Stephanie Bergman is a consultant in the HR and DEI spaces whose mission of improving work for underrepresented communities has taken her all over the globe. For the past 6 months, Stephanie has been working with the team at Bright + Early, where she has partnered with clients across Canada and the USA to build inclusive workplaces. We spoke to her about her own experiences as an Indigenous woman at work, and if there is meaningful actions employers can take towards reconciliation.

Early Magazine: Thanks for chatting with us, Steph. Can you tell us more about yourself and your work?

Stephanie Bergman: I'm an HR and DEI consultant, a mom, and I'm Métis. A lot of my work has been in the not-for-profit sector prior to making a switch to HR. Within that non-profit work, I had the opportunity to work with folks from all walks of life within and all over the world. I've worked in Canada, Vietnam, India, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ecuador. This really gave me a better sense and understanding of how my own experiences as an Indigenous person are unique and how those experiences can contribute to a better workplace. Sometimes it felt like I was swimming upstream or having to battle a little bit harder to have my voice heard or my perspective heard, or recognized as valid. And through that, I knew that it might be harder for other Indigenous folks who may not have had the same privileges, experience, or personality that I have.

If folks look at me, you don't know that I'm Indigenous unless we have a conversation about it. I'm very much white-passing. So I benefit from white privilege. My family has also done well and supported my siblings and I through school. And it was expected and normalized in my immediate community that I would pursue post-secondary education. So between those things, that's granted me a lot of privilege and made certain opportunities more accessible to me.

I felt that those barriers weren't acceptable. They prevent people from having a choice of what they want to do with their life and their career. And also prevent people from being able to feel safe at work, at a space where we spend so much of our days. That's been one of the main pieces that has inspired me to do this work and help ensure that workplaces can be safe, can be welcoming, and that people can feel like they belong. And that led me to learn a little bit more about how to help create safe, exciting, and engaging workplaces at other companies.

EM: So what are some of those barriers that many Indigenous people might face?

SB: They might enter a workplace or an interview and not even be considered because of the stigma associated with being Indigenous. People may suffer from the effects of intergenerational trauma or live in a remote community further from opportunities. In which case, accessing education is a lot harder and more expensive, especially if you have to fly in and out of your community. There could be additional challenges in folks' personal lives that impact their ability to show up. Just to name a few.

EM: On a personal level, have there been times where as an Indigenous person at work, you felt very welcomed and accepted, or less so?

SB: I feel welcomed and accepted in workplaces that have allowed me just to be my whole self, be honest about my experiences and talk about Indigeneity. And not hold my experiences as an Indigenous person to a particular standard or expectation of what that should look like. That has been key.

In circumstances where I haven't felt as comfortable, I've been told that I don't count as Indigenous because I'm Métis, or because, if I'm not dressed a certain way or don't do ceremony in a certain way that therefore, I'm not part of the community. So that's been one piece. In other cases, there has been an expectation that I won't perform well, or that they're doing a favour in hiring me. They're surprised when I do something well or exceed expectations.  It assumes the worst of me, as a person or as an employee. And I feel like it lessens the value of my skills, and the value of what I bring to the table. It assumes that I'm not going to be someone who could do well or move up within a company or within a field. And that's really challenging. Why are you surprised that I'm good at my job?

If you want to know what not to say, I was once asked where someone could go to meet a "real" Indigenous person. I was like, what do you mean? Like, living on the land in the way you've seen in picture books? One, don't just show up and go to a community looking for that. And two, you've probably met hundreds of real Indigenous people and you just don't know it.

I will say that one of the benefits of my privilege is that people sometimes do think they can say problematic things to me, and I feel comfortable confronting them. I'm fortunate enough to feel safe enough to call the situation what it is. I'll say something like "do you mean people like me?" or "hey, you realize I'm part of that community, right?". And then it does typically lead to a conversation, at least.

EM: Badass. But not everybody is going to be at the career stage or job security level that you're at or feel comfortable with confrontation. So that's why we have to build these safe environments.

SB: Exactly.

EM: If we can dive into recent news, recently a large number of unmarked graves at residential schools were discovered in Canada. There's been much discussion and a lot of media spotlight on this horrifying discovery, and in turn, Canada's relationship with Indigenous people. One big topic is the concept of reconciliation and how that can be achieved, or even begun. So let's talk about that. First off, what does reconciliation mean to you?

SB: Reconciliation is recognizing and trying to make right things that have happened either in the past or in the current time. But one of the key pieces of it is recognizing and acknowledging the reality of what has happened, which will be the first step. In my opinion, the second step would then be listening to Indigenous people in communities and ensuring that the actions that follow those conversations are in line with what people in communities are actually asking for.

EM: So there is reconciliation on a government scale, but we've been having a lot of conversations about reconciliation at workplaces. How can a workplace or a company begin to approach something like this? Is it appropriate for them to tackle it on their own? And how can they get started?

SB: The first thing is to recognize that essentially anyone who's living in what is now Canada (or the US, or other countries with Indigenous nations) and isn't Indigenous, is benefiting from colonialism - either in the past or present times.

Because folks have benefited from that experience and they've benefited from essentially, the disenfranchisement of Indigenous people, there is not only an opportunity to pursue reconciliation but an obligation. There is an obligation to make spaces more equitable and ensure that Indigenous folks have equal access to participate, equal access to benefit from the things that are created on this land.

So for a company to begin this work, the first thing I would recommend is that they familiarize themselves with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and understand the calls to action that apply to them. In this case, specifically, #92, which focuses on businesses and reconciliation. And then from there, my recommendation would be that they engage with Indigenous people within the company or who interact with the company. If they aren't aware of any, then they should probably hire a consultant who can help them do that work so that they can engage meaningfully and respectfully. And then start to listen and start to make the changes that come up through those consultations.

As for the US, they don't yet have a similar commission or calls to action. However, there have been calls for it, and I do still think that the outcomes of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission would apply to companies in the United States. Of course, they should focus on reconciliation relating to the Indigenous communities closest to them.

"... there is not only an opportunity to pursue reconciliation but an obligation."

EM: And after they learn about the commission's call to action, what are some steps businesses might take to begin reconciliation?

SB: A good next step is undergoing training for their staff and their managers on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as specifically the history and current context of Indigenous folks. Learning more about the communities that exist near them. Then, they might undergo consultation with an Indigenous stakeholder group to ensure not just that their workplace policies, but their product itself is equitable.

There are a few other things to take into consideration, like whether the communities they are trying to hire from or partner with have access to high-quality internet or other services, whether status cards can be used when purchasing the product, are Indigenous people represented in the imagery, things like that. They can also partner with Indigenous talent communities and employment agencies (like Natives in Tech, Indigenous Professional Association of Canada, or Miziwe Biik) to build a talent pipeline, provide training in their field, or create access to internships for Indigenous youth at their organization.

More things that they can do that provide more opportunity or help create a welcoming space would be ensuring that there's a space that folks can smudge in. So that might mean you can turn off the fire alarms, you can open the windows, things like that. Supporting the things and events that Indigenous folks are excited about. So, sponsoring an event, or volunteering. Another thing that companies could do would be providing personal days or flex days for ceremony, or for folks who have a lot further to go to a home community. Enabling remote work, which lets people live and work in the communities that they're from, is also a huge game changer.

EM: Those are great suggestions. One thing we were recently discussing was the requirements of caregiving or bereavement leaves, which often apply only to immediate family. And how relationships might be different in Indigenous communities and are just as important. It makes those policies a little inaccessible.

SB: Yeah. I actually, I love recommending that both for Indigenous folks, but also LGBTQ+ folks. Being able to access bereavement days for chosen family or community leaders is important.

EM: Is there anything else that you wish people understood about Indigenous people at work or in general?

SB: I wish that more folks could show up at work without the prejudice or assumptions that they have towards Indigenous people and just kind of be willing to learn from them. I think that's the biggest key piece.

EM: Thanks, Steph!