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Patronage and Colonialism in the Workplace

What does modern day colonialism look like to you? How does it present in your workplace?

One way I’ve experienced colonialism at work is with Board meetings. At one not-for-profit organization I worked at, all employees were told (not asked) to clean up their working area before the Board members arrived. If our desks were “messy” with papers or, you know, work, we had to tidy it up so it was uncluttered and neat. If we had sweaters or stuff on our chairs we should remove them or make them presentable. We had to remove anything from the carpeted floors so the steam cleaners could do a thorough clean (no joke) .

Person with spray bottle wiping an office desk

I thought this whole thing was ridiculous and also offensive. Were the Board members going to do desk inspections and mark us on our tidiness? What if we didn’t comply, would we get fired?

I later heard from other coworkers that this is not the Board’s requirement, that they were not the kind of people who would ask for this to happen. It was solely motivated by the C-suite to – I don’t know, impress the Board? Make us look good? I don’t know.

This organization had a toxic work environment, so I didn’t dare object or even question this command. Some of us employees whispered amongst ourselves, but it was hard to know who to trust with these whispers – you could never be sure if they secretly agreed or disagreed.

Does this really matter?

You may be thinking, “What’s the big deal? So they want to keep the workplace clean and presentable for a big meeting. Isn’t that normal and even hygienic? Why are you making a fuss?”

Is it a big deal? In the grand scheme of things, no. And on the scale of employee harassment and discrimination, forcing us to clean probably doesn’t even register.

But it is a problem, because it reflects a colonial and elitist mindset that impacts how the company views and treats its employees.

In my story, who has the power? The Board. Who is important? The Board. Who bows to whom? The employees bow to the Board.

Who gave them so much power? What makes them so much more deserving than the employees?

I know you need more context and details to really analyze this situation, which I can’t give you for privacy reasons. So let’s look at a very public situation.

Photo of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican
St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Residential School Survivors Meet the Pope at the Vatican

[Trigger warning for content about residential schools and the lack of apology from the Pope]

Today begins a week of meetings between the Pope and Métis, First Nations and Inuit delegates from Canada. According to this Global News report, the delegation travelled to Rome and each group “will have one hour with Pope Francis before meeting him as a collective for a final hour on April 1. Within that timeframe, they must also communicate their expectations for the Catholic Church’s role in reconciliation moving forward.” [, accessed March 28, 2022]

As I’m writing this, the first meeting with Pope Francis is finished. This CBC news report quotes Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron’s description of the meeting:

"Pope Francis sat, and he listened, and he nodded along when our survivors told their stories. Our survivors did an incredible job in that meeting of standing up and telling their truths. They were so brave and so courageous…"

The article also says that:

“The Pope did not issue an apology for the abuses that took place at the church-run, government-funded schools for Indigenous children that existed throughout Canada from the 1870s to 1997. He did, however, speak of ‘truth, justice and healing,’ Caron said.”

Everything about this makes me angry.
  • First, there's the fact that they even have to ask for an apology. The ask was made years ago when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action were finalized. Why are they still waiting?!

  • Second, they have to travel all the way to the Vatican, the seat of the Pope’s power, to make this ask? I get that it’s challenging for the Pope to travel anywhere (security, health etc.) But think about what Indigenous people suffered at the hands of the Catholic (and other) church(es). Why should the victims have to go to the perpetrator instead of the other way around?

  • Third, the delegates have to re-tell and re-live their residential school trauma AGAIN? I get that these delegates chose to go, and there can be healing in having their voices heard. I’m not questioning their choices or decisions. I’m angry that it has to be this way for the Pope to even consider apologizing. Why do more stories need to be shared? Most of us are horrified enough just from reading the news. Does the Pope need to see their pain first hand before he feels sorry enough to apologize?

  • Fourth – one hour?? Each delegation has to share their stories and pain, and present their “case” for an apology and reconciliation actions, within one hour? This is such a Western, colonial way of handling meetings and scheduling. The one in control sets the meeting date and length. They allot the time they're willing to give, and the attendees have to fit their content within that time frame. It doesn't matter how much time people actually need to express their emotions, tell their stories, and feel like they're heard. The sheer condescension of this is enraging.

  • Fifth – STILL no apology after the first meeting? He “listened and nodded along”, but could only speak of “truth, justice and healing”? I’ve bawled my eyes out as I’ve watched and listened to victims’ stories. How can there still be no apology????

I have more opinions on this (could you tell?!), but I’ve already gone on too long. If you’re still reading, I appreciate you sticking with me! And I haven’t even mentioned the Will & Kate royal visit to their Caribbean colonies last week (don’t get me started…)

How does this relate to business and work?

So I went off on a bit of a rant there, but that’s why I started with my Board meeting story and not the Pope story. The two are obviously completely different scenarios with very different degrees of impact. On the surface they present differently, but at the core, they share the same characteristics:

  • The Board members and the Pope hold power today based on historical social, religious, political, and economic structures.

  • Individually, they are probably good, qualified people who bring value to their respective organizations, but their power and value are disproportionately elevated. It’s disproportionate because it’s largely bestowed upon them by the structures listed above.

  • Meanwhile, the people they oversee (and are supposed to care for) have disproportionately lower power and value than they deserve.

Woman with blond hair in a suit, hands clasped in begging pose before a man in a suit

In your organization:

  • Who bows to who? Do employees have to ask for special accommodation or approval for things such as celebrating Ramadan? Or do supervisors proactively offer it by inviting employees to take time off? (Which means they have to know their people well enough to know who celebrates Ramadan, and when Ramadan starts.)

  • How equal is the value exchange? Do the supervisors and executives feel entitled to everything they ask of employees, just because employees are being paid? That’s basically the medieval patronage system.

  • Whose needs are being centered? Do the company’s needs come first (make profit, get work done), or are the employees’ needs considered equal (provide for their family, enjoy life)?

What do you think?

Does this resonate? How have you experienced (or upheld, or both) patronage and colonialism in the workplace? Please feel free to message or email me!


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