Research report profiles Aboriginal partnerships

Communication, understanding and consultation needed for success
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/03/2009

Companies looking to start, build and sustain positive relationships with Aboriginal communities can learn from the lessons of other organizations, thanks to a new research report. Achieving Progressive Community Relations, published by the non-profit Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), profiles a number of companies and their successes in the Aboriginal community.

One of those companies is IBM Canada. Since 2004, it has become much more committed to supporting Aboriginal communities. It offers a range of programs aimed at First Nation, Métis and Inuit students to encourage Aboriginal children and youth to stay in school, gain an education and follow career paths in science, engineering, business and technology.

“We wanted to see more Aboriginal people graduating from universities and participating in the technology sector,” said Mary Jane Loustel, Winnipeg-based national Aboriginal program executive at IBM.

“We particularly wanted to see more Aboriginal employees at IBM, but also wanted to simply see more participation of Aboriginal people in the economy. And technology is really a foundation for the future in terms of how we work collectively as societies, globally, nationally, even locally within our own communities. It became very important to ensure our Aboriginal communities are not left behind in that.”

To learn more, IBM started working with CCAB, eventually joining its Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) program — a benchmarking tool established in 2001 to help Canadian business organizations gauge and improve their commitment to relationships with Aboriginal communities, businesses and people.

To date, 38 companies — including Canada Post, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, SaskTel, Xerox, Bank of Montreal and World Wildlife Fund — have undertaken the PAR process and IBM has worked its way up to achieving the gold level, meaning it “demonstrates leadership and sustainability” (compared to silver for “significant accomplishment” and bronze for “a good beginning on the PAR journey”).

Report finds four commonalities

The report looks at the PAR program and the involvement of businesses — whether that means recruitment, land use planning, environmental concerns, marketing efforts, cultural preservation, customer service, business operations or altruistic initiatives — and is designed to be “a pragmatic and practical document for business and communities,” said Clint Davis, Toronto-based president and CEO of CCAB.

It reveals four similar activities shared by the companies that work successfully with Aboriginal communities: systematic communication processes (allowing for open dialogue and discussion and joint learning), robust consultation mechanisms (a co-operative approach to communication and joint ownership of issues), a willingness to observe cultural differences and an understanding of the importance of mutual benefit.

“There is this perception that working with the Aboriginal community can be overwhelming and daunting. You’re looking at 633 First Nations across the country, four major Inuit regions and 40 to 50 Métis communities, all with different languages, cultures, histories, traditions, practices and circumstances,” said Davis. “But what we found rather eye-opening is these four common ingredients are something you’d probably do in trying to establish a regular business relationship anyway.”

When it comes to the communication between IBM and Aboriginal communities, it’s about keeping the lines of communication open and ensuring a meaningful exchange, said Loustel, as personal relationship-building is particularly important.

For ESS/Compass Group Canada, another PAR participant profiled, communication means annual satisfaction surveys — covering topics such as employment opportunities and the transfer of knowledge — done by each community’s chief and council and submitted to ESS. And for BC Hydro, communication involves key account managers assigned to First Nations communities who build relationships and hear concerns about the company’s operations.

Consultation can be more important for companies in the energy sector, such as Syncrude, which has established industry relations corporations in each of the First Nations communities in Alberta located within its oil sands projects. These corporations serve as a connection between the community and the industry and interact with the government and other stakeholders.

For IBM, consultation often involves the Canadian government, around issues such as technology in Aboriginal communities, infrastructure development and investment in tools and training, said Loustel.

When it comes to cultural differences, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries insists on educating employees through a mandatory “Aboriginal Awareness 101” program. And, according to the CCAB report, BMO Financial has made it an official policy to reject the use of cultural images, such as eagles and feathers, often used in advertising aimed at First Nations, Métis or Inuit peoples.

While cultural differences are important, there are many presumptions and assumptions and each community can be very diverse, said Loustel.

“I would hate to identify specific differences,” she said. “Aboriginal people are participating now at increasing rates, so it’s really (about) being open-minded to the whole idea there can and will be cultural differences that need to be negotiated.”

In the same way, the CCAB report finds there is no one-size-fits-all template or transposable formula for companies working with these communities.

“Aboriginal communities are as diverse across Canada as any other community, as diverse as the provinces,” said Loustel.

The report also highlights that money is not necessarily the key ingredient for effective relationship-building with Aboriginal communities. Companies doing it really well are maintaining a level of flexibility, realizing these affairs will probably take longer than those in any other realm of business and there will be a cost involved, but it may not be as exorbitant as thought, said Davis.

In the case of resource extraction, for example, the goal is to try to extract resources in a way that’s profitable and sustainable, so it wants some predictability, he said.

“There’s a perception that if you throw an Aboriginal community in the mix, it’s going to be a bit of a challenge. The reality is… time and effort, and not necessarily money, are critical when you’re trying to establish relationships.”

IBM has invested plenty of skills and knowledge in putting together a team effort to ensure its approach is balanced, said Loustel. The most significant initiative has been its investment in youth, such as adapting software tools for school-age children or adapting its tech camp for Aboriginal communities.

Although there is exponential growth of Aboriginals in Canada, Aboriginal youth face many challenges when it comes to education, said Davis.

“That’s why companies like IBM, which are investing in a future labour force right at the early stages, are critical because you want these kids to have the capacity and skill set to be able to participate in the workforce, particularly in a knowledge economy.”

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