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Indigenous Employment and the Economy of Tomorrow: Deeper Listening, Bigger Questions, and Cultural Fit to Start

(And, how Banksy reminded this writer to bring your whole self to work)

The tourism industry is having a hard time getting back on its feet, no news there. The hospitality sector’s recovery has been particularly sluggish, especially when it comes to wooing employees back to work.

Indigenous leader and manager works with staff
Lee Sinclair, Director of Operations for the Paskwayak Business Development Corporation, is a firm believer in the importance of fostering cultural values in the workplace as the best way to build operational excellence. Credit: PBDC

Always innovative, hospitality leaders are looking for solutions. Listening from the audience at conferences these days, well intended experts are asking some interesting, but perhaps slightly misguided questions.

Could hiring Indigenous peoples fill the gap and give the industry a much needed win on the economic reconciliation front? Is the fix to have an Indigenous person working in every restaurant, hotel, and tour?

More likely, the industry could be jumping to action too quickly and asking the wrong questions.

While earnest, most in the industry don’t have the background, experience or knowledge to consider important aspects of Indigenous values, beliefs and outcomes, and how these should shape the form of things to come. We remain largely unaware of the core Indigenous world views that should form the basis of a decolonized labour market.

If we take the time to listen and learn, asking the right questions will see a pathway to economic reconciliation emerge that leads to a greater and healthier Indigenous participation in the workforce.

Those who work deep in Indigenous communities know the pressing capacity shortfalls that span all administrative and social departments. Social services, healthcare and wellness programs have been especially hard hit. Burnout is an everyday reality. Employee mental health, traditional knowledge transfer, succession planning, organizational development, work load balancing, wage parity, extremely high turnover rates, and other higher-order human resource management issues are the immediate priorities.

Supporting talented and motivated members, especially youth, knowledge holders, Elders and language speakers to stay and thrive within their community is paramount. Indigenous community wellbeing hinges on reversing the brain drain that continues to force many Indigenous professionals, trades people and frontline workers to look outside their communities to support themselves and their families, even if it means suffering through underemployment.

To put a sharper point to it, a tourism recruitment blitz or sector training program designed to pull even more Indigenous peoples outside their community for long periods of time, or to make sure there’s token representation on the frontlines of guest service is clearly not the answer.

Before we come to any helpful solutions, Indigenous communities and peoples need the proper opportunity to lead us with the right questions. If the tourism industry is eager to do something now, deeper listening is the place to start.

All ears, Indigenous Worx had the opportunity to play a small sponsorship role at the Indigenomics Institute’s conference in Vancouver last spring. The Indigenomics Institute is focused on increasing the visibility of the emerging modern Indigenous economy and the role and responsibility of the people involved. Carol Anne Hilton is the founder, a Hesquiaht woman of Nuu chah nulth descent who advises Indigenous Nations, governments and businesses.

Hilton’s book Indigenomics is a must read for any person or organization that believes (like we do) that the global economy urgently needs to become more regenerative and distributive.

The conference was aptly titled Indigenomics by Design. We assembled a panel of Indigenous leaders and allies that we’ve had the privilege to work with over the years, who wanted to share their journey. The topic dove into what kind of Indigenous workforce was going to be needed to power the Indigenous economy through the 21st Century. The Indigenomics team liked the approach and gave our team of five Indigenous experts and three seasoned allies a concurrent slot.

Our talk centered around these questions:

  • Why is it important to understand the psychographics of Indigenous poverty if we want to reduce their barriers to employment?

  • How can Indigenous leaders and employers change the dialogue to spark greater participation?

  • How can traditional governance and cultural mentorship provide greater opportunities for Indigenous youth?

  • If Indigenous world views are allowed to set more culturally appropriate human resource and employment goals, how should we define success?

Sarah Best is an Indigenous HR Consultant specializing in Indigenous business support, who currently works for go2HR, one of the world’s top associations providing tourism and hospitality human resource programs and advice. Best kicked off the panel to shine light on the macro-level challenges.

Working directly with Indigenous partners across BC’s north, Best spoke to the principles and opportunities behind a decolonized human resources practice, and focused on her own frontline work with employers to build cultures of understanding.

“We need culturally inspired solutions that support success and inclusion. We need to invite people to bring their whole selves to work,” she said.

Foreign to western workplaces whose unspoken social rules more often demand that you don’t bring your problems to work, COVID may have paved the way for employers to make their staff’s mental and spiritual health a more regular concern. But even now, unmasked, holistic mental health as a post-vaccine human resource strategy has far to go.

In other rooms at the Indigenomics conference, Indigenous speakers relayed their struggles to put the brakes on the Western world's hussle culture and the expected walls between personal and professional.

Banksy Trolley Hunters
Banksy's Trolley Hunters, which depicts a group of Indigenous people stalking shopping carts in tall grass, could easily be his commentary on how Western people identify as markets. The archetypical rational economic man is as unrecognizable as it is foreign to Indigenous people's and their worldviews. Ironically, the valuable art piece was stolen from a Toronto exhibit in 2018.

Nathan Grandjambe with the Vancouver Economic Commission was candid about the importance he places on taking charge of his work life balance. Whenever he finds himself overwhelmed after a heavy stretch of work, Grandjambe is mindful and carves out time to engage in activities that provide spiritual counter-balance.

Normally our articles like the one you're reading now are more timely, but Grandjambe’s story struck a chord and has helped us feel less guilty about having to postpone this article until now in order to deal with family priorities.

Beyond the everyday at work, deep systemic change is also needed.

Back at our panel, Kevin Barlow from the Mi'kmaq Nation is a poverty reduction champion and Indigenous business professional. He spoke to the psychology of Indigenous poverty, and the barriers that most Indigenous peoples were born into.

Because the system has often worked against us,” Barlow said, “there can be a resigned loss of hope and deep seeded belief that we will never get ahead. It becomes easy to think there must be something wrong with us as Indigenous people.”

Barlow’s solutions are straightforward enough, if the will to change is there. “Creating culturally safe workplaces can help now,” he added.

The to-do list is long. His starts with cultural programming to strengthen stronger identities, and reframing key aspects that set Indigenous peoples apart from the mainstream like the importance of being at death ceremonies, and the importance of other cultural leave.

Barlow adds that Indigenous peoples also need to do more to prepare youth to step into cross-cultural environments.

Barlow: “I think if the tourism and hospitality industries look to the land, that is where the solutions may be. People need these types of breaks from the routine. All sides win."

”Social innovation is another solution not to be overlooked or discounted as fringe models of business. Barlow explains how social enterprises that make community wellbeing the bottom-line are a better fit with Indigenous community expectations and outcomes.

Barlow himself started an aquaculture social enterprise in the Maritimes that grew to employ eight people from the local Mi'kmaq Nation and generated at that time, about $100K in revenue for the Nation. He credits their success with making sure the enterprise operated in alignment with local cultural values first, even at the expense of business margins.

Bonnie Harvey, the Ktunaxa Nation Governance Coordinator and a Ktunaxa Guardian spoke to the power of traditional governance providing a focus for change, empowerment and win-win private sector economic reconciliation partnerships that reinforce culture, territorial sovereignty, and youth participation.

Values are nothing if they aren’t practiced. A lifelong learner of her ancestors’ isolate sounds and the Ktunaxa way of being and knowing, Harvey makes sure youth are being trained and grounded in their culture so they feel prepared and supported to handle any decision that comes their way.

Indigenous leader works with teen guardians in training to build culture
Bonnie Harvey walks the talk. She brought Makayla Taylor a young ʔaq̓am Guardian In Training to sit right next to her upfront on the panel. Still in her teens, Taylor shared first-hand how the Ktunaxa Guardians in Training program is helping her stay strong in her culture and giving her full reason to stay close to home and to be hopeful that her future will be secure. Image: Bonnie Harvey

From lower eastern British Columbia all the way to Northern Manitoba, delegates got a rare chance to hear from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, one of the largest Indigenous employers in the North. Lee Sinclair, Director of Operations for the Nation’s Paskwayak Business Development Corp, spoke to how fostering cultural values and leadership can build operational excellence.

“Our responsibility is to lift our people up. Everyday connection with your team makes the difference. Implementing cultural values and driving teamwork is every Indigenous leader's responsibility,” said Sinclar, a well respected knowledge holder, trapper and fishing guide to local Cree youth, as well as a medicinal helper and language speaker.

Indigenous Worx’s own Kathryn Millar has been working closely with Sinclair and the Opaskwayak Cree Nation to help the nation gain ground in efforts to make local culture a workplace foundation.

“You have to make it meaningful to them,” says Millar. “Holistic approaches get results as long as you meet Indigenous employees where they’re at.”

Millar talked about making sure to flex schedules according to life needs so employees feel heard and valued. This could mean a late start so employees can take care of their grandchildren in the morning, or providing bus transportation to get employees to and from work when they have no other viable options.

Indigenous human resources expert Kathryn Millar
Indigenous Worx’s own Kathryn Millar has been working closely with Indigenous communities to support making local culture a workplace foundation. Image: Indigenous Worx

Meeting people where they’re at is key to addressing inequality and barriers to employment adds Millar. Better known to community economic developers who are more used to taking a livelihoods approach, the underpinning reality is that not everyone can (or even wants) to work a 9-5 job, so judging every program or success by how many full time jobs are created is frankly, outdated and counterproductive.

Rather than squeezing people into traditional forms of employment and entrepreneurship, enlightened planners chose to see the economy as a continuum of income and employment options ranging from volunteerism to social enterprises to social procurement that supports home-based artisans.

The approach works. Take Vancouver’s downtown eastside (DTE) as another example. One of the most impoverished and barriered neighborhoods in the country, the DTE needed a radical new strategy that created diverse and inclusive employment. Together with Vancouver city staff and a group of no less than thirty-five (35) community groups, businesses, residents, and other local stakeholders, saw a livelihoods approach take root and flourish. Results included the creation of a social innovation corridor built expressly to service hyper-local employment interests both formal and informal.

Indigenomics delegates got their own chance to think about some of the important questions they needed to take back to their own communities. Using a mobile Q&A platform, the audience got to tap in their own questions. Their list was insightful.

Here's just some of the questions they shared:

  • How do we ensure that Indigenous people are in employment spaces that are culturally safe?

  • Why is a person’s worth measured by the job they have?

  • How do you earn a living wage while also having enough time to care for family, land, culture?

  • How do you change the approach to labour policy at a federal level so it fits the needs and realities of Indigenous peoples?

  • What [HR] policies are specific for Indigenous employees?

  • How does climate change beg for sustainable and collaborative solutions in the future? Where are Indigenous communities at in relation?

  • How do small communities maintain capacity in healthy ways?

  • What are suggestions of HR initiatives to implement when workplaces are too bureaucratic, strict and inflexible?

  • How does the company’s long term vision fit with mine and my culture’s?

  • How can First Nations contribute meaningfully to companies?

  • Is there some way to align outcomes valued in western views to outcomes valued in indigenous and non-western views?

The tourism industry's real problems have only started. Heeding warnings from Elders, Barlow in a follow-up interview was compelled to remind that we are entering a period of great chaos. Climate change-related events will be happening with more frequency and intensity, say his Elders.

Barlow believes a solution is to support more on-the-land type healing.

Getting back to the land helps people come back stronger, replenishes their mental capacity, and better yet, reconnects them to the source that feeds us all.

“I think if the tourism and hospitality industries look to the land, that is where the solutions may be. People need these types of breaks from the routine. All sides win.”


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