Indigenizing workplaces part of reconciliation journey: Panel

Time for Canadian organizations to take up a ‘bundle’ and establish relationships
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/10/2018
Smudge Stick
A First Nations person holds a smudge stick in Vancouver in 2015. Credit: REUTERS/Ben Nelms

Human resources leaders across the country need to transform their hiring processes and workplace policies if reconciliation is truly to be achieved in the workplace, according to a panel of Indigenous experts.

“There has to be a culture shift in mainstream workplaces,” said Tracey King, an Indigenous HR consultant at Ryerson University in Toronto. “There’s still far too few Indigenous people working in mainstream workplaces. And if Indigenous persons are to be acknowledged and recognized, we have to be able to understand and make positive steps.”

This means recognizing the equivalencies of diverse Indigenous candidates who haven’t had the same access to educational and employment opportunities, she said.

“You need to come to the realization that we have other highly relevant and equally valuable work and lived experiences, and knowledges to bring to the workplace.”

HR leaders and employers need to look beyond narrow job classification systems in order to transfer Indigenous experiences into organizations, in lieu of formal credentials, said King, a member of a four-person panel speaking at the 2018 Human Rights and Accommodation Conference in Toronto last month.

“Let us not be part of the systemic barriers that are holding Indigenous leaders back,” she said. “Let’s bring them in and create spaces and places for them where they are part of the decision-making complement.”

Both outreach and education are vital to the process, according to King, who has implemented an Indigenous hiring strategy at Ryerson.

“One of my key objectives was to teach — to bring Indigenous knowledge into the HR department first — because they are the gatekeepers for the university and they are the ones who are leading the candidates, and in particular Indigenous candidates who I’d be bringing in,” she said.

Fostering relationships is one of the “cornerstones” of working with Indigenous peoples, said King.

Moving towards respectful workplaces

The road to equality and respect in the workplace has been a difficult, lonely road for Indigenous people, according to Tina Stevens, an Ontario Public Service Employees Union employee in London, Ont.

“Being able to talk about issues has been very difficult,” she said. “You have to have a strong advocacy for your own self. You have to be able to bring up the issues, as well as bring forth those resolutions that can accommodate… the Indigenous perspectives.”

“Sometimes, being that lone Aboriginal worker, you have to advocate for yourself because there’s nobody else who has the knowledge and the lived experiences, the cultures or traditions.”

The most appropriate path to a respectful workplace climate is allowing Indigenous viewpoints an equal seat in decision-making circles, and establishing a framework for employees to acquire knowledge or practise traditions such as smudging, said Stevens.

“Those things are inherent,” she said. “Those are the things that feed us our spirit… If we’re not able to practise those types of traditions in the workplace, we’re not being able to practise what we’ve been taught and keep carrying on those ceremonies for the future generations to come.”

“If you want to create that respectful climate, let’s start right from the basics.”

Building respectful workplace climates requires an organizational commitment, said Marisha Roman, adjudicator for the Child and Family Services Review Board-Custody Review Board in Toronto.

“Many people have never met, to their knowledge, or don’t have relationships with First Nations people or Inuit people or Métis people,” she said. “In terms of building a respectful climate, it’s about moving the culture from Indigenous issues and awareness — and valuing them — moving that from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have in your workplace.”

“Starting at the top: Does your organization have a reconciliation strategy? Does your organization have a workplace (policy) around bringing in diverse cultural experiences to enrich your organization — including Indigenous values and norms? Who are the champions within your organization for driving that change?”

Achieving true change comes as the result of measurable team effort, rather than an individual Indigenous employee, said Roman.

“That’s kind of a lonely place to be and is a lot of pressure on one person to become that in-house expert, that in-house resource,” she said.

“You need to have people who are champions within your organization to support that process. And you need to accept that cultural change will be a long and arduous, laborious process, but it is something that will reap rewards — as many organizations have seen.”

Accommodating beliefs

Human rights codes in Canada protect workers from discrimination and harassment in many forms — including creed or “sincerely held beliefs,” said Roman.

“When we talk about Indigenous spiritual practices, it’s not like the Roman Catholic Church,” she said. “There’s a lot of different practices according to the different nations. And then also within the nations, within communities, between communities of the same nation, there may be different practices. It’s important that you keep this in mind.”

Beliefs and practices observed in the workplace could include smudging ceremonies to begin days or meetings, or allowing Indigenous employees to request leave from work to observe a traditional ceremony, said Roman.

“Those are requests that you may have from Indigenous

employees that would fall, arguably, within that area of creed,” she said. “And the more informed you are as an organization — as an employer — of what these various practices are… the better able you are to respond to those requests appropriately.”

There are also proactive opportunities for employers to add Indigenous elements to processes such as dispute resolution — including talking circles, healing circles, tobacco or smudge, said Roman.

Still, an employer should never assume an Indigenous person will want to participate simply because it is offered, she said.

“There’s a good and a right way to do things in the Indigenous context,” said Roman. “It’s very important that you gain that understanding and knowledge.”

It’s up to employers or HR to take the first step towards education on Indigenous issues, said Stevens.

“It takes just one step to be able to read, to make a call, to invite an elder in, to incorporate one small thing that really recognizes the truth and reconciliation that needs to be practised here in the now,” she said. “Stop the assumptions. We have to get around and start working against the biases that we own inside.”

A second practical step is accommodating practices, such as fishing or hunting leaves that Indigenous people traditionally observe, said Stevens.

“It’s those practices that we want to continue, because the fact is without those practices, ceremonies, languages, traditions… that ends us, that terminates us.”

Taking up a ‘bundle’

While workplace accommodation establishes relationships and communication with Indigenous communities, employers would be well advised to push even further, said Amy Desjarlais, knowledge keeper at York University in Toronto.

“There are so many things that Indigenous people have to do outside of work hours to be who we are,” she said. “So it’s so important for us to come to work and to feel comfortable being ourselves.”

As many Indigenous people work to preserve various cultures, languages and traditions, organizations can lend a hand by taking up a “bundle” — a responsibility to establish and maintain relationships with First Nations people, said Desjarlais.

“We’ve been accommodated which is very, very wonderful,” she said, citing the presence of smudging rooms within some organizations.

“(But) when you think about Indigenizing your workplaces, think about finding those people that are the champions that can willingly, openly pick up these practices and learn them.”

It is important that any learned traditions are conducted with respect, said Desjarlais.

“When you’re talking about incorporating Indigenous practices in non-Indigenous organizations, there is always a fear of appropriation — picking up a practice that is not your own just because it’s there,” she said. “We have to build bridges. The basis of the respect is recognizing those things and establishing those relationships so you can learn.”

“There is a fear out there for Indigenous people that our culture is going to be taken away. We just got it back… There is this inherent lack of self-worth that needs to be healed and not all of us are there.”

Unionized environments can be a major support system for Indigenous communities, said Stevens.

“Unions play a critical role in knowing how to do this,” she said.

“You have to show that sense of community and belonging in the workplace for the next seven generations, and many candidates who haven’t worked for your workplace need to know that you are genuinely wanting to hire them and that you will accept their whole self from all the four elements of mind, body, spirit and emotions.”

“We have diverse Indigenous candidates who come from very different lived experiences and we have to create a climate that’s going to ensure that we’re able to support them through the work which we do,” said Stevens.

“Everyone in the workplace has a role to play when it comes to ensuring that they have a climate of respect for Indigenous people.”

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