Reconciliation In The Workplace
As Canadians, many of us see ourselves as funny, polite and overly apologetic. We have universal health care because we’re a caring people. Instead of being a melting pot where all must conform, we promote multiculturalism where people can keep their prior culture or heritage and fold it into their Canadian identity.
With such strong underlying beliefs, many find the topic of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples difficult. Non-Indigenous people get defensive over things that happened before their time; Indigenous people are still feeling the effects of a horrific past.
Revising Our Understanding of Ourselves
“I am a Métis person from Saskatchewan, and I sit at the crossroads of those two groups of people. We all interact with this reality,” said Terra MacPhail, director of partnerships at Indigenous Works (formerly the Aboriginal Human Resource Council). “It’s harder to turn a mirror on oneself because it means change has to happen, if one looks at the reality and realizes it’s incongruent with their values. It challenges our vision of what Canada is.”
Many Canadians were unaware of much of the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, expressing shock at findings revealed in 2015 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).
“The way I define reconciliation is two things coming back together after being essentially broken, in this case, a relationship that has to be healed,” MacPhail said. “At Indigenous Works, it’s defined specifically for organizations undertaking recommended actions based on the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action; we help organizations to create Indigenous employment and engagement strategies as part of their economic reconciliation journey.
“Healing has to happen. The feeling it gives me is of healing of a relationship. We can’t move forward unless both parties understand the history — Indigenous people and the rest of Canada, including government, and understand the impact of colonization.
“Getting stuck in a mire of feeling shame or guilt doesn’t necessarily help people start to take action today,” MacPhail continued. “It’s history, and what’s still happening today, that are wounding and damaging to Indigenous people, that create challenges to Indigenous people’s sovereignty and place in society.
“We cannot change the past, but we can recognize it, we can accept it, we can grieve it, and then we can move forward together.”
Building Relationships Key
Some industries that work with Indigenous groups, such as resource extraction, have more actively recognized the importance of right relations, but in many workplaces, reconciliation is not considered a priority.
“For me, reconciliation is about the repairing of relationships,” said Rhiannon Bennett, co-founder of Hummingbirds Rising Consulting and vice-chair of the board of governors at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. “It’s a process, an action, not a destination.
“Relationship building is so important. Do you know whose land you’re living on, do you have a relationship with the people in the band office, do you know when they have job fairs, when their newsletter goes out? Have you connected with their capital corporation, which has a list of band members’ companies you can connect with, and an employment and skills department?
Stopping the Bleeding
Susanne Thiessen is an assistant professor in Indigenous Community Engagement at the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria. “To first become aware of the need for reconciliation, one needs to look at Canada’s five centuries of exploitation and harm, justified by the pursuit of land. It’s a racism specific to settler colonialism. It’s a racism that’s not experienced by other minorities.”
Thiessen said, “We want to make things right and whole, to move together and work together to change the fabric of our relationship with Canada. But before reconciliation can happen, we need to make people whole.
“No work has been done to doctor the initial wound, but people don’t see it that way because they don’t know the history, don’t know the depths and extent of legislations and policies and actions that have been designed to erode our cultures, basically to erase us from Canada. The Royal Proclamation (of 1763, issued by King George III of England) was supposed to be like a treaty but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, Canada decided to take the children away, get the Indigenous people off the land, and do many, many more actions designed to eliminate the culture.”
Both Thiessen and Bennett point out that the harm is still happening, through unrecognized or unacknowledged systemic and individual biases. “That wound is still bleeding,” Thiessen said.
“It isn’t about who we are as Indigenous people, it’s about what Canada has done and continues to do,” Bennett explained. “So many people want to skip to the good part where everyone is equal and it’s all good. But we’re all unique individuals, unique groups of people. We all have different needs, all of which are worthy of being met. Society needs to start examining the difference between equity and equality, and understanding what inclusion actually looks like.”
Education and Action Together
Education is key to any work toward reconciliation. Individuals are at different points in their journey of learning and analyzing our complicated history and unconscious attitudes.
“I do notice that people are using the word ‘reconciliation’ independent of ‘truth,’” MacPhail said, “but we can’t skip the T in TRC. We can’t have healing unless there’s common ground in the truth, the history and the impacts of colonization. It’s a fundamental part, and it can be triggering for people hearing that truth for perhaps the first time. But it’s the kind of truth that needs to be heard before any action can happen. Sometimes action has to be internal first, in mind and heart.”
“We have to recognize how much work this is,” Bennett said. “A 45-minute lunch and learn won’t be enough to help people who are at the beginning of their journey. It just isn’t adequate for people to have to shift their understanding, have to undo 18 years of education and a lifetime of lived perspective.”
“The foundation of the work we do is building knowledge capital and Indigenous strategies and policies within the organizations we work with, ensuring they have that foundational knowledge of the history of Canada,” added MacPhail. “They need to understand the diversity within Indigenous people; Canada has more than 600 distinct Indigenous peoples, plus Inuit and Métis who, for generations, have been consistently fighting against the extraction of their resources and for the right to speak our languages and keep our cultures.”
While education is a key starting point, Bennett said, “We can’t just wait for everybody to be educated. Canadians are at all different posts in their understanding and awareness, and we can’t wait for the furthest behind to catch up before we effect change.”
Set Policies and Follow Them
Bennett recommends that workplaces create value-based statements that include verbiage such as, “this is what we know to be true, this is what we’re working to do.”
“There are some good policies and statements coming out, but then employers often fail to invest in their staff who are expected to implement something they don’t understand, and don’t care about because they don’t understand it.”
Employers need to provide staff with the tools to further reconciliation, Bennett said.
“All HR staff need to spend as much time and effort as needed in their own decolonization journey and have a strong understanding of how they view the world, becoming aware of their own internalized biases that they’re likely not aware they have. Once they do that, they will hire more diverse candidates.”
Thiessen said the people who are eager to learn are not necessarily always the ones who need the learning most.
“That’s where policy comes in. We often see a gap between leadership-identified values and the actual actions on the ground that haven’t changed much. You need policy to support and enable real change. It sends a strong message to the rest of the organization about intent and authority, and the legitimacy of reconciliation work. Every leader or manager or supervisor in an organization, even if they say they have no bias, people do carry biases, but a policy framework can prevent them from falling back on those biases.”
Policy needs to be designed with or alongside Indigenous people, Thiessen said. “The work is on the non-Indigenous to do, but Indigenous people need to have a voice in it, or it will just become a new way of creating harm.”
She added that HR policy changes can have a significant impact. “Who’s on the hiring committees? Who gets a vote? Who is Indigenous? These are all questions that need Indigenous input and consideration.”
What’s in It for Our Organization?
It’s not unusual to face resistance when introducing reconciliation into the workplace, so leadership must be on board.
In today’s tight labour market, it can help to point out that Indigenous people are the fastest growing labour force in Canada as a percentage of the population, so it’s worth an organization’s effort to develop deliberate and purposeful strategies.
Studies have shown the organizations with more diverse workforces perform better, added Thiessen. “Once they reorient their minds to ‘This is the possibility of how people can work and be, and I need to make space for it,’ they’ll find that by doing so, they’ll broaden their opportunities, expanding their approach to problem-solving and responses to events around them.”
What’s good for Indigenous people is good for all people, Bennett said. “Patriarchy, white supremacism, misogyny — they hurt everybody. This kind of work is good for everybody. It’s going to result in a better workplace, a better employer, and better products or services as well.
“Our society has to be in agreement that this (discriminatory or biased) behaviour is not OK, and be willing to say it’s not OK. We need to make a change in Canadian culture as a whole, so there is more and more social pressure for people to engage in this work. Maybe the hook for some leadership is the positive optics of doing the work; it could start a valuable conversation.”
“Culture will shift over time, and we’re never going to have 100 per cent of people agree,” Thiessen said. “But eventually there will be more of us who understand and get it than don’t. We can create a culture where people are uncomfortable speaking in ways that are not authentic or are in denial.” She likens it to the shift in the previous generation’s attitudes about sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace.
Practical Tips for HR Departments
Because Canadians believe family values are important, opening up the historical and continuing effects on the family unit of systemic government intervention, such as the Residential School system, Sixties Scoop and current child welfare practices, can be an effective way to reach people, MacPhail said.
“There are some incredible Indigenous storytellers in the forms of books, documentaries and feature films that tell these stories and bring across the emotion and impact in a safe way. It’s a good way for learners to hear the voices of survivors and stories of their families and to understand the impacts on their families. Information can be easily found on streaming platforms, through the National Film Board, CBC documentaries, feature films and a variety of podcasts,” she said.
“HR plays such a significant role because it deals with people and people are at the heart of this conversation,” Thiessen said. “Talk to the Indigenous people in your organizations about what they need, what barriers exist, what specific exploration of needs and perceptions could be really helpful, and build understanding between HR and that population.
“Once you understand the challenges and barriers, identify the policies that are helping and hindering people. HR has a fair amount of power in convincing leadership that these changes need to happen. They can point out that it’s not what they should be doing, and offer alternatives. Amplify Indigenous voices.”
MacPhail supports the role of policy as a potential driver for change. Indigenous Works has mapped over 30 Indigenous policies and helps organization design and develop their Indigenous policy framework.
Bennett added, try to understand how your standard HR policies may be based on specific cultural assumptions that aren’t accurate for everyone. A funeral can last for four days in Indigenous communities, she points out, “and we’re not the only culture that needs more than half a day for a funeral.”
People must know who they are and how they’re viewing the world to be aware of when they might be making an assumption or viewing something through a limited perspective, Bennett continued.
“If you value your people as human resources, you need to respect them as whole persons.”
Ensure actions match the words, she said, pointing to an organization that employs support workers for Indigenous students, but all the workers are non-Indigenous.
Knowledge, self-reflection, consultation, re-orientation, policy and action — together they can make reconciliation work possible and fruitful.
The Survivors’ Flag
The Survivors’ Flag, which appears on the cover of the Fall, 2023 issue of PeopleTalk, is an expression of remembrance, meant to honour residential school survivors and all the lives and communities impacted by the residential school system in Canada. Each element depicted on the flag was carefully selected by survivors from across Canada, who were consulted in the flag’s creation.
We thank the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation for allowing us to feature the flag on the cover of PeopleTalk and encourage readers to visit nctr.ca/exhibits/survivors-flag to learn more about the flag, its many important elements and its significance, as well as read the testimonials of many brave survivors.
You can also make a donation to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation or one of the causes it supports at nctr.ca.
is an award-winning freelance writer and editor based in Surrey, B.C. and a member of the Canadian Freelance Guild.
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