What Indigenous peoples in the North taught me about one of the most important traits in leadership

We were on the bus ride back from Dene territory near Slave Lake. Two young males were with me in the back, catching a ride back to Yellowknife. Yellowknife was the “Big City” for many people across this territory.

One was 21 years old and was taking his little brother, about 15, to get some pizza. We started to talk — the bus was full of 30 something, mostly middle class urbanites, and I wanted to make them feel comfortable. The older one shared his story: dropped out of school in Grade 9 and sold and consumed weed and coke. My heart was breaking — Canada is not supposed to have these kinds of stories. We’re too rich. But here it was — we’ve failed the Indigenous peoples.

But, he was planning to go back to school. “I want to be a carpenter. I need to finish high school so I can get in trade school. It’s really hard, man, really, really, hard but I gotta do it”. He was also relentless about seeing his brother succeeding, promising “if he drops out like me, I’m going to kick the living shit out of him”. We all chuckled, his brother nervously.

I’ve been travelling in Canada’s North for about a week– a few days in Inuvik, which is inside the Arctic Circle, and Yellowknife. I was part of the Banff Forum group, an annual conference that brings together Canada’s best and brightest youth for a few days in the hopes of developing stronger Canadian leaders. One way was to expose participants to the unique challenges facing the territory we were visiting. Even after more than a decade of travel to some of the most challenging geographies in the world, I was startled by what I saw:

● In one grocery story, they were selling 2L of milk for nearly $8 — after a 25% discount. 5 chicken breasts were sold for $45. Surprisingly, prices at the local KFC were similar to back home in the south. A nutritionist’s nightmare;

● I walked by what used to be the Inuvik’s residential school and found out it closed in the late 1990’s. The instincts of the war crimes attorney in me emerged — the government created this system of “schools” to eradicate Indigenous way of life. I spent the 90’s listening to dance music and playing Super Nintendo. This is not supposed to happen in “modern day” Canada;

● I learned about the permafrost and how climate change was melting it. The scientists stationed there let us know that microbiologists were worried about this. There is “stuff” frozen in the permafrost since the time of the dinosaurs; “stuff” like bacteria and viruses. And now, after millions of years, they’re about to defrost.

And yet, the Indigenous leaders and the people we met were not daunted. They talked about the plans they had to build new infrastructure projects to better connect Northern communities. The residential school’s hockey arena was converted into a vast community greenhouse. And local businesses found a way to nearly treble the number of Asian tourists visiting, an important source of income for them.

In the schools, conference centres, and even in the territory’s national assembly, the consistent message was this: we have challenges and we are moving on to overcome them. Almost unimaginably, I encountered stories of community leadership — building greenhouses, developing project proposals for foreign investment, and building further momentum for their fledgling tourism industry.

I firmly believe that overcoming adversity is a fundamental element of leadership. And the glut of books and articles on “grit” backs me up. Getting close to and even into the proverbial fire is what leaders are supposed to do. My own experiences are riddled with such burn marks.

Those in the North put me to shame. Here was a people who faced near eradication and continuing difficulty in their quotidian tasks and yet personified grit and hope. And they were succeeding.

I asked many how they did it — ow they found the strength to move ahead. Here are a few lessons they shared:

Culture is not just about learning — it’s a source of strength. Use it: For many I talked to, the ability to reconnect with their Indigenous culture was key to dealing with the challenges they faced. It gave them stories of others in the past who’ve successfully overcame hardship and a connection to their own community;

It is possible to overcome deep trauma: Even Disney movies have their protagonists overcome difficult challenges — Bambi’s mom was killed by a hunter early in the script. No one should underestimate life’s ability to be nasty, even horrifying, like the residential schools. The Indigenous communities in the North have survived and are making inroads to overcome them. The rest of us should draw inspiration from this; and

Adapt and learn — cookie cutter solutions will get you nowhere: I was told “In the North, if you’re not good at everything, you’re good at nothing”. This is a part of the world where they’ve learned to develop new skills because they had to and not to build up a CV. Because there’s no other alternative. It takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness and humility to acknowledge this. It’s also about balancing the need between generalist knowledge and expertise.

Clara hosting us in her site — a great example of an Indigenous woman entrepreneur tapping into her heritage

I am not trying to say that we should not be concerned about the issues of the North. Groceries are still overpriced due to a local monopoly; jobs are scarce; and living conditions are widely acknowledged equal to many emerging countries such as Iran and Albania despite living in one of the wealthiest countries globally. What I am saying is that the challenges have been daunting and it would have crushed me — I don’t know if I would have had the same level of strength as many of the local leaders I met. I am also saying is that many have not only survived but thrived and they should be the kind of people we should all hope to partially emulate.

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Thomas Park

Driven to work on cool projects that help people. I now work in government venture capital & private equity to drive Canadian innovation