Back to all posts

For Employers

How to champion Indigenous inclusion at work

And move forward on the path of reconciliation

Published on

September 29, 2023


“We don’t exist solely as employees. We bring our whole selves into what we do, and our identities are a big part of that.”

That was one of the messages Stephanie Bergman, Senior Consultant and Team Lead at Bright + Early and proud member of the Métis Nation, shared with Altis colleagues and clients in a special DEI session on Indigenous inclusion and reconciliation at work.

Throughout the conversation, Stephanie offered insights into how employers can support and champion Indigenous talent, move forward on the path of reconciliation and create an environment where Indigenous team members can bring their full selves, including their culture, to work.  

The first step, she says, is to learn and recognize that many existing systems and processes in the corporate world may not be fair or equitable for Indigenous candidates. “Once we know better, we can do better,” she said.

Truth and Reconciliation for businesses

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released 94 Calls to Action calling on governments, organizations and individuals to further reconciliation through concrete changes.  

Of these, Call to Action 92 appeals to businesses to undertake initiatives that encourage greater economic inclusion for those who are Indigenous (First Nations, Métis and Inuit).  

If you’re unsure where to start when it comes to Indigenous inclusion, the recommendations outlined in this call to action (shown below) can guide you.  

Call to Action 92

We call upon the corporate sector in Canada to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework and to apply its principles, norms, and standards to corporate policy and core operational activities involving Indigenous peoples and their lands and resources. This would include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • Commit to meaningful consultation, building respectful relationships, and obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before proceeding with economic development projects.
  • Ensure that [Indigenous] peoples have equitable access to jobs, training, and education opportunities in the corporate sector, and that [Indigenous] communities gain long-term sustainable benefits from economic development projects.
  • Provide education for management and staff on the history of [Indigenous] peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and [Indigenous] rights, Indigenous law, and [Indigenous]-Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.

Below we’ve highlighted some of the actionable takeaways from Stephanie’s presentation that can help your organization make tangible progress toward the actions outlined above.

Start from the inside out

While it’s tempting to jump straight to hiring, Stephanie recommends organizations first assess their existing practices and culture before trying to attract new Indigenous talent.  

By putting effort into designing a workplace where everyone can thrive, you’ll have better staff outcomes, including retention, when you start hiring. Below are a few ideas from Stephanie to help you get started:  

  • Honour Call to Action 92 by educating your team. Stephanie reminds us that without truth, there can’t be reconciliation. By learning about the history of colonization in Canada and the barriers to employment faced by First Nations, Métis and Inuit candidates, your team will be better positioned to move forward with reconciliation.
    Tip: Incentivize non-Indigenous staff participation in educational initiatives, like the University of Alberta’s free Indigenous Canada course, by offering to donate to a cause of their choice upon completion (you could also give them a small stipend to use to support an Indigenous creator!).
  • Design your physical spaces and employee offerings to encourage cultural practices. This could include designating a space for cultural or ceremonial practices in the office (e.g., a smudging room) or expanding professional development budgets to allow Indigenous staff to learn their language or access a cultural practice (e.g., beading, weaving etc.).
  • Make your benefits more inclusive. Traditional total rewards packages aren’t always designed to support those whose needs go beyond colonial standards. Simple actions, like increasing coverage or being flexible with current offerings, can lead to greater inclusion by meeting the needs of more team members.
    Tip: Introduce expanded offerings like paid spiritual days for ceremonies, caregiving and bereavement leave or offer an EAP fund that would allow First Nations, Métis and Inuit staff to connect with an Elder.  
    Tip: When possible, offer remote work to allow Indigenous employees to live closer to, or directly within, their traditional communities or communities of choice where they can have greater access to their culture.
  • Put your money where your mouth is. From donations to vendor selection—there are many tangible ways to redistribute wealth as part of your organization’s journey towards reconciliation.
    Tip: Offer donation matching for employees who want to support Indigenous-focused charities. If you plan on donating as a company, involve employees in the selection process so they can learn about charities working in this space.
    Tip: Assess where you can use Indigenous vendors for swag purchases, food catering or other services.
  • Invest in mentorship. If there are few Indigenous members on your team, how can you ensure new and existing Indigenous hires can access relevant relatable mentorship? Stephanie suggests looking outside your organization to find mentors who can provide culturally relevant professional support.
  • Acknowledge tough subjects. Consider how urgency, perfectionism, and feedback processes uphold colonial power structures within your organization. Be open to exploring the impact of these practices and the changes needed to foster more inclusive ways of working.
    Tip: Introduce an anonymous way for employees to report unfair or discriminatory practices.

Then, look at your recruitment practices

Once you take intentional steps to create a safe and welcoming culture, it’s time to revamp your recruitment processes for greater inclusion.  

Stephanie encourages employers to look at this step as both an internal and external exercise. It’s a way to represent yourself to potential candidates by highlighting the work your organization has done internally.

Equip your team with the skills needed to offer an inclusive recruitment process by providing training on Indigenous history, barriers to employment, bias and racism, and best practices for hiring.

Finding candidates

  • Debunk misconceptions about where to find Indigenous talent. Indigenous populations in urban centres are growing faster than in rural and remote communities, so don’t let this misconception be a barrier.  
  • Avoid using tools that discriminate against diverse candidates. AI tools, particularly those that auto-screen applicants, have been proven to discriminate against diverse candidates, including those who are Indigenous, by overlooking different cultural norms of communication and prioritizing applicants that are similar to existing staff.  
    Tip: Keep humans at the heart of your hiring processes.
  • Reconsider education requirements. A lot of diverse candidates may not have a traditional educational background. For those who are Indigenous, this may be due to the legacy of residential schools and existing barriers to education, like a lack of local or culturally appropriate schools.
    Tip: When writing your job ad, consider what level of education is truly necessary for the role and what comparable experience could serve the same purpose.
  • Partner with Indigenous-led organizations. Make sure your job ads are reaching the most diverse pool of candidates by partnering with organizations like the Indigenous Professionals Association of Canada.

Interview etiquette

  • Be direct with your interview questions. Instead of asking questions that are vague or indirect, ask the question you want the answer to. This will benefit diverse candidates who may have been raised with different cultural communications norms, including some Indigenous candidates who may have been raised in communities were boasting or bragging is discouraged. Don’t assume someone will read between the lines.
    For example, “Tell me about your experience” can become, “Tell me about three experiences that you’re proud of.
    Tip: Develop a scorecard that interviewers can use to consistently evaluate each candidate’s hard and soft skills. After each interview, review them together to see where there’s alignment.
    Bonus tip: Ask the most junior staff member in the room to speak first as they’re more likely to be swayed by more senior opinions.
  • Use diverse panels of interviewers when hiring. Inviting more diverse staff to participate in the interview process can help candidates see themselves better represented at your organization.
    Tip: Traditionally, those who are well-connected are more likely to be successful. Level the playing field by connecting existing team members with Indigenous candidates over coffee (or tea!) where they can learn more about the organization and opportunity.
    Reconsider take-home assignments. Post-interview assignments can be another barrier for many diverse candidates, including Indigenous candidates, who may not have access to the right tools at home or have limited capacity due to additional caregiving responsibilities or other employment responsibilities.

After the interview

  • Instead of references, consider employment verification. Professional references can disproportionately harm those who have experienced discrimination, so they aren’t always accurate predictors of success. For example, if a candidate experienced racism from their former manager, it’s unlikely the reference given accurately reflects the candidate’s work.
    Tip: Confirm the candidate’s employment history instead. This way, you avoid opening the door to potential discriminatory references from former employers.
    Tip: For organizations that are strict about references or prefer to get a sense of who the candidate is, consider asking someone the candidate trusts and knows well, like a friend or close colleague.
  • Make job offers easier to understand. Most standard job offers are written in confusing legalese. Some people may rely on friends, family, or their network or even hire a lawyer to understand what’s being offered. But not every candidate will have access to those resources. To make the process more equitable and inclusive, offer a free 30-minute legal consultation to review the offer.

Resources to support ongoing learning

Stephanie reminds us that DEI work is always going to be ongoing—and that’s a good thing. It means we have the never-ending ability to keep improving workplaces and hiring practices and to learn how to right past wrongs.  

To help support your ongoing learning, we’ve included some resources hand-picked by Stephanie (with a few from our own team, too):

About Stephanie

Stephanie Bergman is a proud member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, a longtime participant in community and political activism, and an avid backcountry adventurer. Stephanie has extensive experience working in Indigenous community engagement and helping companies build more inclusive cultures. She is from Northern Ontario and loves spending time with her husband and toddler.  

We highly recommend booking a session with Stephanie to offer your team a comprehensive overview of Indigenous history, provide suggestions to make your workplace more inclusive and foster a safe space for your staff to get curious, ask questions and learn.

Share this post

Your next role starts here.