Karen Joseph
Credit: John Lehmann

Karen Joseph, CEO of Reconciliation Canada, makes business part of the effort to build a new relationship with indigenous people

On a rainy Sunday in September 2013, multitudes showed up at Queen Elizabeth Plaza in downtown Vancouver. They walked through an arch that had been blessed by a First Nations healer and set out for Concord Place, passing by drummers, dancers and singers. Karen Joseph, who organized the four-kilometre Walk for Reconciliation, was astounded at the turnout, which was estimated at 70,000.

Joseph had planned the walk to follow the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s local four-day hearing of testimony from residential-school survivors. That history is intensely personal for the CEO of Reconciliation Canada, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation. Both her parents attended residential school, and her father, Chief Robert Joseph, was a special adviser to the TRC.

For eight months leading up to the gathering, Joseph’s team at Reconciliation Canada, then a joint project of social change philanthropic organization Tides Canada and the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, had facilitated dialogue workshops. Based on a traditional healing circle, these events included a residential-school survivor sharing their story. “For us, reconciliation is about rebuilding the relationship between indigenous people and all Canadians, talking about the things that keep us apart—the mistrust, the racism, the misunderstandings that we have about our shared history,” Joseph says.

The dialogue sessions were so successful that several of Reconciliation Canada’s funders, including Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, asked Joseph to keep going. She and her team began working with corporations such as Suncor Energy Inc. and Teck Resources Ltd. on embedding reconciliation into their business models. Reconciliation Canada has also held gatherings in six cities across the country, bringing together regional and national leaders to talk about reconciliation and come up with ideas for action. “Karen is a mentor to many Aboriginal women as well as a mentor to many business leaders,” says Tamara Vrooman, president and CEO of Vancity.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Joseph easily shifts from topics like the intergenerational trauma suffered by families of residential-school survivors to self-deprecating humour. Her sister, Shelley Joseph, a public outreach lead at Reconciliation Canada, says that Karen always rose above their difficult childhoods, helping raise two younger siblings and going off to UBC to study microbiology at a time when few First Nations women achieved higher education or leadership roles.   

But Karen isn’t entirely comfortable with the term “mentor.” Her role as a leader is to identify gifts in every member of her team and form a culture to support each one, she says. It’s a philosophy she learned growing up in the small Central Coast community of Kingcome Inlet, where people gather in the Big House to process fish, and the children salting the salmon are made to feel that their job is as important as anyone else’s. “The challenge I have with that term [mentor] is that it alludes to someone that is superior, whereas everybody, regardless of age, has something to teach us,” she says. “I play the least important role, in that my role is to create space for all those amazing individuals to do the work they need to do.”