Overall gender equality dialogue and the related LGBTQ2S inclusion within these important discussions are now on our agendas — and rightly so. Why is this important? How does this affect the way we have conversations, and the terms we use? All we know is that it does, and that it really matters.
This column’s genesis was born of the idea that we need to talk about and share information. I was recently having a conversation with a good friend, and we started down the path of how I felt about the evolving terms used for Indigenous Peoples. She had sent me an article from Maclean’s on the topic that spurred an interesting chat, which led us in a couple of directions, including how we should refer to women and LBGTQ2S individuals and groups. What we should say, and what we may not want to say, are questions we all have.
As I thought about our conversation more, and as I asked colleagues, friends, and folks who had lived experiences in the areas we were talking about, a few things became clear: There is a need to learn more, to keep the conversation going, and to keep a few things in mind while doing so. Not being an expert by any means, I consulted with trusted advisors and wanted to share their thoughts and insights in three key themes: Educate and learn, know the situation, and practice humility. I will be doing just that in future issues of Prairie Manufacturer Magazine.
At the end of the conversation, we boiled it down to something simple: If you aren’t sure and you don’t know, just ask that individual how they like to be addressed or referred to. What is most important, however, is asking in a respectful way that comes from curiosity and kindness rather than suspicion or judgement. And, if you are presenting to a group or in a group setting, consider declaring your openness to stand corrected as you share information on topic areas you are not certain about. When we are truly interested, it is not what you ask but how you ask that is most essential, and this includes the reason for why you are asking. This builds bridges rather than creates barriers in genuine and authentic understanding.
What’s wrong with that approach? What an opportunity! There may be an opinion that is different from what the political line is on a subject, and this opens the dialogue and the chance to learn more about each other and topics that affect our workplaces and lives overall. A great piece of advice that was shared with me was two-fold: Remember the Golden Rule, treating others the way we want to be treated and thinking of the person first rather than the label that may accompany that person. And, when in doubt, just ask!
Kimberley Puhach is the director of human resources and Indigenous inclusion at the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology. She also serves as chair of the Mayor’s Indigenous Advisory Circle in Winnipeg, and was recently appointed to the MAVEN Leadership Council, which aims to address gender equality in the tech sector.
Have a question? Just ask.
Conversation is a powerful tool. It has the potential to break down barriers, dispel stereotypes, build understanding, and strengthen relationships.
Sometimes, however, the sensitivity around a particular topic can result in those conversations not taking place, regardless of how important they really are. That’s why, in 2019, we here at Prairie Manufacturer Magazine are committing to steps to improve the dialogue.
Each of our four issues over the next year will feature a Just Ask column that explores diversity and inclusion, and the terms we use in our everyday lives. These informative editorials will focus on gender dynamics (Spring 2019), Indigenous inclusion (Summer 2019), LBGTQ2S (Fall 2019), and workplace diversity (Winter 2019).
I hope you will join us and be a part of the conversation.
Publisher, Prairie Manufacturer Magazine
Just Ask Guest Columnist