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Indigenous Leaders: Balancing stories of challenges with stories of success

IPAC president Krystal Abotossaway bridging cultures inside and out of her role as TD senior manager
Krystal Abotossaway is the senior manager of TD's human resources leadership development program, and the president of the Indigenous Professional Association of Canada.

Human resources wasn’t exactly where Krystal Abotossaway saw her life going.

Her success selling chocolate-covered almonds as a community fundraiser when she was younger made Abotossaway think that maybe sales was her path. Certainly her outgoing personality helped.

But her grandfather convinced her that human resources would allow her to combine all her skills including a love of acting for what she called “a tremendous opportunity.”

It’s likely that neither understood at the time just how tremendous that opportunity would be.

A proud member of Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Abotossaway joined RBC as a national diversity recruitment coordinator, soon after graduating from York University with an honours of business administration degree in HR.

She became a diversity inclusion talent sourcing specialist a year later. Not long after that, TD asked Abotossaway to join their team where she eventually worked her way up to senior manager of the HR leadership development program, the position she has held since May.

Volunteerism is also very important to Abotossaway, and she sits on many boards including the Indigenous Professional Association of Canada (IPAC), of which she is president.

But Abotossaway’s job titles don’t fully describe the impact she has had. She is often a bridge between cultures, helping business understand what reconciliation might look like within their walls.

“Organizations on Bay Street were keenly interested in looking at their (Indigenous) representation. There were a number of reasons why that has happened over the last couple of years,” she said.

However, Abotossaway said, those organizations didn’t necessarily know how to go about increasing representation in the right way. Abotossaway was an obvious choice to provide them insights given her roles with RBC, TD, and IPAC, among others.

“I often was asked to come in and talk to their top acquisitions team, their recruiters, their executives and work through what that could look like for them depending on where they were in their own inclusion journeys.”

That sentiment has to go beyond Bay Street, Abotossaway said, from small startups right on up.

“Everyone has to have their doors wide open, not just large corporations. Everyone has to be educated and relearn and unlearn certain things in their lifetimes to get to a place where we need to be.

“There’s been progress — I’ve seen it,” Abotossaway said. “To the extent to which it has happened, I’m not sure if it’s for you or I to make a call on. We have to meet halfway on that path. That’s why reconciliation is so important.

“From my own experience, we both have to show up. And if one of us doesn’t, we’re not going to see reconciliation,” she said. “As long as we both keep our arms open wide, we’ll still see that.”

Those principles apply within the Ring of Fire, too.

Abotossaway said that there is a road forward to opening up the mineral wealth it contains. But there are challenges.

“There is obviously a history there already,” she said. “What we can’t deny is that the word of mouth in our communities is so strong, and that is being passed down whether it’s a negative experience or a positive one.

“The way that it’s been — obviously, that’s not working. You have to change the model…. It might be scrapping the model altogether, being brave to say, ‘What could it look like in the future?’ and making sure that all the right stakeholders are there, and there often.”

In other words, it goes back to good communication, Abotossaway said. “We forget that the relationship and trust elements can make or break those decisions.”

One of Abotossaway’s key messages is that Indigenous peoples in Canada shouldn’t be seen as a single entity.

This is another area where she has firsthand experience. Abotossaway calls herself an urban Ojibwe Anishinaabe Kwe from both Aundeck Omni Kaning on her father’s side and from Chippewas of Rama First Nation on her mother’s.

“(Indigenous peoples living across Canada are) not homogeneous, but I always find a commonality when someone shares their story.”

Abotossaway wants to recognize all the affirmative stories Indigenous peoples have to tell, not just the struggles.

“I’ve tried to spread more positive stories. And although there are things that we have to identify as real barriers and challenges, I want to balance the challenges with opportunities…. We should be talking about the successes, because there are so many successes. But somehow those don’t get the same media attention. That’s part of my mission — to share all the great things.”

That’s especially true for Indigenous youth, which Abotossaway takes extra time for through presentations, connecting them with mentor-like professionals within IPAC, and even personally providing encouragement and support. In a way, she’s paying forward the help she got along the way.

“It’s very rewarding. I’ve been inspired in my lifetime by someone believing me or someone giving me that confidence boost that I needed. Sometimes we need to hear it for ourselves, especially when we’re young. I try to give back in that way.”

Abotossaway said she often gets feedback from youth saying that her story resonated with them and inspired them to do great things. “If I can affect one person in that audience, it’s worthwhile.”

Since joining the corporate world, Abotossaway has gone back to get her master’s degree in HR from York and is currently working on a master's of business administration from Ivey Business School (Western University). But here, too, she is a bridge.

“I want to keep that balance between Western education as well as spiritual education — traditional ways of knowing and doing,” she said. “Being strong in both is, I think, so important to the work I may do in the future. What that is, I don’t know... but there is something bigger for me later in life.”

There are many who have met Abotossaway who can’t wait to see what that might be, too.