Understanding and breaking down the barriers that Indigenous people face at work

June is Indigenous History Month in Canada – an opportunity for all Canadians to acknowledge and learn about the history, roots, and challenges of Indigenous people (First Nations, Inuit, and Métis), as well as honour and celebrate Indigenous culture, diversity, strength, and resiliency.

During this month and on Indigenous Peoples Day, Indigenous people across Canada celebrate their ancestry, roots, and culture – in part, to revitalize and reclaim them. For non-Indigenous people, it’s also critical to understand Canada’s history, which precedes confederation (and colonization) by nearly 14,000 years and that, for most of us, wasn’t taught in school. Further, it’s an opportunity for everyone to learn about and celebrate the richness and diversity of Indigenous culture.

Indigenous Peoples Day takes place on summer solstice each year (June 21) – the longest day of the year, which is a traditional time to celebrate for many Indigenous communities and peoples. We encourage you to learn more about the history and what led to the creation of Indigenous Peoples Day.

We, at Jouta, have had the honour of working with more than 85 Indigenous communities and organizations. During this time, we’ve built many relationships, listened to many stories, and learned much about Indigenous challenges and accomplishments on Turtle Island (the lands we now call North America). We are also aware that we have much to learn on what we see as a continuous journey. In acknowledgement of Indigenous History Month, we are sharing a brief glimpse into the realities that Indigenous people experience in the workplace and how employers can attract, support, and retain them, and also recognize Indigenous Peoples Day.

Barriers that Indigenous people face in obtaining work and in the workplace

The most recent published census data indicates that nearly 5% of Canadians self-identify as Indigenous. Growing by 42.5% between 2006 and 2016, Indigenous people are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population. Despite this, in 2019, the unemployment rate for Indigenous people was nearly twice that of the average (10.1% versus 5.5%).

The reasons for this disparity are complex and multi-faceted. Indigenous people continue to face significant barriers to employment. As outlined by Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., Indigenous Canada, and Action Canada, these barriers include:  

  • Significant cultural differences that employers, managers, and teams often don’t understand, acknowledge, and/or respect
  • Education, skills training, and literacy tends to be lower, particularly for those living in remote communities
  • Lack of/insufficient infrastructure limiting online access to training, job postings, remote work opportunities, and general information/communications
  • Unhealthy living conditions and poverty impact mental and physical well-being
  • Transportation and ability to get to interviews and workplaces
  • Inability to access and/or afford childcare
  • Mental health challenges and lack of self-esteem and confidence as a result of discrimination, generational trauma and poverty make it challenging to present oneself in a favourable light, as just a few alarming statistics outline:
    • 30% of residential school survivors have experienced a major depressive episode, 26% have chronic depression and 64% suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

The above barriers notwithstanding, Indigenous people who are able to successfully obtain work are very often subject to both systemic and individual discrimination in the workplace. This severely limits their work, career, and performance opportunities. In a survey of 86 Indigenous workers (at all levels), Catalyst Canada found that just over half feel ‘on guard’ (38% of men and 67% of women) at work and 60% feel psychologically unsafe.

“Canada’s historical mistreatment of Indigenous people has, both deliberately and inadvertently, created generations of challenges that make it difficult for Indigenous people to find and keep meaningful employment.” 

MacLaine, Lalonde, and Fiser

How employers can attract, support, and retain Indigenous people

As a starting point, it’s important to be intentional and genuine with your efforts. Be clear on the reasons why you wish to attract, support, and retain Indigenous people and strategically create and align your practices accordingly. This includes:

  • Understanding the cultural differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, in addition to between First Nation, Inuit, and Métis communities and people
  • Getting to know the communities in your region
  • Adjusting hiring practices to cultural differences, where possible
  • With a focus on capacity building, developing training, upskilling, and mentorship programs
  • Providing Indigenous role models/mentors (whether a part of your organization or associated with it)
  • Decolonizing practices, where possible (e.g., revisiting the credentials you require for jobs or promotions), and supporting cultural practices
  • Not assuming that all Indigenous people want to take part in traditional or cultural practices
  • Ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion practices aren’t token or generalized statements; being clear on what these concepts mean for your organization and how you’ll facilitate the safety and success of Indigenous people and other equity-seeking groups
  • With the concept of ‘nothing about us without us’ in mind, engaging Indigenous people in the development of practices that impact them; however, never expecting them to teach you
  • Helping arrange transportation to interviews and even supporting driver’s license acquisition, if possible
  • Requiring that your teams take an Indigenous awareness and cultural safety program and engage in ongoing learning and education

How employers can support Indigenous Peoples Day

While Indigenous Peoples Day isn’t a statutory holiday in most provinces, it is important for employers to understand the importance and significance of this day. This includes ensuring that your managers and teams (all those who work with/alongside Indigenous colleagues) are also aware and doing what they can to be supportive. This includes:

  • Supporting and being flexible with time off on and around this day
  • Acknowledging live and virtual events that take place in your province or community
  • Not booking meetings or scheduling non-related events on June 21st  
  • Avoiding questions as to the reasons for time off, as well as assumptions that Indigenous people will want to take time and/or observe it in a certain way
  • Ensuring that any related team or organizational acknowledgements are meaningful and respectfully aligned  

For more about the historical impact on Indigenous people and ways to learn about Indigenous culture and history, refer to one of our past posts. Accordingly, as July 1st is right around the corner, and with last year’s calls to cancel Canada Day in mind, we also encourage you to read our reflection on redefining Canada Day.

Jouta’s HR Consultants can support you in developing a meaningful approach to attracting and retaining Indigenous people.