Since its inauguration in June 2018, the Yellowhead Institute has taken its direction from Indigenous communities and sought to fill a void of Indigenous-led critical policy perspectives in Canada. “By and large, the field of Indigenous policy and law is dominated by non-Indigenous folks. So the entire purpose for Yellowhead’s existence is to reframe those discussions and centre Indigenous voices,” says Executive Director Hayden King. The first of its kind in Canada, the think tank provides almost exclusively Indigenous perspectives to support Indigenous self-determination and influence policy.
In just over two years of operation within Ryerson University’s Faculty of Arts, the research team has been remarkably prolific. Collectively they’ve produced 90 briefs, special reports, and community tools and resources, including a major paper, Land Back, about how Indigenous Peoples have been dispossessed from land. The team is currently at work on Cash Back, which looks at economic development through a restitution lens.
For so long, says King, federal or provincial bureaucrats or consultants did the Indigenous policy work. But since the ’70s, Indigenous leaders have been calling for an organization like Yellowhead to provide analysis and research that offered alternatives to what the federal, provincial and territorial governments were proposing. And since stepping onto the scene, the institute has done just that: create policy briefs, infographics and toolkits to function as a sense-making filter between complex policy ideas and the communities they affect.
Not only do they speak to communities, but they reflect community perspectives back at government: their analysis and research is saturated in perspectives that have gone unheard. “There’s the saying coined by disability activists in the ’80s that goes, ‘nothing about us without us.’ It’s become a cliché, but it aptly summarizes my perspective,” says King.
“You cannot be making policy without the people who are directly affected by that policy. When we do our research and analysis, it’s critically important for us to be tapped into the community for their guidance, feedback, advice and criticism on where we should allocate our resources or what topics we need to be covering.”
They’re not speaking into a vacuum, however. Officials are listening. “I’m not sure how many organizations like ours can say that they influence federal policy directly and regularly, but our inaugural research report was on the federal government’s rights framework. This was a sort of broad self-government plan, and we were a major part of the campaign that pushed back against that framework. Ultimately, that legislation was shelved. I can cite three or four more concrete examples like this. So I’m proud to say that we’ve had a substantial impact on Indigenous policy in Canada.”
As the institute moves into its third year of operation, the team is widening their scope. King says their latest associates Megan Scribe, Lindsay Nixon and Anne Spice represent Indigenous voices that will take Yellowhead in entirely new directions.
“Indigenous policy has traditionally been the realm of Indigenous male leaders and academics. So I think our new colleagues’ work, which centres on Indigenous women and queer, trans and Two-Spirit young people who have really been marginalized from policy and governance discussions, is going to help reframe what we think of as policy and law. It may not be recognizable to the traditional voices in organizations and in policy, but I think it’ll be work that helps to refocus voices that rightfully belong in these discussions.”
By the numbers
of Yellowhead’s policy briefs are written by Indigenous authors
of Yellowhead’s artists are Indigenous
of the institute’s board members are Indigenous
of the 20 research fellows are Indigenous