Decolonizing Community Spaces

To decolonize: The process of deconstructing colonial ideologies of the superiority and privilege of Western thought and approaches. On the one hand, decolonization involves dismantling structures that perpetuate the status quo and addressing unbalanced power dynamics. On the other hand, decolonization involves valuing and revitalizing Indigenous knowledge and approaches and weeding out settler biases or assumptions that have impacted Indigenous ways of being. For non-Indigenous people, decolonization is the process of examining your beliefs about Indigenous Peoples and culture by learning about yourself in relationship to the communities where you live and the people with whom you interact.[1]

Equality: Providing everyone with the same number of resources, regardless of what one already has or does not have.[2]

Equity: Sharing resources based on need to level the playing field for all.[3] Equality can only be achieved by working together through equity building.

Northern and central Vancouver Island communities are working together to begin understanding how to decolonize health spaces. In early spring, Community Response Networks (CRNs), Community Health Networks (CHNs), and volunteers dialogued on the complex topics of representation, racism, diversity, and inclusion in a series of workshops and facilitated discussions.

Why These Conversations Are Happening Now

“These conversations stem from issues on racism, which is one of many contributors to abuse,” says Jane Osborne, Regional Mentor – Central and Northern Vancouver Island. “School districts, the health authority, and CHNs are focused on decolonization because there are 50 First Nations on the Island, with over 30 located in the central and northern island region. Each community is unique and has its own distinct history and challenges.[4] The commonality: our First Nations communities have suffered severe hardship and it’s time to change the narrative.”

Marcie DeWitt, Coordinator of the Alberni Clayoquot Health Network: “Some of the most common things we hear from teams include the desire to have someone with ‘lived experience’ at the table, or to have more representation, or the perception that things can’t move forward without representation, these points are all valid.

“The questions we also need to ask ourselves are: why do we need representation? What does this mean? Is this the space for these conversations and is it safe? Can we build processes to include rich community engagement regularly instead of on a when-required basis, or privileging a few voices at decision-making tables? Can we focus on building relations and shared understanding in the process rather than refer to colonial tools, such as Boards and terms of reference documents?”

To create safety for participants to navigate the topics at hand, a series of workshops facilitated by Christianne Paras and Erica Littlewolfe of Reclaiming Our Own Truths and Stories (ROOTS), was conducted over a three-week period.

For the community partners invited to participate, it started with conversations about what representation and diversity are and why they are important in the context of community health and wellness.

“We intentionally approached the conversations from a community perspective, as well as a BIPOC perspective to be relevant to other marginalized populations,” says Jane.

Community Health and White Supremacy

CRNs and CHNs in this region are intertwined, with the CHNs acting as the mechanism to address social issues, like abuse and neglect, and the social determinants of health.

The workshops brought awareness to how white supremacy culture is ingrained in the practices of the teams, in the ways of working, and in individual habits. The topics of power and language, and how they normalize Ethnocentric interactions and organizational processes and systems[5] that oppress communities whose cultures and norms differ. When it comes to the provision of social services, like health care, this means communities whose values align to the dominant culture will always be favoured and more privileged.

“Decolonization and equity work together, and as a CHN, we need the right kind of representation on our teams and not just tokenistic representation,” says Marcie. “When we look at health issues, such as homelessness, food access, and poverty, the impact of health equity is at the centre. There is also so much diversity within our communities. Looking at the practices we employ and the language we use help us understand how we may or may not be truly inclusive. It also showed how we perpetuate racist and white supremacist practices.”

The Start of More Conversations to Come

Decolonization is not a destination.

“You don’t arrive there. The learning is constant and always happening,” continues Marcie. “It was so interesting: everyone is at a different place in their learning. We worked through conversations of equity on boards, project diversity, and how things aren’t currently working. We also saw some wonderful acknowledgments from people who initially didn’t understand the issues, to recognizing that these social issues exist locally. I’ve been working with the CHN for five years now, and the types of questions being asked have changed.”

“I’m so glad we did the work,” says Jane. “Restorative justice is helping shift and transform organizational cultures. I also realized there is so much work to do. I’m looking forward to what’s next and where we need to go.”

Tips on How You Can Start Decolonizing Your Space

  • Start with you. Challenge your values and systems. Do they perpetuate racism and inequity? How?
  • Set the scope of your decolonization work with your community. Work with your communities to set your objectives, timelines, and budgets. This will help keep the work moving.
  • If there are communities where there are no pre-existing relationships, ensure you have ample time to relationship build in your timelines.
  • Consider and examine your language. How do the terminology you use and your communication style reinforce oppressions with communities you are working with?
  • Assess your organizational structure and engagement mechanisms. Are you asking communities to come to you? Or, are you going to them?

For more information about these workshops, please contact Jane Osborne ( or Marcie DeWitt (

Written by: Debbie Chow, Links Communication Solutions. Follow Debbie on LinkedIn: @debbiechowabc.





[4] There is diversity of Nations on Vancouver Island, where there are treaties. Some Nations are pre-confederation, others are part of a modern-day treaty, some are in treaty discussions, and some don’t have treaties.

[5] Source: Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture in Organizations, Reclaiming Our Own Truths & Stories (ROOTS), 2018.

(Header Photo: Shawn Haines under Creative Commons License.)

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