‘Incredibly toxic’: More Indigenous women share stories of racism in the federal bureaucracy
The gaslighting and casual racism of Karin Moen’s workplace had become so distressing that she thought about killing herself in her building lobby at 10 Wellington Street in Gatineau, Que.
These thoughts followed her like a shadow for 18 months. After she typed up a suicide note on her desktop computer, Moen realized she needed help.
“That day I went to the doctor. I went on stress leave for two or three weeks and then came back. A few months later, I left the department altogether,” she said, adding that she still has the letter. “I don’t know why I kept it — but I kept it. I was reading through it the other day.”
She found it hard to read. A pattern of bullying, institutional gaslighting and systemic racism had led to anger, frustration and confusion. These emotions quietly gnawed away at her confidence and sense of self-worth.
“I knew that what was happening was wrong. I also at the same time thought, well maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m the problem. I’m obviously the problem. No one else here is experiencing this and it’s just me,” she explained.
“That’s kind of how the suicidal thoughts come into it. Because when you’re being made to believe that you’re the problem, then the obvious solution is to remove the problem.”
Moen is Métis from Alberta and worked for what was then known as Indigenous Affairs. She is the second person who told APTN News they considered ending their life in the building lobby.
“It’s incredibly toxic,” she said. “There’s lots of anti-Indigenous racism and lots of harm that continues to be perpetuated against Indigenous communities.”
Moen remembers being told to call up communities Ottawa had funded and ask them about unspent cash because, if they had this money laying around, the director might lose his bonus.
She recalls being told to write a letter to a First Nations leader who asked about resources for treaty education. When Moen responded honestly that they were slim, she says she was told to rewrite it and, this time, massage the message to make the government look good, even if it veered away from the truth.
After a First Nations leader had to duck out of a meeting with the minister, she says, a senior manager made a snide comment about “how he was probably betting on a horse race that was more important than meeting with the minister.”
She says this sort of thing happened often. She would start to question whether the comment was racist or not. Maybe you’re overreacting, she’d think. Everyone else laughed, after all. But not you.
It was a seed of self-doubt that grew slowly over time.
“It all adds up to a bigger picture of real disdain for Indigenous people. A perception of settler superiority and white saviourism is very deeply ingrained into the department,” said Moen. “It’s just everyday there will be comments. And they can be small, but they add up to a serious impact, I think, on Indigenous people.”
She says leaving the department saved her life, though she still struggles with a host of complex emotions and uses therapy to work through them. She gets anxious walking by the building or asking for time off at her new job.
And then there’s the guilt — irrational, maybe. But no less real. A little voice still haunts her. You went to this place to help people, to change things from the inside, it says. Couldn’t you have been stronger?
“But leaving the department was the only decision I could’ve made,” she explained. “I don’t know where I would be today. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I would’ve stayed, because I was very sick working there, mentally and physically.”
She depicted something called “the poisoned tree” for the project. It’s a metaphor for reconciling, reforming and decolonizing Canadian society.
“We keep putting new branches on a poisoned tree, expecting that they can flourish. They can’t,” said the report. “So the question is: how do we plant a new tree?”
Colonial, paternalistic and racist ideologies are the tree’s roots, according to the teaching.
Modern institutions are the trunk.
Stories like these would have to be the fruit — the fruit of a poisoned tree.