Bright + Early is dedicated to building anti-oppressive workplaces, which include building workplaces that are inclusive to Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups. One of our core pillars at Bright + Early is community, which is a crucial aspect of reconciliation. Without community, we’re unable to foster an environment of collective care, support, and inclusion. And without reconciliation, we’re unable to move forward from the past. We developed this guide for company builders and HR practitioners in hopes of making Indigenous inclusion actionable for your organization.
This guide is brought to you by Stephanie Bergman, a Senior Consultant, Métis HR practitioner, and Team Lead at Bright + Early.
Over the last month, we’ve marked Canada’s National Day for Truth & Reconciliation (also known as Orange Shirt Day) as well as Indigenous People’s Day in the United States. These days acknowledge and commemorate the experiences and lives of Indigenous people who have been irreparably impacted by colonialism and its lasting policies. While there was tremendous momentum when mass graves were confirmed at the sites of former residential schools in 2021, we have not seen quite the same momentum continue in 2023. Indigenous people have been and continue to be disproportionately discriminated against within workplaces, and as the Indigenous community is the fastest growing demographic in Canada and is facing unprecedented growth in the United States, it’s critical to build workplaces specifically with Indigenous folks in mind.
Building inclusive workplaces is necessary to ensure the safety and success of Indigenous people entering or currently in the workplace. However, before we can seek out external relations, partnerships, or hiring campaigns, we need to first start from inside and examine how our organizations really work. This takes time and intention, but when you build inclusively for one group to thrive, it can lead to building a safer place for many others. Since getting that internal work done first is so important, we’ve focused this guide exclusively there; we won’t be covering external Indigenous engagement topics like recruitment tips or how to reach out to specific communities. We’re here to help you get your house in order first.
When doing this work, it’s crucial that you work with and listen to Indigenous people directly, so I'll tell you a bit about myself. I’m Métis and have been working in spaces related to Indigenous inclusion for a little over a decade. Through that work I’ve supported small organizations, large multinational corporations, and individuals to understand and pursue reconciliation at work. In my work at Bright + Early, I lead a team along with our diversity and inclusion consulting practice and training program. I frequently speak on the subject of Indigenous issues at work, specifically in tech. I also serve on my local Métis council.
I know how daunting getting started can be, so my team and I have created this guide to help you take the first steps towards building an Indigenous-inclusive workplace. It’s meant to share our own process when we work with clients who want to be more inclusive to Indigenous folks, and give you hands on ideas you can start implementing in your own organization right away. Here’s how to begin.
Step 1: Learn on your own
Before engaging the rest of your team, take a moment to learn the history and viewpoints of the folks you will be including. A lot of learning focuses on the idea of Indigenous ‘history’ without also exploring the ongoing and lasting impacts of colonialism. When selecting a facilitator, course, or learning material you should ensure that you are getting current perspectives as well. When we focus only on historical content, we run the risk of perpetuating the belief that Indigenous people no longer exist or live out their culture; a misconception that I’ve come up against time and time again.
Today, the nations that we call Canada and the United States have (and continue to) systematically oppress Indigenous peoples. To support reconciliation and a more equitable path forward, it’s important to understand and attempt to dismantle these power structures. Seems simple enough, however, workplaces have intentionally been designed to serve a specific group of people, and challenging deep systemic issues is difficult work. So before you can build, you’ll need to start by unraveling and unlearning workplace norms, such as the idea that politics have no place in work, or what family and community should look like. This is the most crucial step, as you need to ensure you are creating a work environment that will not unintentionally harm people. It’s important to note that Indigenous people are not a monolith; hundreds of different nations exist, each with their own traditions and considerations. We’ve kept things general here, but if you’re looking to include a specific community that is local to you, you may need specific research or consultation.
Step 2: Don’t shy away from tough conversations
You may be wondering how your work environment could be harmful– let’s unpack that. Workplaces that consider themselves to be politically neutral, meaning tough conversations are glossed over and world events may not be acknowledged, are harmful. Identity is inherently political, and a lot of Indigenous people do not have the luxury of being politically neutral. For example, many workplaces took a political neutrality stance in 2021, when mass graves were confirmed at residential schools. I would not have been able to fully participate in work if my team didn’t understand and acknowledge how I was impacted by the news, or if I didn’t feel I was adequately supported at work. If your workplace is not comfortable engaging in tough conversations or recognizing the intersectionality of identity, you’ll need to dig deeper and push for some change. Since our default mode is based on colonial standards, a politically neutral stance is a stance against inclusion.
So, as you do this work, be ready to openly declare your support for Indigenous people and issues. When tough news stories arise, start a discussion and take a stance. When you learn about how workplaces (and people) can do better, share your learnings with others. Speak up!
Step 3: Learn together
Next, you’re ready to build a shared understanding through facilitated (and paid*) training led by an Indigenous practitioner. Training isn’t a new tactic, but it really does work. Everyone is at different stages of their knowledge and awareness journey, which is why it’s important to start by building a shared level of understanding. The main outcome of a good facilitated training should be that your existing team is aware of the ongoing colonial impacts towards Indigenous people, and that racist stereotypes are debunked. It takes a tremendous toll on Indigenous employees to be confronted daily with racist stereotypes or assumptions. Even working towards using more inclusive language in the workplace can go a long way towards supporting your Indigenous team members.
Once you’ve developed a shared understanding, it’s important that your work culture encourages ongoing learning so that you can continue evolving your workplace. You can continue your group learning journey by sharing articles and resources that you find, reading books as a team, and meaningfully celebrating Truth and Reconciliation Day, or other local days to remember and/or celebrate Indigenous history. One year on our own team, we encouraged folks to use the day off to complete the University of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada online course stream, and rewarded those who completed it with a donation or purchase from an Indigenous creator or organization of their choice.
*It shouldn’t have to be said, but Indigenous facilitators are often asked to speak or educate others for free. While we understand budgets can be limited, this is something to avoid.
Step 2: Assemble your team
To keep momentum going and turn learning into actions, your organization will need a point person (or team) leading the way. Depending on your size and stage, options could include a dedicated diversity and inclusion hire or engaging with an ongoing consultant or fractional resource. When considering candidates or partnerships, ensure that they (or the team members you will be working with) are Indigenous themselves. Speak with them openly about the needs of your organization, be honest about the challenges and goals. I always appreciate when a team is candid with me about where they’re starting from; it helps me know what to expect and what level of learning we’ll be starting from. This is a chance to explore mutual fit and in my view, open, transparent conversation is the best way to do that.
Many organizations are tempted to create or lean on Employee Resource Groups (like diversity circles or Indigenous employee groups) to fill this gap. While well-intentioned, we commonly see the burden of work fall onto ERGs without proper executive sponsorship or compensation for the extra time participants (often from marginalized communities themselves) put in. Ideally, ERGs should be leveraged for peer support, not shouldered with solving inequality at work. Bring in a professional.
Step 3: Audit your people processes
Once you’ve gained a basic understanding, it’s time to audit your current setup. First, work with your point person to review your policies and processes, such as performance reviews, hiring programs and job descriptions. As you review, here are some questions to keep in mind:
- What is this process for and what is it supposed to achieve? For example, some organizations have performance reviews that exist to assess performance and in others that same process might be used to make compensation decisions as well. We should be clear and explicit about what we’re asking our team to do and about how the information will be used. Clarity decreases the likelihood that Indigenous (and other) employees will experience discrimination through engaging in these processes.
- Is this process transparent and understandable to folks from different backgrounds or industry newcomers? Does the process rely on jargon or an assumed understanding that isn’t clearly laid out? Many work environments have narrowly defined ideas of high performance or success which often leads to increased emotional labour and decreased psychological safety at work, evident through masking or code-switching. Keep it simple, and let folks bring their real selves to work.
- Is this policy compliant with local laws, but also inclusive, and accessible? For example, is our understanding of family focused on the nuclear family, or is it inclusive of different kinship structures?
- Does the process have unnecessary barriers? Reconsider things like educational requirements and years of experience, and focus on assessing the skills truly needed to do the job.
- Does your organization have policies mandating time in office or that employees be located in a specific area? For some industries, in-person work is unavoidable, but for organizations that have the option to work remotely, you may have wider access to candidates or enable Indigenous folks to live in their home communities.
- Is this process even necessary? If it doesn’t have a clear and necessary outcome, scrap it. Otherwise it’s just another hoop for someone to jump through.
- Does this process get applied and used properly and appropriately by everyone? Do all leaders follow it in the same way.? If not, how can we fix that?
Additionally, consider surveying your team regularly to get feedback on their work experience. How engaged are they feeling? Are all processes and policies simple, effective, and easy to navigate? To ensure folks are getting an equal experience across the organization, you can filter the results by team, manager or diversity factors/demographic (if you collect that information). If you discover gaps, get curious about them.
Step 4: Review your benefits and perks
Some of the key ways to enable people to thrive are to ensure that benefits and perks reflect the reality of people’s needs and are inclusive to a wide range of experiences and identities. For example, if you have a large in-person team and a need (or desire) to accommodate a wide range of Indigenous staff, you could consider having a safe space for smudging that will not set off a fire alarm.
Revisiting your bereavement policies and ensuring you allow time off for the loss of a community member or Elder (and not just immediate family members) is another core component of building an Indigenous-inclusive workplace. When a death occurs, travel back to respective communities is often required. Many of these communities are in remote locations, so ensuring your time-off policy also includes flexible time for travel and other relevant cultural practices is also important. While revisiting time off and leaves, consider the addition of spiritual days to allow for time off for non-statutory holidays and community practice, meaning ceremony and cultural events (I’ve personally used these days to attend local Pow Wows). If adding additional time off isn’t possible, consider allowing flexibility for when statutory holidays can be used. At Bright + Early, we’ve worked with organizations that let team members work on holidays and take their own cultural days instead. Note that if you choose to go down this route, you’ll need to get a mutual agreement in writing to avoid any legal issues.
If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), it can also be expanded to include access to culturally relevant resources like traditional healing or time with an Elder. Similarly, your professional development fund can allow for Indigenous people to learn their community’s language or access cultural practices like purchasing beading or weaving supplies, or attend a workshop on how to make a ribbon skirt. These funds can also be used to purchase a subscription to an audio book service or various courses to support additional learning and community connection. For organizations that have policies of only supporting learning that is directly connected to job skills, I would challenge them to consider how these initiatives support wellbeing and play into psychological safety at work.
In reviewing your benefits and perks, you should also assess how you enable remote work. While the urban Indigenous population is large and growing, many Indigenous folks may want to live in or near their home communities and families. Well organized remote work is one of the best ways to support this. For me, Bright + Early’s approach to remote work means that I can choose to live near my community, and with my extended family. Furthermore, this means that we’ve been able to access health care at an Indigenous-centered health care provider, and that my daughter’s daycare is Indigenous-led. Because of this, she’ll grow up with a connection to her identity that many people in my generation were deprived of.
Step 5: Keep going
Remember that the work of inclusion and equity will always be ongoing. It’s on each of us to become comfortable with being in a state of ongoing learning, and practice allyship regularly. This means recognizing that mistakes will happen, that programs and policies will need to continuously evolve, and that we won’t always get it right. Learning how to apologize and receive feedback in a way that doesn’t center ourselves is crucial. Working towards reconciliation in a workplace is a challenging (and sometimes can feel contradictory) ask, but the best thing that we can do is to start somewhere, seek genuine feedback and keep going.
Bright + Early is a modern, inclusive HR consultancy focused on building the world’s best workplaces. We are settler-owned, and our diversity and inclusion practice team is Indigenous-led and available for speaking, training, audits and strategies customized to your organization. Bright + Early was founded on land that is the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples, and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples from across Turtle Island. We acknowledge that we are all treaty people and accept our responsibility to honour all our relations.