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Implementing truth and reconciliation in the workplace

By Sarah B. Hood

In September 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surprised some observers when he used his address to the UN General Assembly not to show off Canada’s accomplishments, but to speak about the country’s failures in its relations with its Indigenous peoples.

He said that, for most of its history, Canada “rejected the very notion that whole generations of Indigenous peoples have the right to define for themselves what a decent life might be. And we robbed Canada of the contributions these generations would have made to growing our great country.”

The report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), released in December 2015, laid out a blueprint for addressing some of the mistakes of the past through its “Calls to Action” to various sectors of society, including the corporate community. Yet a report released in October 2017 by Indigenous Works (formerly the Aboriginal Human Resource Council), based on surveys of 500 businesses, shows that 85 per cent of Canadian businesses are “not engaged with Indigenous communities.”

Most companies “do not have Indigenous engagement strategies, partnerships or workplace inclusion strategies,” said Indigenous Works president and CEO, Kelly Lendsay, and most of the “committed and engaged” six per cent that do “are primarily from the resource sector.”

Defining reconciliation

Item number 92 among the TRC Calls to Action urges the corporate sector “to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework”; to commit to “meaningful consultation…before proceeding with economic development projects”; to ensure “that Aboriginal peoples have equitable access to jobs, training and education opportunities in the corporate sector, and that Aboriginal communities gain long-term sustainable benefits from economic development projects,” and to train “management and staff on the history of Aboriginal peoples” as well as on “intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights and anti-racism.”

“We describe it as economic reconciliation,” said Paul-Emile McNab, director of business development and strategic initiatives for the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), which forges connections between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal businesses. “To me, what it means is corporate Canada and Aboriginal businesses working together with all parties to better the lives of all peoples across the country.”

CCAB president and CEO J.P. Gladu, who is from the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation in Northern Ontario, says economic reconciliation “will be achieved when our communities are no longer managing poverty, but managing wealth.”

“I always tell people that reconciliation is a journey,” said Gene Jamieson, managing director and principal consultant with Turtle Clan Management Consulting Inc., who presented at the 2017 Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) Annual Conference, and who will speak there again in 2018. “It’s not about us achieving a destination, but how we’re going along this journey to find the truth and to create a new relationship between Indigenous people and Canadians. It is the act of understanding the truth and doing something to fix it.”

In this case, the truth, he says, includes knowing about such historical chapters as the residential schools, where Indigenous children who had been separated from their families and cultural ties were often abused; the “Sixties Scoop,” which saw many Indigenous children taken unwillingly from their homes for fostering or adoption; and the RCMP’s cull of valuable sled dogs in Inuit communities between the 1950s and 1970s, which, says Jamieson, “demolished or desecrated the lifestyle.”

The goal of this drive for truth, says Deborah Green, owner of Corporate Cree Consulting (a Calgary-based provider of customized diversity solutions) is “making sure that history never repeats itself, and that everybody is working together to eliminate those systemic problems.”

Opportunities for individuals and business

Michelle Sault, an Anishinaabe Qwe from the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation in Ontario, is the principal consultant for Minokaw Consulting, which provides support with facilitation, strategic development and organizational capacity building. She says that “the first step in reconciliation is recognizing that a reconciliatory approach is a necessary ingredient to moving forward,” and observes that true reconciliation is “not about non-Indigenous people fixing [things] for Indigenous people,” but an opportunity for all Canadians to “stop and examine where they are in the relationship and determine then where they wish to go.”

This includes opportunity for businesses, in terms of a strong and under-tapped labour pool and an increasingly important consumer market. Statistics Canada finds that the Aboriginal population – in cities as well as rural and remote areas – is the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population. In the 2016 Census, more than half of the 1,673,785 people who identified themselves as Aboriginal were living in urban centres, with the largest populations in Winnipeg (92,810), Edmonton (76,205), Vancouver (61,460) and Toronto (46,315).

The urban Aboriginal population is young and mobile.

“These are our future workforce, our emerging leaders, business owners, future clients. It’s something that businesses need to think about,” said Jamieson.

Buying power is also on the rise. A June 2011 Special Report by TD Economics titled Estimating the Size of the Aboriginal Market in Canada showed that “the combined total income of Aboriginal households, business and government sectors” had grown from $12 billion in 2001 to an estimated $24 billion in 2011. When TD revisited these figures in 2015 (The Long and Winding Road Towards Aboriginal Economic Prosperity), they found the market had grown to between $27 and $31 billion in 2016.

“These are our future workforce, our emerging leaders, business owners, future clients. It’s something that businesses need to think about.”
– Gene Jamieson

Techniques for inclusion

There are plenty of resources for organizations that are ready to begin moving towards Indigenous inclusiveness. For instance, the CCAB offers its Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) program, a certification for businesses meeting various levels of best practices in Aboriginal relations. Indigenous Works has developed two organizational development systems: a seven-stage partnership model and the seven-stage Inclusion Continuum, which builds and benchmarks inclusive workplace strategies and practices.

“We’ve built up a good database of the strategies that have worked and not worked to improve workplace performance and inclusion leadership,” said Lendsay. “Companies need to build their knowledge of Indigenous communities and grow their cultural competencies. This may require the need for cultural awareness training for company leaders, managers and employees so that they become more familiar with First Nations, Métis and Inuit outlooks and perspectives, and what this means for your workplace.”

“We cannot expect that non-Indigenous HR staff will have all the answers, nor may they feel comfortable to ask some of these questions,” said Sault, pointing out that few HR professionals are likely aware of pertinent cultural details, such as that traditional Haudenosaunee people take 10 days after a funeral and feast to help the spirit on its journey. She says online training in cultural proficiency or cultural competency is a good start, and mentions that Reconciliation Canada is a valuable resource.

Do potential employees find themselves reflected in recruitment materials? Jamieson recommends seeking guidance from organizations that are already working within Indigenous communities, like Friendship Centres, to avoid cultural missteps.

“A totem pole is a West Coast thing,” he said as an example, and so it doesn’t have the same resonance for Indigenous people in central or eastern Canada. “In some areas, you give tobacco to the community elders to ask them for something, but that’s not a ceremonial approach that’s reflective of all Indigenous communities.”

The image that the company presents must authentically reflect the corporate culture.

“Say you’re trying to hire an Indigenous lawyer or an accountant,” said Lendsay. If a candidate asks in the job interview, “How is your company supporting Indigenous communities?” and the recruiter has no answer, they may potentially lose out on a good hire.

When it comes to best practices for onboarding and mentorship, says Green, “Ask Indigenous peoples. Ask your Indigenous staff; reach out to Indigenous organizations and experts. Indigenous people are oral people, and that carries more worth than written word. If you don’t keep your promises, that can have consequences.”

“You’ve got to get buy-in from the CEO all the way down. I also am a strong advocate of making sure that Indigenous people sit on the board of directors. That beacon shows that Indigenous people are at the highest levels of the company,” said Gladu. “The other thing is setting up a safe work environment for Indigenous people. Do you have the support services for Indigenous people to be able to work in a safe place?”

“You have to make sure they’re learning the corporate culture and getting guidance and support,” said Lendsay. “As companies become more engaged, they start to look at employee networks. An Indigenous network is not just for Indigenous people; it’s also for non-Indigenous people to network within the company.”

He points out that HR departments in some companies “have incorporated Indigenous elders into their EAP programs. To me, that type of insight and understanding of a company is going to improve your retention of Indigenous employees. I know of non-native people who have access to elders; that’s real inclusion at work.”

Drafting an inclusion policy

The anchor for all these initiatives is a comprehensive Indigenous inclusiveness policy. For HR professionals in the initial stages of drafting one, “the first step is to read the Truth and Reconciliation report,” said Jamieson. Some of the specific Calls to Action are not only to business. Sports and culture are some of the other areas that could have an impact on a corporate policy.

“The strategy should be collaboratively developed in-house,” said Sault. “Your best resources are human beings who are Indigenous, who can be your allies, who can help with a strategy or at least answer some questions for individuals who have a genuine wish to do this.”

In reaching out to the local community, it’s good to remember that – especially in remote areas – Indigenous community spokespeople may often be called upon to volunteer their time and even pay their own travel to participate in consultations. Corporations should remunerate community representatives in an appropriate manner that reflects the value of their input.

The strategy should ensure that internal policies are regularly reviewed, says Jamieson, specifically HR policies that may inadvertently set up barriers to inclusion, such as recruitment portals that can only be accessed electronically, since many people in smaller communities still do not have dependable web access.

“Companies have to be mindful not to enact policies that simulate Indigenous histories, like colonization of an Indigenous person’s belief ways or trying to assimilate them into the collective,” said Green. She offers the example of a corporate culture that values individuals with a strong drive to move up the corporate ladder and rewards qualities like outspokenness and competitiveness, but overlooks the quiet individual who seeks to cultivate their own niche.

“Canada remains a work in progress,” as Trudeau told the UN General Assembly. So does Canada’s corporate culture, and “for all the mistakes we’ve made, we remain hopeful,” the Prime Minister said: “Hopeful that we can do better, and be better, and treat each other with the dignity and the respect that is the birthright of every human being.” 

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