Dan Christmas – A Leader Making A Difference

Dan Christmas 2

Dan Christmas

Dan Christmas grew up in the Mi’kmaw community of Membertou in Cape Breton, NS against the backdrop of relocation of the community, the Donald Marshall, Jr. wrongful conviction for murder and a community impacted by undercurrents of racism and hostility of the larger community that surrounded them. Growing up, the message he got, both consciously and unconsciously, was “to be careful. People around here don’t like us.” When a young Marshall, Jr. was arrested and convicted for a crime he did not commit, this reinforced the views Dan had been raised with.

One of the most rewarding aspects of sitting down with Dan for a conversation was his willingness to be open and vulnerable about his own personal worldview explorations and expansions. He is a quiet spoken, gracious and humble man with an engaging, sincere smile, passionate about the work he does and committed not just to Membertou but to the province of Nova Scotia as well. We were visiting about the worldview shifts and expansions that enabled Membertou to turn around a desperate financial situation in the mid-nineties to become a diversified success story over a couple of decades, success built on core values of the community.

Dan is the oldest of six siblings. At the age of 20, he became the Band Manager in Membertou, a significant responsibility – and learning opportunity – at a young age. He was going to University at the time and his youngest brother was just six years old.

As a young leader in this role, he had to work with leadership in the larger community of Sydney and Cape Breton, leadership that had often exhibited racial bias in decisions, actions and dealings with the Membertou community. Dan’s own worldview, of course, was influenced by his growing up years and reinforced at every turn in the road. His worldview, a Mi’kmaw worldview, came into regular collision with the more prevalent, dominant worldview in the larger community.

As part of a culture that is not the dominant culture, it is a necessary requirement of survival to understand the nature of the dominant culture and to learn to work within it. This same necessity does not usually flow in the other direction because the dominant culture is blinded by its worldview, often believing that everyone sees and experiences the world the way they do. Needing to navigate other worldviews is an everyday lived experience for people in minority cultures.

In 1981, Dan moved to Halifax with his wife who was attending the Art College there at the time. He joined the Union of Nova Scotia Indians and was assigned the Donald Marshall, Jr. file, helping with strategy development. This was part of preparing him for work in political situations requiring policy development experience and versed him well in Aboriginal and Treaty Rights. One of the outcomes of the Donald Marshall, Jr. Inquiry was the Mi’kmaq – Nova Scotia – Canada Tripartite Forum, formed in 1992 as a partnership between the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq, the Province of Nova Scotia and the Government of Canada, to strengthen relationships and resolve issues of mutual concern affecting Mi’kmaw communities. Dan chaired the Justice Sub-Committee and was responsible for implementing the Marshall recommendations.

The travel he was doing was a strain on his family and in 1996, a year after Bernd Christmas arrived as CEO, Membertou asked Dan if he would work again for his community. He leapt at the opportunity and became part of the leadership team that revitalized and renewed Membertou with a long term vision of a future that was different than the cash strapped past of the Band and the community, a future based firmly in the core values of the community.

When I heard Dan speak at an Engage NS event this summer, I heard the words of Worldview Intelligence in what he shared and I wanted to learn more. Our conversation started by my offering a bit about worldview, what it is and what we have been discovering as we bring it to situations requiring people to interact across differences, inviting the exploration of a multiplicity of worldviews in conversation spaces often dramatically different from the typical exchanges of this nature.

In the thoughtful space typical of worldview conversations, Dan reflected on his recent journey with the Ivany Report and with One Nova Scotia where he experienced a collision of worldviews. It is often in the collision of worldviews that we become more aware of our own, given that 80% of our worldview operates unconsciously. It is also where worldview expansions and shifts can happen.

Dan described himself as an ambassador to the “outside” and as a senior leader in a variety of capacities. For forty years, in addition to his work, he has served as a volunteer in many organizations. He offered, “I always learn something, but these kinds of settings are artificial in a way.” Artificial due, in part, to typical meeting agendas, the usual configuration of meeting rooms and the pressure of time to get stuff done.

He thinks he was asked to be part of the Ivany report because of his role in Membertou, being part of the leadership that took a small, non-viable community to an economic force that is a unique beast: it is bit of a social enterprise, a bit of a co-op and is run like a corporation. It required entrepreneurial thinking – the same thinking required across the province right now to effect an attitudinal shift that will have Nova Scotia thriving more fully as a whole.

His work with the Ivany Report invited him to step out of his world and into other worlds in new ways – worlds that literally have existed side-by-side. He said, “I thought I knew Nova Scotia. It was a huge jolt, a huge awakening.” Dan had viewed the rest of Nova Scotia, the world even, the way he views the community of Membertou, but he discovered that the rest of the world is not necessarily like Membertou.

There are real issues to be addressed in Nova Scotia right now; especially in the more rural communities where industry is low, traditional sources of employment dramatically decreased and where youth out-migration is a significant issue. In visiting one such rural community in the province – a community that has become a shell of its former self like many in this province – the young people have left, there are no new businesses, and farms and schools are being closed – the spectre of differing worldview perspectives was brought home to him. The Ivany Report team was testing out the idea of immigration as one means to revitalize communities. A resident of this particular community stood up and said, “Immigration will never work here. We are not that kind of people.”

Dan was stunned as it dawned on him that this community would rather die than welcome newcomers to be part of a possible renewal. It was also a surprise to have this comment made in front of him as his culture and background as a Mi’kmaw would have made him an “outsider” in this community but his presence in that capacity seemed to go unnoticed.

One shift in Dan’s worldview was the comprehension that the barriers in Nova Scotia were not necessarily business related but attitude related. “We looked into the well and saw the enemy; and it was us.”

Like Membertou needed to expand its worldview and understand the community could not be exclusionary if it wanted to grow and thrive, Dan sees that Nova Scotia needs to do the same thing. Nova Scotia needs to have an enhanced worldview if it wants to capture new opportunities. We have to work in a global economy. Can our institutions work globally? Can government? If Nova Scotia wants to be more successful, we need to be more inclusive, diverse and welcoming.

As Dan travels the province, his willingness to speak about his own experiences, personally and that of Membertou, and worldview shifts creates the opportunity for others to enter spaces of reflection and to become curious about their own worldview, possibly to open up the horizons for Nova Scotia and Nova Scotians to embark on a future informed by our history but different than our past.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s