June 14, 2021

Are All “Allies” Really Equal? Tips on Being an Active Indigenous Ally

The UCalgary Psychology Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Blog

When the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed that 215 unmarked burial sites of Kamloops Indian Residential School students were found on the schoolgrounds late last month, many non-Indigenous people were shocked. Moved by grief and rage at the sudden realness of the ongoing Indigenous genocide, settlers all over Turtle Island, some for the first time, feel compelled to act. “I want to be a better ally,” a friend posted on social media, a public sentiment shared by many. In this blog post, I will discuss what new research says about how we can do just that, as a German-Mennonite Canadian settler committed to reconciliation.

Indigenous peoples in what is now Canada have long invited non-Indigenous allies to participate in anti-colonial work, encouraging settlers to remain accountable and responsible for dismantling destructive policies and practices. Because groups that are marginalized hold less systematic power than dominant groups, allies are needed to take on the work of redistributing power; yet some forms of “allyship” can do more harm than good. What does it really mean to be an ally and how can we go about it in a good way?

The research team I am part of at the University of Calgary is trying to understand just that. Still underway, our study’s preliminary results suggest that though many settlers consider themselves to be allies, certain actions and attitudes set some allies apart from the others. These allies, called “activists” or “active supporters” in the study, are willing to take risks in interpersonal and professional life to push back against oppressive systems and structures. They listen to those who face discrimination, respond through action with humility and vulnerability, and refrain from projecting their personal ideas of help and support. Committed to the work, they are whole-being allies, working toward relationship reparation and reconciliation with their heart, mind, body, and spirit.

So, what can we learn from this research about how we can become active allies?

Know your place. Understand your belonging. What is your relationship with the land you occupy? Which Indigenous groups lived on this land before your ancestors arrived, and likely are your neighbours still? Where did your ancestors come from? When did they arrive and what brought them here? What is your - ancestral and current - relationship with Indigenous peoples?

Do the work. Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ 231 Calls to Justice and the over 400 recommendations from the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples. Learn about treaties, systemic barriers Indigenous people still face today, and The Indian Act. Examine your anti-Indigenous bias and settler privilege and challenge how they show up in your life. 

Move aside. Indigenous Peoples know what they need best, and sometimes the best act of allyship is simply not being a barrier. Attune yourself to listen to the calls of action being made by those most well-equipped to speak on what constitutes reconciliation and act accordingly. Pay attention to when your presence is desired (and when it is not), show up when you are needed, and compassionately hold space knowing your job is to support, not lead.

Commit. It’s taken over 150 years for the nation-to-nation, Indigenous Peoples-Canada relationship to become what it has. True reconciliation, if it is to happen, can thus only take place within steady, trusting relationships. Allies must commit to the life-long practices of unlearning colonial knowledge as superior, learning Indigenous ways of knowing and being, and realigning their worldviews to centre sustainable, community-based solutions to problems.


In sum, allyship is a process, not a destination, and learning and growing is part of the act. Extend kindness to yourself and others when imperfect moments occur (and they will). Remember that true anti-colonial work is rooted in compassion, love, and forgiveness. It requires “listening to, and learning from, each other; building understanding; and taking concrete action to improve relationships” (TRC, 2015, p. 307).


TRC Calls to Action

Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 

Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

ii' taa'poh'to'p: The University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy

UToday Article: Indigenous researcher puts allyship under the microscope
UCalgary Podcast, “We can answer that” Episode 12: Are you an ally? 

Book: 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act

Podcast: Telling Our Twisted Histories


Thank you to Indigenous psychology professor Dr. Adam Murry, PhD candidate Elena Buliga, and research assistant Miranda Harbourne of the Indigenous Organizations’ and Communities’ Research Lab for speaking with me about this project. I’d also like to thank the Indigenous Students’ Circle, the Writing Symbols Lodge, and the Office of Indigenous Engagement at the UCalgary for the wealth of knowledge they have provided over the years.