When Jon Davey reflects on challenging decisions he faced as he moved from undergraduate studies to law school, to federal government lawyer working on Indigenous issues, and now corporate executive, he often thinks of a question his father asked him about one decision.

What’s the most difficult thing to do?

“That’s where the magic happens,” said Davey, who is Haudenosaunee and a member of the Lower Cayuga of Six Nations of the Grand River in Southwestern Ontario. “The magic is where you don't want to go and what you don't want to do.”

Davey, Chief of Staff to Scotiabank President and CEO Scott Thomson, was speaking last week as the honouree of Brock University’s fourth annual Indigenous Leader Speaker Series webcast.  

In the conversation with Robyn Bourgeois, Brock’s Vice Provost of Indigenous Engagement, he described his academic and professional journey, his approach to leadership, and how his Indigenous heritage shaped his values and decisions.

Davey grew up in Hamilton, Ont., with a Haudenosaunee father and non-Indigenous mother. He had such a great childhood and such wonderful friends, he said, that he was reluctant to move away when it came time to go to university. With encouragement from his family, he did go and was surprised to find his fellow students and faculty at Brock in St. Catharines, Ont., welcoming and very curious about his culture. 

“People wanted to know more about me, they wanted to understand where I came from,” he said. “One of the big things I took from my experience at Brock was thinking, ‘You know what? There are people out there who accept me for who I am.’”

After his undergrad degree, he decided on law school as the best way he could contribute to his community’s well-being. He set out with an ambitious goal. 

“I wanted to lead the charge to repeal the Indian Act.” 

The Indian Act, passed in 1876 and still in effect today, is the primary piece of legislation defining the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the federal government. It covers a multitude of aspects of life on reserves, including governance, how land can be used, healthcare, education and much more.

The act was imposed on Indigenous peoples, not negotiated with them like treaties, and has long been controversial and a source of anger and resentment.

After Davey’s first year of law school, he worked for a Six Nations organization that was involved in litigation with the federal government over a tax issue. He returned to school with strong anti-government feelings, but his Indigenous Law professor said he was approaching it from the wrong angle. 

“He said something that stuck with me. He said, ‘You're never going be a good lawyer if you can't see both sides of an argument.’ 

“In fact, he said the best thing I could do was to go work for the government, and learn to understand the machinery of government, the decision-making processes, the legislation and regulations that go into shaping policy.”


We need to adapt our resources to the needs of our customers, in this case to the needs of the Indigenous populations.”

Jon Davey, Chief of Staff to Scotiabank President and CEO

That’s what Davey did over several internships while he completed his law degree, including one with what was then called Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (now Department of Indigenous Services), which was in the process of removing 34 provisions of the Indian Act related to the administration of land on reserves.

“And so there is a bit more room for creativity, a bit more room for autonomy of Indigenous decision-making, and I was inspired by that.” 

After graduation, Davey did end up working for the Indigenous law division at the Department of Justice.

“I wanted to know why it is that the federal government acted the way that they did towards our peoples, enacted policies and laws that were, and still remain, very restrictive.

“When I got to government and I saw some great advocates there, some people that really did care about our relations and really did care about the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples, I was inspired by that. It was a little unanticipated, to be honest.”

As an Indigenous person working for the government, Davey sometimes felt pushback from his own community, which he totally understood. But some days were more difficult than others. 

“The really difficult days was when I was talking with residential school survivors. I saw the strength and resilience that it took for them, going through a legal process, with me representing the government.”

Some would ask whether he was really Indigenous, whether he was actually supporting them. They asked if that was the work he had seen himself doing.

“I wouldn't really want to talk to me either, right?”

But Davey had a strong belief in what he was doing, and by approaching people with “an open mind and an open heart,” he could make a difference. 

After 10 years with the federal government, Davey moved to Scotiabank, where his legal background and experience working with Indigenous Peoples could be put to work in a new way.

“A lot of the legal issues I was seeing in the Indigenous Law division at the Department of Justice were rooted in economic causes,” he said. “So being able to hopefully have an impact working at Scotiabank and saying you know, there's different ways to structure credit… there's different revenue models that allow for unrestricted cash flows and in different ways of managing deposits.

“I really was just chomping at the bit to put those into practice to see if they actually held water and if they actually worked. And a lot of it did with help from many people within the Bank.”

The key was to approach it with the specific circumstances of Indigenous Peoples in mind. 

“We need to adapt our resources to the needs of our customers, in this case to the needs of the Indigenous populations… It's not trying to make First Nations, Métis, Inuit nations, businesses, individuals adapt to our practices.”

When  Scotiabank’s CEO asked Davey to work directly for him, he again thought of his father’s question about what the most difficult path would be.

“To me, there was this idea that you never stop learning and you never stop investing in ways of improving yourself. And at the same time, I get to work with a great leader within the Bank, and that's Scott.”

Davey says he takes inspiration from the Two Row Wampum treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch, and the belt that symbolized the treaty. It has two parallel lines, representing the two peoples moving along side by side.  

“What it represents is this idea of harmony and peace, and I want to see that more and I want to be that change, whether it's the federal government and our relations or whether it's our relations in the financial industry.

“How is it that I can understand and share that value of partnership and working together and at the same time exemplify it?”