‘People need to realize there is a seriousness to planning for Indigenous clients’

Why finance professionals have to get out of a colonial mindset

‘People need to realize there is a seriousness to planning for Indigenous clients’

While he doesn’t claim to have an authoritative grasp of all facets of Indigenous culture, Mike Carlson is able to speak from a place of connection that comes both from his family’s past and his own experiences.

“My Indigenous roots come from two pieces. On my dad's side, my great grandmother was a member of the Osoyoos Band in the South Okanagan, which is in British Columbia,” Carlson, a financial planner based in Toronto, told Wealth Professional.

While Carlson says some of his lived experiences and cultural understandings come from University in Vancouver, most is drawn from his extensive connection with the urban Indigenous community of Toronto as a Qualified Associate Financial Planner (QAFP) and substitute math teacher working heavily with Indigenous populations.

Carlson works to support the holistic financial well-being of so many adults, youth and Elders of different nations who find themselves in Toronto. He has a better-than-average appreciation of the systemic barriers that keep Indigenous people from engaging with the financial services industry.

“I would invoke the word ‘colonialism’ to describe this idea that one group is telling another group how to live. And colonialism is really the story of the last 500 years,” Carlson says. “It's really hard for financial professionals to get out of that colonial mindset, because all of our work really exists in that frame.”

According to Carlson, the simple questions advisors use to kick off financial planning conversations might be poor springboards when it comes to Indigenous clients. For example, asking an Indigenous person about retirement – living in comfort and leisure after their body deteriorates past the point of being able to work productively – could make an advisor come off as being disconnected to the reality that they live with.

“Broadly, my understanding of many communities is that basic survival is the core of many people’s concerns,” Carlson says. “Rather than life after work, many worry about whether they’ll even live that long, especially as people living on reserve have a much lower life expectancy. If you ask someone who thinks they’ll die before they’re 60 about retirement, you’re very likely offending them before you even start the client relationship.”

The idea of financial independence is also a potentially thorny concept. On the one hand, Carlson says the idea of self-determination sits at the heart of most Indigenous populations’ cultures; each person is given respect and the choice of how to live, pray, think, and interact with others within their circles. But when ”independence” goes to the extreme of disconnecting from the community, the concept can start to become problematic.

“A lot of my Indigenous clients get into bankruptcy issues or debt because they are so interconnected with their communities. They have a very unbounded attitude towards wealth – what’s mine is your and what’s yours is mine,” Carlson says. “People want to ‘get rich’ so they can support other people, or gain social status within their collective or families. But when you talk about accumulating money for its own sake, amassing more than what you know what to do with, that’s when the conversations get lost.”

Some Indigenous clients may also find it difficult to have conversations about money because of past traumas.

Carlson notes that many families in Indigenous communities live in poverty, which often presents outwardly as a scarcity of food, shelter and basic needs as people with little money can’t afford even the bare necessities. But, as often happens, social workers are called to investigate parental child abuse when kids show up at school hungry in dirty clothes, and they may conclude that the parents are unfit caregivers. The children may be removed from their homes and placed in foster care. Families can be – and often have been – torn apart because there wasn’t enough money, and Indigenous people’s attitudes towards money are often founded in trauma experienced over several generations.

For Carlson, it all boils down to one important takeaway: before advisors could even begin the work of helping Indigenous clients, they have to make a genuine effort to build understanding and develop empathy for the experiences of Indigenous peoples broadly.

“I think people need to realize that there is a seriousness to this. There is a respect that must be given to working with populations that have been historically marginalized,” he says. “If you aren’t prepared to do the work of getting to know the client as well as their community’s experiences, you may actually do the client more harm than good by advising them.”

For financial professionals who may feel they’re not up to the demands associated with this work, Carlson offers some advice.

“It’s OK for people to say to themselves ‘I don’t have time to learn about the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada’ or ‘this isn’t my cause’,” he says, adding that he welcomes any opportunity to change people’s minds about that. “But I do think it is every professional’s responsibility to send Indigenous clients to advisors that can offer them the care they deserve and the cultural sensitivity that is required”.

To advance the cause, Carlson is working with a collective of Indigenous financial professionals to build up the industry’s cultural capacity to support Indigenous people better – both as clients and professionals. He warmly invites anyone who wishes to support this movement to reach out to him directly on Linkedin.