Indigenizing Montreal

Marie-Josée Parent

Marie-Josée Parent is a City Councillor for the borough of Verdun in Montreal. She was previously Director General of DestiNATIONS, an Indigenous Cultural Embassy headquartered in Montreal. She is Mi’kmaq and Acadien.

This interview was conducted before Parent was elected to represent Verdun 

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Welcome to Countless Rebellions, the podcast series that explores the limits and potential of social innovation with academics, practitioners, and activists from across Canada. This series is produced in Montreal, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Kanien’keha:ka or Mohawk peoples, a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations.

In this episode, I speak with Marie-Josée Parent.  

I was in born in Ottawa but I’m from Acadian and Mi’kmaq communities in New-Brunswick, and I grew up in Paris and came to Montreal when I was 19.  

Marie Josée is executive director at DestiNATIONS in Montreal. And in our conversation, we look at the incredible work Marie-Josée does to bring back Indigenous cultures, landscapes and imagery to Montreal – a city that is on unceded land. We address Marie-Josée’s view on social innovation, a word that can be sometimes problematic when the idea of something new inherently trumps tradition. But first, I wanted to understand Marie-Josée’s background, how she got to where she is now – affecting social change across Canada.   

Parent: When I was young I wanted to be a doctor. For a long time. I wanted to be a doctor that travels and heals people across the world. And I actually started studying for med school when I moved to Montreal for university. I did it for a year. And then I realized there’s not enough critical thinkers in this world, and I – this is going to sound a little harsh but – I didn’t feel challenged intellectually enough. I wanted to learn how to think critically better than what I was able to do at 19. I wanted to understand the world in a more theoretical way. And med school was a lot about learning everything by heart and not asking questions. So I switched to study philosophy and that suited me much better. I’ve become someone who works in culture, social justice and in public policy. It’s difficult to say that I have a profession. You know, if you look at my resumé, I’m mostly a general director because I’ve been a general director of different organizations. I guess that’s what I do. But I choose certain organizations that mean something to me and that are linked to my culture, that are linked to things I believe in, that carry values that I think are important. And I try to give those values more voice in our society.  

I think we focus way too much on innovation – like it’s this exciting thing and we need to be creative and innovative. I come from a world and a worldview where tradition is so important. Tradition is contemporary.

I’ve been working for the past three years on creating an Indigenous Cultural Embassy in Montreal. This project was started almost 30 years ago by a bunch of crazy people that decided that Montreal was not recognized enough as an Indigenous city, and I think they were right. This is the city where the Great Peace was signed – it’s 39 Indigenous nations and one European nation sitting together and creating a peace treaty that’s unique in the world’s history, and most Montrealers don’t know that. Montreal is Indigenous land. It was never ceded, and we are more than 30,000 Indigenous people living in the city. So when they decided that Montreal was not known enough as an Indigenous city, they were perfectly right. 

When we started the network, the people that started the First Peoples’ Festival came to the table and said, “We have this idea – we’ve been working on this idea of a place, a cultural place for Indigenous people to recognize Montreal as an Indigenous land – officially and visibly. Do you guys think it’s still pertinent today? Should we do that?” And it was voted as one of the main transversal priorities of the network. So that’s how this project started. It’s very grassroots – created by a community. And I was hired three years ago to be the general director. So, I’m the first full-time employee of this project and I’ve been working since then on bringing that vision to life.  

I work for a community, I work for thousands of people’s vision and hope and goals. What we’re looking for is a place where we can not only reconstruct our cultures – because we’ve been through a horrible cultural genocide, if not genocide – and a place where we can also share that culture and show people that it is not exclusive, but inclusive. People can participate and learn from us, but also learn our culture – and cultures. And we want people to know more about who we are. And we would like Montrealers to be more Indigenous in a way. The centre’s goal is mainly to offer a space for Indigenous creators to work together. So that’s what I’ve been working on.    

I’m curious what you think, in its essence, social innovation is? 

Parent: I think social innovation is a big word and we use it way too much. I think that it’s a buzzword right now. It’s something that everybody talks about. And it’s this very vague concept. And I think we focus way too much on innovation – like it’s this exciting thing and we need to be creative and innovative. I come from a world and a worldview where tradition is so important. Tradition is contemporary. That separation between tradition and modernity doesn’t really exist. You live your tradition in a contemporary way. It’s alive today. It’s not something from the past. And it’s not something that you have to undo, or break, or change necessarily. There are really good traditions that you want to keep and maintain, and live today. So, it’s another perspective. The problem with innovation is that it puts a lot of pressure on someone’s shoulders that you need to make something new. Nobody makes anything new. We always exist within a context and we embrace that context. And we can change little things, or be inspired by other ways, or go back in the past and transform a little bit what we’ve been told. But to be entirely new within a context – when you’re a human being that exists within history, and within a community, and within traditions – I think that’s actually impossible. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s important to acknowledge that we are built within tradition and that makes culture.    

But then within that, we can have new ideas. And those new ideas can be small ideas, or sometimes, big ideas. But it’s not all brand new, so different, unique, original. It’s always within a certain context that allows you to think differently, but that could be so similar to something happening somewhere else. And so it puts a lot of pressure on people to be genius. I don’t believe in genius at all. I think we’re smart because of a context that allows us to be smart, and because of people that allow us to be smart within that context. And because we give ourselves permission to think outside of the box. I prefer to think that way. How can I think differently? How can I challenge those ideas? Mostly it’s challenging ideas while acknowledging that a lot of them are important. You know, if I try to have something entirely new tomorrow, I might just repeat myself. I don’t think we’re able to do that. So I’m always a little suspicious of social innovation because a lot of people have fantastic ideas of what it is. And we sometimes miss people that are actually creating positive change because, with the words that they’re using, it doesn’t sound like something different – whereas it’s actually bringing a lot of positive things for a community. We also miss things – people that are bringing back tradition or participating in tradition and that’s a type of change that can also be very positive.  

I think the 60s and the 70s were an amazing time for what I guess we can call social innovation, and a moment where a lot of citizens also believed in social change. And many of these people were disappointed. I think it created a lot of cynicism because there was so much hope. I always say, hope is not a strategy, but I think for a lot of people it was, and I understand why. And so we’ve become more resistant to change today. It’s harder to mobilize people around the idea of change. A lot of people will say, it will not happen. And that’s where it stops. So, I don’t know if there’s a big movement of social innovation today. I would like to say yes, but I’m really unsure. There’s some people that want to create change, but very often these people are depicted as extremists or people that don’t understand the big picture, or people that don’t understand what the economy needs.  

And to think about the way that we practice democracy differently, so that we can respect Indigenous cultures and Indigenous nations – where, you know, our borders can be more fluid, and where we can be more creative in how we govern the land.

Sometimes I think “economy” is a synonym for people making profits, but I hear that rhetoric a lot, so I’m not convinced that there’s a lot of change happening. There’s still people wanting change. There’s still people working towards it. And maybe what we call social innovation is people like me doing change within organizations because it’s easier today, because I need to have an income, and it is a way of making it happen. So we all look like we’re innovators within an organization doing small change. Or sometimes bigger change, but within a structure. I don’t know if that’s always the best way of doing change. I don’t know if that’s how we’re going to be able to change our society.  

Sometimes it’s frustrating because I’m already within a box. I’m already within a not-for-profit organization as a general director with services that I have to provide or activities that I have to do, and financial statements to do and grants that I need to ask for from structures that have a certain perspective, and I need to fit within those, and if I get outside them, then I won’t get my money again, etc. So, there are so many barriers to actually creating change within what I do. You know, I still will do it, and I still believe it’s important, but does it have the impact that it could have? Probably not. And maybe that’s why we look a lot all the same – because we’re all stuck in a way, within organizations and within a certain structure, so it looks like we are similar. But overall, I think that it reduces our ability to create change.  

I was talking about how I think change is based in public policies and in politics. This is how we organize ourselves and I really believe in democracy. But I think we’re babies when it comes to democracy. We talk as if we know what we’re doing. But it is so new as a system that we operate and it’s talked about as if it can’t change, and we can’t test it. It’s very strange because I sometimes think – why don’t we play more? Why don’t we allow ourselves to experiment more? What would be the major problem with trying a new system for two years? And if it doesn’t work, let’s go back to the old one. Why are we so afraid of testing new ways of doing things? As a society, how much fun could it be that we’re just trying things together? Like, why are we so rigid in how we operate? And so I think something that I’m excited about – it’s a very long-term goal, and I don’t even know if it’s possible to do it – but I would like to challenge how we do democracy. I would like to challenge what we call a nation-state. I would like to imagine a way of governance in Quebec, in Canada, where we have a nation-to-nations perspective of governance. And where we look at culture as something necessary to govern, and not just as entertainment on Saturday nights. Something that we acknowledge – that everything we do is culturally-based. And to think about the way that we practice democracy differently, so that we can respect Indigenous cultures and Indigenous nations – where, you know, our borders can be more fluid, and where we can be more creative in how we govern the land. Because that’s really what it is. That we stop looking at the land as something to exploit but as something that we need to take care of, and we’re responsible for. And something that feeds us. And have that as a basis for democracy. Then, imagine another way of representing people that is more accurate of the different cultures that live on this land. So, I guess that’s a very long-term goal. I would probably need to do a PhD on it because I’m not quite sure how it would operate yet. I have ideas but, yeah, that’s what I would like to see. I would like us to be more creative in terms of how we govern ourselves.  

Finally, I wanted to understand what Marie-Josée believes can be possible when we allow ourselves to suspend our western ideologies so that we can move forward in a good way.  

Parent: Well, I think when we start allowing ourselves – because what you’re talking about is questioning our society model – I think when we allow ourselves to question the different rules that we’ve set for ourselves, we’re able to think outside of the box. We’re able to think outside of the rules and then we’re able to imagine new rules. So, for me, we’re talking about Indigenous cultures. But it’s true for many, many cultures, for every culture. If we allow ourselves to think that our way of doing things is not necessarily the best, that there’s probably no best way – an absolute best way – that there are many different ways, and we allow ourselves to think that this way is not the only way, then we can start thinking about new ways of doing things. So there’s the opportunity for creativity. But for that we need to give ourselves permission to question how we do things first.   

I think your question is interesting too because this also requires that we are willing to learn from others – and that requires a lot of humility. I see a lot of people saying, “Oh I’m going to take this from them, and take that from them,” and don’t understand that that can be detrimental because it is not understanding the philosophy that brought these ways of thinking. It’s interpreting within lenses that you were not really willing to shift things that you were looking at in a certain way. And so I think we have to be willing to change the glasses we’re wearing, if I can use that metaphor. That will require humility and time. And willingness to be immersed in someone else’s culture – sincerely immersed in someone else’s culture, thinking “this is a very valid way of thinking about things.” And that also is difficult in a time where somehow we’re always in a rush and things always need to go fast. I think we also need to question that. 

[Outro Theme Song] 

Thank you for listening. My name is Scott Baker, and this is the Countless Rebellions Podcast brought to you by the McConnell Foundation. To hear more, be sure to check out the other episodes. And if you heard something interesting, share it with someone whom you think might like it. Countless Rebellions is produced by Adjacent Possibilities in collaboration with Brothers DePaul. To learn more about the McConnell Foundation and the work of their grantees, visit