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For Employers

What does it mean to be an Indigenous-friendly employer?

Ideas for engaging and including Indigenous talent

Published on

June 20, 2023


“It’s more than a symbol or taking one course. It’s about learning and showing up in many spaces as a good employer that is inclusive. We want to have a meaningful impact, not be a checkmark on a form for talent representation.”

That was one of the messages we heard from Wanda Brascoupé, the Special Advisor, Maple Leaf Strategies, Co-Founder and Special Advisor, Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund (IPRF), entrepreneur and strategic advisor to organizations in both the public and private sectors on forging long-term, meaningful relationships with Indigenous peoples through tangible, actionable approaches.

We asked Wanda, who is Bear Clan Tuscarora, Mohawk & Algonquin from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, for her thoughts on how employers can be more inclusive of Indigenous talent, and attract, recruit and retain more candidates from Indigenous communities.

While employers’ intentions may be genuine, she said, being an Indigenous-friendly employer is not about numbers, metrics, quotas or targets. Rather, it’s about building trust, defining what belonging means in your organization and celebrating distinctiveness rather than sameness.

Growing in the space of Indigenous brilliance

“I like to work with employers that want to build together, know they are learning, and want to grow in the space of Indigenous brilliance,” she said. “These are employers whose mandate aligns with my own as an Indigenous woman, and aligns with Black, Asian, People of Colour, LGBTQ and 2 Spirited, which is part of Indigenous culture.”

Building this foundation together is part of a long process, Wanda says. And Darren Sutherland, Specialist, Indigenous Affairs at Mashkawazìwogamig Indigenous Resource Centre, University of Ottawa, agrees. “I think people expect instantaneous results, but these things take time. It’s more about meaningful engagement than measurable goals.”

And when it comes to recruiting Indigenous candidates, Darren also highlights the need for patience given the very high demand for talent that is in short supply. “There are hundreds of employers that want to hire Indigenous people, but the supply of talent might not meet the current demand,” Darren says.

While the Indigenous population in this country is growing faster than the non-Indigenous population (the Indigenous population currently totals approximately 1.8 million people), it’s on average 8.2 years younger, according to the 2021 census, which means many Indigenous candidates are quite early in their careers. “It will take time for candidates to develop the skills or qualifications for some of the positions out there,” said Darren, who expects this to change within 5-10 years as more Indigenous students complete graduate studies and gain business experience.

Indigenous people are learning to be what they can see

It will also change over time as more Indigenous students see the endless career possibilities within reach. “I’ve gone back to my elementary school on reserve to share with the children that they can aspire to many unique careers,” said Wanda.

“On reserves, you used to know only of a few professions that were visible to you. We had to see it to know we could be it. Today, I like to tell the students about Indigenous trendsetters, entrepreneurs and graduates of amazing schools,” she says.

Employers: Start with learning, then engagement

Darren offers this advice for employers: “Don’t be discouraged. Be persistent and mindful that the relationship piece is a huge part.”

And, like Wanda, he stresses that learning is the key to overcoming “a lot of misconceptions and old ideas.” For example, he points out that even the term “Indigenous” doesn’t capture the diversity of Indigenous cultures. “I’m Cree, not Indigenous,” says Darren, who is a member of Fort Albany First Nation. “And even the Cree are very diverse. The people from the West coast of James Bay are similar but different linguistically and culturally than the Cree from the East coast of James Bay.”

In addition to learning, Darren recommends that employers focus on meaningful, genuine, intentional engagement with Indigenous communities. “Engage for the sake of building a meaningful connection. Get involved as an employer in Indigenous career fairs and other events, volunteer, listen and learn.”

And be patient. “My advice to employers is that it’s a long-term, 10- to 25-year plan,” says Wanda. “Be an inclusive employer, take small steps, use language effectively, have a willingness to be clumsy, and trust will grow. And remember why you are doing the learning in Indigenous space. This is a great talent pool with unique ideas, respect for elders and nature, and the environment.”

Tips for employers

There are many ways to learn about the vast array of Indigenous cultures and their history and to create an inclusive workplace. Here are some basic points and tips to get started.


  • According to Canada’s Constitution Act, the term "Indigenous peoples" refers to three groups—First Nations (a term that encompasses many Nations, such as Cree, Dene, Mohawk, Algonquin and so on), Métis and Inuit. However, while these groups are representative of the Indigenous population, each is very diverse.  
  • Indigenous peoples live in different places (on reserve and off) in both urban and remote areas from coast to coast to coast and have different customs and languages. Even within a single first nation like Cree—the country’s largest—there is variation in languages, customs and cultures.  
  • Over 70 Indigenous languages were reported during the 2021 census, along with over 600 First Nations across the country, the plurality of groups representing Métis nationhood, and the four regions and 50 communities of Inuit Nunangat that Inuit call home. Note: The concept of First Nations is a construct of the Indian Act and is very different from traditional Nationhoods, which are much larger.
  • All Indigenous peoples work in generations (often seven generations) and honour their elders and the decisions made before the present day.  
  • All Indigenous peoples have been affected by colonialism, the tragedy of residential schools and Inuit relocations, the injustices in the criminal system, the Sixties Scoop and anti-Indigenous racism in the healthcare system and the workplace.  
  • Watch: Namwayut: we are all one. Truth and reconciliation in Canada. Chief Robert Joseph shares his experience as a residential school survivor and the importance of truth and reconciliation in Canada.
  • Listen: Residential Schools in Canada: A Timeline. This podcast provides a timeline of the residential school system and a good overview of what occurred and the decisions that were made.  
  • Read: The 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission cover all the areas that our society needs to review and modify in order to include our Indigenous communities.
  • Read: 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality by Bob Joseph.
  • Participate: What is Indigenous Peoples Day? The annual June 21 celebration explained. This article from the Globe & Mail provides background on Indigenous Peoples Day and includes a list of events in Canada that you can participate in.
  • Study: Take Indigenous Canada a free course on Indigenous history offered by the University of Alberta through Coursera

Make your workplace a safe, inclusive space

  • Always reinforce that Indigenous people belong everywhere and can achieve whatever they want to in their careers.
  • Challenge biases and micro-invalidations.
  • Make your workplace a safe space that honours ceremonial, religious and cultural beliefs.
  • Indigenous cultures and protocols are as varied as their Nations. There are similarities, however, such as ceremonial days around seasons, births, death, and rites of passage and spirituality. Consider offering additional, paid ceremonial days.
  • Know that Canada Day is not a celebration for most Indigenous peoples. Offer days in lieu of Canada Day by choice, such as Indigenous People’s Day.

Land acknowledgments

  • It’s important that the sentiment behind a land acknowledgment be genuine and reflect your organization’s commitment to belonging.  
  • Take the time to reflect on why it’s important for you or your organization to acknowledge the land and what your relationship is with the territory you are on (are you Indigenous, are you settlers, have you come here as a refugee?).  
  • Rather than quickly reading through a standard line or two, which can come across as inauthentic, Wanda suggests weaving in some special points related to the land you are on or speaking about how it relates to your organization’s overall commitment to belonging. You may also consider starting the acknowledgment by saying it’s the first time you’ve said one or highlighting the number of Indigenous team members you have now, if any.  
  • To show kindness and genuine warmth involves a willingness to be clumsy and acknowledging that you are learning. You might not pronounce words correctly or even know the right words, and that’s okay. It’s important to show that you’re making an effort.  
  • Consult the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion’s (CCDI’s) website.
  • To learn more about the land you’re on, consult:

Read below the University of Ottawa’s Indigenous Affirmation, which honours the Indigenous tradition of giving statements of greeting when entering someone else’s territory that recognize the hospitality shown to them, honour the ancestors and living people who lived in and had cared for that place, and acknowledge the ongoing relationship of people to their homeland. Read more:

Example – University of Ottawa Indigenous Affirmation

We pay respect to the Algonquin people, who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unceded. We pay respect to all Indigenous people in this region, from all nations across Canada, who call Ottawa home. We acknowledge the traditional knowledge keepers, both young and old. And we honour their courageous leaders: past, present, and future.

Example – Land Acknowledgment for those based in Toronto

We are starting our learning journey of how to take our space with reconciliation. We have learned to be in good relations, we have some unlearning and relearning around land acknowledgment, and over the next [X number of years], will take the appropriate steps to learn and grow. So, for today, I want to respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg Nations within the lands protected by the Dish with One Spoon Wampum agreement who have stewarded these lands throughout the generations.

Haudenosaunee - how-den-oh-SHAU-nay

Anishnaabeg - ah-nish-NAW-bay

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