The discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School in May came as a terrible shock to the country. It was not a shock, however, to everyone. Like so many Indigenous people in Canada, Chief Roger Augustine was shaken by the horrific news but not surprised. “I attended a residential school in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, and I left very quickly because I knew it was a bad place,” says Chief Augustine. “Indigenous people have always known the truth about the residential schools. It broke my heart to hear the news. But at the same time, I took strength from it. I saw it as an opportunity to remember just how resilient we are, and to remind others that we need to rise from this kind of tragedy as stronger, wiser, and kinder people.”
It is in that spirit that Chief Augustine approaches his role as Regional Chief for New Brunswick/PEI, Assembly of First Nations. Having dedicated much of his adult life to serving Indigenous Peoples, he emphasizes that there will always be setbacks on the road to reconciliation, but that overcoming them is a critical part of the journey. The arrest of an Indigenous customer and his granddaughter opening up an account at a BMO branch in Vancouver in 2019 is an example of that. “I realized that that was a teachable moment,” he notes, “and I felt that it needed to be seen as a setback that could lead to something more positive.” Chief Augustine seized the opportunity to contact Darryl White and suggest that the Bank establish an Indigenous Advisory Council (IAC) to help shape BMO’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples across the country.
His intervention was timely. BMO already intended to create such a body to enhance consultation and bridge gaps, and BMO’s Head of People and Culture Mona Malone and Head of Canadian Business Banking Mike Bonner had begun formulating what it might look like, together with former Manitoba Cabinet Minister Kevin Chief. The incident in Vancouver accelerated the Bank’s focus, and when Chief Augustine called, Darryl White asked him if he would be willing to help lead the initiative. The Chief readily agreed, and the IAC was born.
Now entering its second year, the IAC represents one of BMO’s most prominent responses to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC’s Call to Action #92 is directed explicitly at the corporate sector, and it encourages companies to, among other things, provide education on Indigenous history to management and staff, and build respectful relationships by committing to meaningful consultation. The IAC is where the bank learns from the perspective of Indigenous leaders, who help shape what that education should look like, and how that consultation needs to take place. It comprises 12 leaders from Indigenous communities across the country and a BMO Co-Chair (Mike Bonner). Meeting at least four times a year, the Council’s focus is to shape training on Indigenous history and cultural awareness; promote jobs and training for Indigenous People; help achieve long-term, sustainable economic growth for Indigenous communities; and advise the Bank on ongoing relationship development with Indigenous Peoples.
“The IAC serves as a conduit for bringing Indigenous perspectives to senior management. It’s a powerful catalyst for change in relationships with Indigenous Peoples,” says Chief Augustine. “And I’m impressed with how BMO has evolved those relationships—not just through the Council, but also through a long history of treating Indigenous people with respect. I’ve worked with BMO since the 1980s, and I’ve always felt that the Bank views us as partners, not clients.”
A key feature of the IAC is its diversity. Reflecting the enormous cultural, economic, and geographic differences among Indigenous Peoples in Canada, it comprises representatives from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, as well as members who are urban and rural, living on-reserve and off, and working in a range of different sectors of the economy. Their breadth of experience is an acknowledgement that there is no one individual or group that can speak for all Indigenous people, and ensures that BMO is on solid footing as it sets out on the path to reconciliation.
That diversity also serves to address the three strategic areas where BMO is concentrating its efforts: education, employment, and economic empowerment. Those efforts take a variety of forms, such as the recently developed Nisitohtamowin e-learning course, which has been completed by nearly 25,000 BMO employees; a doubling of Indigenous employment at BMO over the last year, as well as partnering with First Nations University on student internships and employment opportunities; and a growth of our Indigenous banking business by over 50% in the past two years, as well as the introduction of our new Indigenous banking program in 2020.
These three pillars are of particular significance for Indigenous advancement, since they open the way to decolonization and progress for Indigenous Peoples, reflecting the calls to action for corporate Canada by the TRC. Chief Augustine is quick to stress that the pillars should also be supported by one that he considers even more important: spiritual strength. “My views on Indigenous spirituality come from my work at the Gitpo Spirit Lodge, on the banks of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick,” says Chief Augustine. “I’ve seen how empowerment—politically, economically, however you measure it—ultimately rests on a kind of internal strength and depth. Only someone whose spirit is strong can heal themselves and grow. And I bring that view to my work with the IAC—a recognition that the path BMO has embarked on with Indigenous Peoples is not just about material advancement, but also about Indigenous Peoples recovering from the generations of spiritual harm we have suffered.”
BMO recognizes that it has a role to play in supporting that process. While it has a longstanding and positive relationship with Indigenous communities across Canada, there is still far to travel in achieving the goal of reconciliation. The IAC plays a pivotal role in guiding our steps on that journey. “I feel confident that we are on the path to reconciliation,” adds Chief Augustine. “And I’m proud to be helping BMO as it finds the way forward.”