Diversity: Reconciliation, profound conversations and social innovation


With Margarida Garcia and Patti LaBoucane Benson



In this episode Dr. Margarida Garcia speaks with 2004 Scholar, Dr. Patti LaBoucane Benson, a Métis Senator from the Treaty 6 territory, a lecturer for the Peter Lougheed Leadership College, the director and lead facilitator for the Nelson Mandela Dialogues, and author of an award-winning novel, The Outside Circle. They talk about ways of creating sacred spaces that are both safe and uncomfortable at the same time, by involving elders, creating specific rules, and using skillful moderation. Such spaces, where kindness and curiosity about the other are key, are generators of social innovation and transformation. Dr. LaBoucane Benson also delves into the concept of mino-pimatisiwin as a life-long pursuit, and the Sun Dance ceremony that may give us a glimpse into what a more inclusive future might look like.





Generating conversations that facilitate transformation, creating spaces for dialogue that have an impact on our ways of being, and our ways of acting are two of the highest social justice priorities of our times. And that is why I'm so excited about the conversation I am about to have with my guest today, Dr. Patti LaBoucane Benson. She is a master in creating such dialogues and such spaces. She knows the importance of shared ceremony in bringing about cultural shifts in relationship and the possibility of authentic reconciliation.

Dr. Patti LaBoucane Benson is a Métis Senator who grew up on Treaty 6 territory and the first indigenous person to hold a position of leadership in the Senate of Canada.

Before that Dr. LaBoucane Benson was the Director of Research, Training and Communication of the Native Counseling Services of Alberta, a lecturer for the Peter Lougheed Leadership College and for the University of Alberta Executive Education, as well as the conference director and lead facilitator for the Nelson Mandela Dialogues held in Canada in 2017.

Based on her PhD research, her first novel, The Outside Circle, is a work of creative nonfiction about healing and reconciliation for an inner-city Aboriginal family. The Outside Circle was on the Globe and Mail’s top ten Canadian books and on the Outstanding International Books 2016 list by the United States Board on Books for Young People, and the winner of the Burt Award for First Nations and Métis literature.

Patti, I'm so happy to welcome you to Brave Spaces! Thank you for being with us today.


I'm very happy to be here today. And thank you for that warm welcome.  Today I'm actually on the Algonquin Anishinaabe Territory, where I work, but I have been born, raised, and still live in the beautiful Treaty 6 Territory, in Alberta.

So, thanks for having me.


Patti, although I do not know where this conversation will take us, and I actually want to invite you to freely explore any path you think is useful and important, I know exactly where I want us to start. On Tuesday, the 13th of July, 2021, you hosted and facilitated with Allen Benson in Edmonton, Alberta, in your home, in your house, in your land, in your territory, an encounter between members of the Trudeau Foundation, elders, indigenous community leaders and scholars. I had the privilege to be there.

Patti, I was inspired and impacted by the space you and Allen created for us to be, for us to listen, for us to reflect, to heal, to understand, to laugh, to cry. I was inspired and impacted by the setting, the lived experience of ceremony and protocol, the way it generated authentic sharings, meaningful silences. I saw everyone in the circle sharing their humanity. When I was asked to write about that experience, I looked back and I realized that although we were together for only three days, I was transformed by it, and I have been thinking about it since then.

So, how is that experience that you created an illustration of the kind of spaces that we need to create, so that we can honor inclusion, diversity, and justice, and reconciliation?


Well, thank you for that.  Well, to start, hosting the Foundation was an honor, and Allen and I thought really deeply about how we would create that sacred space, where meaningful dialogue could happen, transformative experiences could take place, and, maybe, a little bit of social innovation around how we communicate and how we relate, how we build relationships within institutions, like academia.

And so, I think that, for me, it is about all of the things you talked about, you know, moving towards reconciliation, but more importantly, maybe, on a grander scale, it's about social innovation.

It's about how we come together and listen, how our thoughts are kind of forced to be expansive, that in the sitting and listening, we are constantly thinking laterally. We're constantly hearing what people are sharing and then comparing it. It's kind of like a grounded theory experience, a constant comparative experience, where we're thinking about, okay, this is what I know to be true, and now I'm hearing this information, I'm taking that information, and I'm integrating it into my thought process. And, hopefully, what the outcome of all of this, you know, constant comparative reflection is, that my thoughts, the way that I see the world, the way that I see the people in this circle are transformed.

The application of that can be vast, especially in the transformation of institutions, where, I think, we have the most work to do. Especially institutions… and I'll use the academia as an example, but it certainly isn't the only one, especially in institutions where competition is first and foremost, the guiding principle or the guiding thought around how I move in this space. I mean, it's constantly in competition with my colleagues around me. I, you know, broadly, in the country and internationally.

How do we set that competitiveness aside? Not that competition is bad, but set it aside, so that we can have these transformative experiences. How can we set it aside so that we can truly hear one another, and constantly seek that common ground? I think reconciliation is about common ground. It's important in Canada today. Certainly, for indigenous and non-indigenous people. It's important in our world – how we see each other. I mean, we only have to look at what's going on internationally right now with the Ukraine to understand how we don't hear each other. You know, we're not talking and listening effectively in the world. How do we lead in those spaces? These are, and I don't have all the answers, but I'm certainly interested in learning more about that.


You certainly have a lot of great questions. And what do you think are the important things to take into consideration when offering and creating a sacred space?


The entire idea of creating sacred space is to create safety and discomfort at the same time, they're both equally important. Safety is, creating that space where people can really be vulnerable – vulnerable in their sharing, but also vulnerable in their hearing. So that they can actively listen and really hear what other people have to say, so that we can try to put ourselves in the other person's experience.

In that reflection, or in that empathy, we are transformed as human beings. And so, creating safety on one hand, but discomfort, because this shouldn't be comfortable. It's not creating safety so that everybody feels completely comfortable and remains in their bubble, as we say, of understanding. It's about pushing us into this space where we are highly uncomfortable, that we are being almost… not forced, but we are being pulled into thoughts, ideas, concepts, ways of seeing the world that are not comfortable to us. That's where the transformation comes. So, discomfort and safety, from an indigenous perspective, and that’s why we had elders in our process for the Trudeau Foundation. Elders are just a very important component in setting the rules. How are we going to interact with each other, specifically in a circle?

The only way to keep a circle safe and uncomfortable is by observing very strict rules. And so, those rules are: around one person speaks at a time, uninterrupted. We all wait our turn; we go around the circle. And often there's an object that we're holding, where we can pass that object to the next person as a symbol that it's now your turn to talk, for as long as you need to. And we will listen to everything you have to say. And we're not even going to respond necessarily to each person as they share. We just share and we listen, and it's the action of going all the way around that circle, listening, absorbing, thinking about, reflecting on what we're hearing, that we might arrive at thoughts that could be innovative, concepts that could be transformative.

The other thing I'll say is that, when we hosted the Trudeau Foundation, we went around that circle many times each day. Every time we went around, people felt, maybe, a little bit more safe to be vulnerable. We listened a little deeper. We understood the people in the circle, maybe just a little more profoundly. And from that perspective, we could hear more and we might transform more. So, it's a constant process of going around and around that circle. And I bet, if we would’ve had another day, we would’ve gone even deeper.


I'm very curious about something you're saying around a space being safe and being uncomfortable, because in our institutions, in academia, even in our classrooms and learning spaces, now I can feel a kind of intolerance around making people feel uncomfortable. And you are saying that there's no learning and no growing if we stay in our safe zone of comfort. So, in a way, sacred spaces, they’re brave spaces. And brave spaces, they allow for transformation only as much as we can go outside of our comfort zone. Speak a little more about that.


The really important part of what I'm saying and you're saying is that the circle has to be incredibly skillfully moderated. There has to be a facilitator that not only understands the rules, but understands why we have those rules and is able to, with kindness, caring, respect, humility… can hold that circle space. So that people do feel vulnerable, but they also feel like somebody is in control of this thing, that it's not going to get out of control, that at some point, nobody is going to shout down somebody else or break the rules of the circle, or feel like they have to answer somebody’s sharing right away.

That's not how this thing works. There has to be somebody in control of that circle, and the people in the circle have to trust the facilitator. Have to really trust this facilitator, that they are going to be able to manage all of that energy, all of those emotions that come up, because vulnerability is often a very emotional space. And that person has a very important, critical role and should be trained to do that.

And that facilitator, and in the case of the Dialogues that we had with the Foundation, that was my role, and Allen was supporting me as well in that process. And so, having done it before, I knew what was expected of me. I also understand that to do a good role of facilitating, there also has to be laughter, like you said. There's probably going to be tears, and that's okay.  There has to be points in the day, where we can come together, and we did this over meals, where we could just sit and have free dialogue that isn't as intense as the circle. All of those activities or events, or things that unfolded have to be thought about really carefully. How are we going to make sure that relationships are developing in that space as well?


Yes. I totally agree with what you're saying and all the opportunities to be together to share in that space, they kind of slowly transform being in a way, right?

What can we expect from a sacred space when it's created? What do you see are the benefits for the participants, but also for generating social innovation and transformation, like you were saying?


I have a hard time with putting expectations on the circle because, in the instance of the

Trudeau Foundation, but also, when I facilitated the Nelson Mandela Dialogues, I went into it just thinking about the rules and the process, but had no expectation about what was coming on the outside of it, right? Like, what the outcomes could possibly be. I did know that the outcomes for a circle are outcomes for the people.

It's the transformation of the people in the circle, and then they will create outcomes with new understandings, you know? And this was something that we were really clear about with the Nelson Mandela Dialogues too.  They were kind of aghast when I said, actually the final report is just a video and you are our final report. You are our outcome. What you are going to do when you leave here is the outcome of these dialogues.

I approached the gathering with the Foundation the same way. We were not going to have a report that came from all these academics, because, you know, everybody in that circle was super smart, very accomplished, could have written an amazing report. Man, we could have wordsmithed the heck out of that report! But I wasn't interested in that, in another report. I was interested in what are you going to do with this? What's your next step? Those are the outcomes that I think are important to our society. They may not be great for a proposal, you know, funding proposal for a final report, but they certainly make a difference in our society.

And that's where, I think, the change needs to be. The other thing about doing work like this, it really is about being in service to your community. And throughout the entire dialogue, for the Foundation specifically, I could see the students starting to really think about… They are already community minded people, they already want to change the world, but to think about, okay, what are the outcomes? What am I going to do? What is my very-very next step? I love that, I loved to hear when, especially students, are talking about what their next step was. They're placing themselves in leadership roles: I want to make this change; therefore, I'm going to do this. And that's exciting. That's how we change the world, one student at a time.


So, Patti, following on what you said, I would like to hear you on our current state in the formulation of policies of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace, in institutions, and in schools.

I think we both agree that this is a very important step, to have these rules written, but we can also agree that there's something that needs to be done beyond policy, beyond grades, written tools that is related to human beings. What's your take on the unwritten rules of a culture of equity, diversity, and inclusion that goes beyond the written policy?


So, I would say that policies on diversity and inclusion are only useful in drawing a line in the sand and explaining what will not be tolerated, and what meaningful consequences, if there are any, will come from that behavior that we find abhorrent. That's their only purpose. They're not guides to help people be more human in their workspace, they don't help in that perspective. I would say that true inclusion, true diversity, thinking in those ways, is all about kindness and curiosity. Curiosity about how other people think, how they see the world, their worldview, and kindness to people that we identify as being different than us.

No policy is going to make sure that everybody is kind to each other. That takes skilled facilitation. And we often leave that to managers and leaders inside of our institutions, to police it. But we do not necessarily train them on how to foster it, how to help people that they are responsible for supervision or overseeing. We train them on how to take really good case notes to provide evidence if action has to be taken, but we're not training people on how to be more human in the workplace and how to create spaces, where we can be fully human.  Because it's difficult, but we have to do that. So, that's my very cynical view on those policies. We still need them, though. You need to know where the line in the sand is, because if people are not willing to participate in the workspace in the way that we want them to, action has to be taken, but that should be 20% of the work that we do.

And now I'm really leaning on Allen Benson's idea of the 80/20 rule: 20% of what we do should be dealing with issues. And 80% of our actions should be about building relationships, because when we have good relationships, we can do that other piece, the dealing with the issues.


And I would say, even, Patti, that a lot of issues are created because there is no relationship, right?


Absolutely. I agree 100%.  And it's not easy to have a relationship focused on managerial style.  It really takes a lot of patience, a lot of kindness, a lot of time at the front end, but all of that relationship-building time that we spend makes it so that we don't have to spend so much time on issues. I'm much more interested in building relationships, far more interested.


I do agree with that. And it's not, like you said, we are not trained for kindness and we are not trained to show up at the table with our full humanity. And, you know, academia is not doing that.

How do you see that reform in higher education? How can we make educational spaces be also about kindness and curiosity, and humanity, like you said?


That's a big question, but I want to focus a little bit on the Trudeau Foundation. I think that, already the leadership at the Foundation is attempting to do this, attempting to train our next generation of leaders. Every single one of those students are going to be in leadership positions going forward.

The attempt right now is to train them to be open to other ways of knowing, communicating, relating inside the workspace, encouraging students to learn in different knowledge systems.

For me, the indigenous knowledge systems are really important, and everything I've learned about relationships, I've learned sitting in the circle with elders. And I wouldn't have any of that understanding if I didn't do that work. And my PhD, when I did it, was very much with elders and ceremony. It was a critical component of my research work. And, as a result, I think I understand the world a little bit differently. I'm able to use that understanding of who I am as a human being and how I relate to other human beings in really different and unexpected ways.

We will have leaders in our society, going forward, that are way more capable than, perhaps, when I was doing my undergrad, you know? We'll have professors that are stretching the boundaries of what these graduate degrees are, and what can be accomplished, and what kind of leaders we are turning out in the future.


And probably more happy students and more happy professors, right?

If we take care of those important things, those existential questions that we kind of chased out of academia, and if we put them at the center again, maybe something interesting will happen for all of us.

Can we use everything that you talked about? Do you see a space for all of that and the good life in, you know, institutions like the Trudeau Foundation or academia, or any kind of institution, actually?


So, my understanding of the good life draws on what I've learned in Cree ceremony about the concept of pimatisiwin. And pimatisiwin, mino-pimatisiwin means seeking the good life, but in a very, in the highest form of that good life, in the broadest sense of it. It's my emotional, mental, physical, spiritual health. How do I think about seeking the good life in my political life, in my social life, in the best possible way?

And so, certainly, learning to be more human has been a critical part of my mino-pimatisiwin, my seeking the good life.  It's been more about, how do I become a better human being? And that's been my… in every ceremony I participate in, because I'm a faster and a Sun dancer, is about becoming a better human being. That's all I'm there for – is, how can I be a better human being and create a better space for the people around me?

That idea of seeking mino-pimatisiwin is transformative. Living life in that way… And I do a poor job of it – I commit to it every morning, and I screw it up ten times during the day. Cause it's an ideal, it's something I'm trying to do.  For me, it has been the most important understanding in my life. It has guided my research; it’s guided my career choices. And even in my work now, in politics, you know, it's all about relationships. And so, the concept of mino-pimatisiwin, which I probably know this much about, just a little tiny bit about, is something I'm a lifelong learner of. The more human I am, I think, the better human being I am, and the more value I can give to this world.


Wow. Okay, Patti, last question. Thank you so much for that. So, that was kind of a treat just there.  But let me invite you to an exercise. So, let's imagine a future in which a culture of respect for diversity and inclusion, and reconciliation, and relatedness is a reality, where reconciliation is realized, where indigenous lives, worldviews, philosophies, values, and ways of being are a major source of inspiration for all. What would that look like, in your opinion?


What it would look like, to me, is the Sun dance lodge, you know? What it would look like to me, is community coming together with a shared purpose, living by a set of rules that are not complicated, but profound rules, like kindness, caring, sharing, freedom, humility, respect, love. All human beings placing that, those values at the forefront and letting those values inform every relationship that we have.

That's what the Sun dance holder tries to do in a Sun dance. He holds that space for us. The social contract, which is kind of an awful way of saying it, but is that we are all going to live those values in that Sun dance, and we're going to pray for the people. It's the most powerful ceremony that I know of, and I'm not an expert. And I am just a humble dancer watching what's happening.

So, when you asked me, what that would look like, I think I've experienced it.

It's something that I could be very emotional thinking about.

The other thing that I know to be true is that it's entirely possible. You know, it's not an ideal, it’s something we can do, if we have the will to create it.


Thank you for that, Patti, really, and thank you for this conversation that touched our hearts, our minds, and our willingness to contribute to that good life that we can build together. Thank you so much.


It was my honor. Thank you for having me.