Companies challenged by labour shortage seek to recruit, retain Indigenous workers

A growing number of Canadian corporations are pursuing cultural awareness training in order to get better at recruiting and retaining Indigenous employees. People are silhouetted as they walk past the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A growing number of Canadian corporations are pursuing cultural awareness training in order to get better at recruiting and retaining Indigenous employees.

From educating management and staff about the history of residential schools to adjusting HR policies to reflect Indigenous lifestyles and world views, companies across the country are making efforts to create workplaces that Indigenous people can feel comfortable in.

“There really has been a very big shift, and most corporations are making it,” said Leanne Hall, CEO of Creative Fire, an Indigenous-owned professional services firm specializing in Indigenous engagement.

“Companies are looking to create ways for Indigenous people to be successful in their corporations.”

Hall is co-chair of Workforce Forward, a one-day conference for business leaders and human resource specialists seeking ways to foster a culture of belonging for Indigenous talent first held in Calgary in 2019

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This year’s annual conference is being held April 6 in that city as well as in Saskatoon and Vancouver due to what Hall said is rising demand for Indigenous-centred education, training and inclusion initiatives for workplaces.

The increased interest in Indigenous-focused workforce training comes at a time when corporate Canada is more invested in issues of diversity and inclusion than ever before. The rise in ESG (environmental, social and governance) as an investing strategy, the wide-reaching impacts of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the waves of grief and anger rippling through Canada after the May 2021 discovery of 215 possible unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., have prompted many companies to rethink their own diversity strategies.

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At the same time, the country is dealing with a labour shortage — one that has many corporations eyeing Indigenous Peoples as a source of untapped talent. Statistics Canada data shows the employment rate among Indigenous people in this country is approximately 77 per cent, nearly 10 per cent lower than that of non-Indigenous Canadians.

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“The country’s crying out for workers, and Indigenous people are underemployed and looking for employment,” said Laura Bodtker, producer of the Workforce Forward conference.

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“But in spite of that, companies are still struggling with recruitment and retention.”

Hall said one of the calls to action that came out of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to eliminate employment gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. That means ensuring equitable access to jobs, skills and training within the corporate sector, she said.

While a lot of large corporations already have training, sponsorship and mentorship programs in place for Indigenous employees, many business leaders are realizing they need to apply an Indigenous lens to their entire organization, Hall said.

That means “decolonizing” some of their human resources policies to reflect Indigenous lifestyles and needs.

“We see a lot of organizations now that are being very respectful of Indigenous culture, and their land-based practices,” she said.

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“We have a lot of them providing leave so they can do hunting, fishing and gathering, or taking place in cultural activities.”

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Companies that offer remote work and flexible work are also more likely to attract and retain Indigenous workers, many of whom may wish to stay in their home communities or have family responsibilities.

Hall said it’s also helpful for companies to consider whether their values and mission align with the Indigenous world view, especially on issues like the environment and climate change. If they do, their organization is likely to be more appealing to Indigenous job-seekers.

The Workforce Forward conference will take place in Calgary on April 6, with Vancouver and Saskatoon dates later this year.

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