By Élise Brown-Dussault
When someone asks you to write a short bio, or a cover letter, or to present yourself at conference, what they are actually asking is: please explain why you deserve to be heard.
For example, I might say: Hi, my name is Elise. I work for X branch of government. I received my education from Y schools. I run an environmental non-profit. This gives me the authority to comment on sustainable development goals (SDGs) like climate action and life on land.
We all inherently know that there is a market value to certain qualifiers. Your ethnicity, your age, your educational status, your job, your gender, and your country of origin can all play a role in giving value – or not – to your insights. When someone has a PhD in sociology and works for United Way Canada, they are qualified to speak on SDG2 Zero Hunger. When someone is an MP or a CEO, we grant them credence automatically.
We may acknowledge that these qualifiers draw from wells of colonial privilege and inherently disadvantage a host of marginalized Canadians, those within any group prone to discrimination due to race, gender, economic class, immigration, housing status, etc. (The term “marginalized” is itself inherently debasing and should be replaced. I use the term in this blog post in its current terminology, but imagine heavy quotation marks at each usage.)
Still, many of us are reluctant to let go of our own colonial qualifiers lest we appear to offer an inferior contribution.
During her land acknowledgement at Together|Ensemble 2022, Canada’s national conference on tracking progress on the SDGs, Indigenous Elder Jean Becker made herself very clear: meritocracy has failed reconciliation and it has failed the social and natural environments we are all trying to preserve.
I wonder if part of the reason is the meritocratic way in which we choose decision-makers in this country. So often we listen to a voice that says, I have studied barren-ground caribou for twenty years but, too rarely to one that says, I hunt caribou for survival. Or, we hear and listen to I work with survivors of domestic violence and not I am a woman and a loving mother of children whose future I worry for.
In our modern pledge for inclusion we strive to listen to other voices, but in the absence of colonial qualifiers, we need something else to value voices.
In the excellent Re-Imagining the Leave No One Behind pledge of the 2030 Agenda session at Together|Ensemble 2022, three speakers, all trailblazers at their respective organization or institution, spoke to the safety and integrity hurdles they face in having their voices listened to as marginalized SDG activists.
They explained that if a marginalized Canadian wants to join the conversation, they need to prove their oppression. They must relive their traumatic experiences of racism, of sexism, of violence, of poverty. If one does not have any, or does not wish to share explicit details, one’s marginalized opinion depreciates. The price is a vulnerability which is never asked for from non-marginalized Canadians.
If I’m speaking in front of others, there is very little I must justify to my audience. No one will ask but where are you from-from? No one will have me speak for millions of others by asking How can we get white people to care about clean water and sanitation in poorer communities (though it’s a question worth asking)? Yet, this is something we ask of marginalized Canadians constantly – to prove their place, and to represent all others “like them.” In doing so, we demean and miss out on so many critical insights across all 17 SDGs.
To introduce oneself using colonial qualifiers is to continue to be complicit with a triage system which places some voices far over others. If we functioned under the assumption that all our voices are valuable when it comes to Canada’s socioenvironmental issues, how would we introduce ourselves to one another?
About the Author
Élise Brown-Dussault is a young Canadienne living in the beautiful Yukon Territory. She carries with her gifts from her family, such as a love of peanut butter, blue, and meteorology from her maternal grandparents and an appreciation of camping, orange soda, and musical composition from her paternal grandparents. She has an adorable dog and two pieces of paper from two post-secondary institutions.