Emily Whetung-MacInnes is ready to lead a new conversation with Indigenous Canada

Proof Strategies hired Emily Whetung-MacInnes as a senior advisor on Indigenous relations last year to help the PR agency with what executive vice-president Josh Cobden says will be “a dominant issue for decades to come” in Canada.

“The private sector has a clear duty to address truth and reconciliation,” he says. “The Indigenous community, and stakeholders in society, will not accept inaction any longer. It’s time for action.”

Whetung-MacInnes is uniquely qualified to make that action happen. But to understand how she got here—and how she was chosen a Mighty Woman for 2023—it helps to know her origin story.

Whetung-MacInnes grew up in the Curve Lake First Nation, just north of Peterborough Ont. “When I was four or five years old, I wanted to be a penguin, and that was my goal,” she says. But while on a trip to Toronto with her father, they passed Osgoode Hall on Queen Street and young Emily was amazed by the building, which to her looked like a castle. When her father explained the building was for lawyers, her dream changed.

Though, in truth, she likely would have become a lawyer (and not a penguin) anyway. Her childhood home was always “fairly political,” she says. Her family talked often about rights denied and injustices endured by First Nations in Canada, and she realized how important it was for Indigenous people to go to law school, to learn the legal framework that could help fight some of those injustices.

She got her law degree from York University (Osgoode Hall Law School) and moved back to Peterborough to practice real estate law, helping people in her community with simple issues often complicated by the Indian Act. “I wanted to help Indigenous people in their day to day lives,” she says. But in 2019—exhausted by the ongoing water crisis at Curve Lake and a lack of transparency about how land settlement monies were being handled—she ran for and won the election for Chief of Curve Lake First nation at just 34 years old.

The pandemic hit less than a year later, however, and Whetung-MacInnes suddenly had to figure out how to keep her community safe during an unprecedented health emergency. This is where we really start to see her emergence as a highly skilled communicator. Many people can understand a community, far fewer understand how to connect with that community in meaningful ways—using communications to persuade and influence in positive and constructive fashions.

“I knew very early on [in the pandemic] that communication was going to be critical,” she says. They devised a simple signal system using coloured paper placed in home windows: green meant they needed food, blue was for water, and red was for help, while the white paper signalled everything was okay.

“Driving through the community and seeing all of these white flags in the window, and knowing that most of the community was okay, was huge,” she says. “It made it less scary because most of your neighbours are okay.”

The next big Covid challenge was overcoming vaccine hesitancy. “Government coming into our communities and telling us what to do has never worked out well for us in the past,” she says. The government’s “Get Vaccinated” messaging was never going to work.

Instead, Whetung-MacInnes took a get informed approach, giving residents as much information as possible about the safety of the vaccines. “If you don’t want the vaccine, who am I to tell you yes or no. But at least make sure you have the information,” she says. It was the right approach. By April 2021, 74% of the community had been vaccinated, the highest rate of any First Nation in Ontario.

Despite dealing with the Covid crisis, Whetung-MacInnes also took up the fight for clean water, leading a class action lawsuit against the Federal Government. It was both an historic and extraordinarily complicated endeavour, with Whetung-MacInnes translating complex legal jargon for her community while similarly explaining the community’s concerns about a legal fight with government to Toronto lawyers and the media. In July 2021, they reached a landmark $8 billion settlement that made headlines around the world.

The Mighty Women judges were impressed by Whetung-MacInnes’ long list of accomplishments stretching beyond the typical goals and accomplishments of others in the industry.  “I was like, I have to raise my game,” said one. But they also talked about how her work as Chief of Curve Lake also makes her part of the industry. “To be able to drive political culture is really important,” said one. This industry isn’t just about consumer advertising, it’s about earning influence in B2B communications and for governments.

Despite her accomplishments as Chief, Whetung-MacInnes opted not to run again last year so she could spend more time with her young family. Her work with Proof is still very much about advancing the Indigenous community, and Whetung-MacInnes says there’s a long way to go. “We continue to have legislation that strips our identity and our humanity,” she says. “The Indian Act still exists. I still have to carry a card in my wallet that calls me an Indian.”

But Canadian businesses are coming to the realization that they need to learn a new language to talk about, and to, the Indigenous peoples of Canada. That’s why Proof wanted her to join their team.

“Obviously, Emily has demonstrated exceptional talent in understanding, and communicating with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences,” says Cobden. She builds relationships with her ability to listen, understand, and then find solutions. “We are living in an era where there is growing noise, polarization and mistrust, so these traits are more important than ever.”

The goal is to create real meaning and value for both First Nations and clients, says Whetung-MacInnes. A lot of businesses may think that means a land acknowledgement, but that should rarely be the first step. “What’s your goal in doing a land acknowledgement?” she asks. “Is it really genuine and from the right place, or are you just doing it because you feel like you have to tick a box?”

Instead, businesses should start by learning about Indigenous communities, seeing the intersection between their interests and those of the Indigenous people they want to reach—not just talking to, but understanding what’s important to Canada’s First Nations so they can move forward together. “Which is a good conversation to have,” she says.

It’s a conversation that is long overdue, and has only just begun. But Whetung-MacInnes is ready to lead the way.

David Brown