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Lynn White: Hiring Indigenous talent brings value while bridging B.C.’s labour gap

Workplace discrimination, educational barriers jeopardizing B.C.’s economy while harming reconciliation
To leverage the talents and skills of young Indigenous people, we must take a solutions-oriented approach to reduce the barriers that they are people are facing in the workplace, writes Lynn White, CEO of Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society (ACCESS).

As Canadians strive to acknowledge, learn and right the wrongs of the country’s historical – and ongoing – atrocities against Indigenous people, provinces across the nation are facing a lack of talent, contributing to notable economic instability.

The Canadian Builders Association of BC reports that the province’s residential construction industry is anticipating a 4,500-worker shortfall this year. And in the fall of 2023, BC Teachers’ Federation president Clint Johnston said the province is experiencing an acute teacher shortage. This is a small sample of B.C. industries struggling with a significant labour gap.

In 2023 the federal government announced plans to shift immigration policy by recruiting thousands to fill employment gaps. This may be a partial solution yet there is another vital piece. The large urban Indigenous population is not only significant, but it is also a young and growing demographic.

In urban Vancouver alone, there are approximately 70,000 Indigenous people. Indigenous people represent one of the youngest populations in Canada.

According to Statistics Canada, Indigenous youth aged 15-24 years make up one-sixth of the country’s Indigenous population. This high percentage of youth indicates that the population is likely to grow quickly. It is projected that Canada’s Indigenous population could reach up to 3.2 million by 2041.

To leverage the talents and skills of this growing demographic, we must take a solutions-oriented approach to reduce the barriers that Indigenous people are facing in the workplace.

While the province-wide labour shortage hampers B.C.’s economy, recently reported that 58.6 percent of Indigenous Canadians have experienced discrimination in their current workplace.

Over 60 percent of Indigenous employees surveyed say they feel less likely to receive a promotion based on their Indigenous identity, while more than 52 per cent say they have downplayed their Indigenous identity to secure employment. 

Even before seeking employment, Indigenous students face significant challenges while working to successfully complete higher education. A 2023 Deloitte report, in partnership with Canadian Roots Exchange, found that in all stages of their higher education and career journeys, Indigenous youth cite being confronted with biases, prejudices and racism.

Further harming their morale, students have reported few Indigenous instructors and note non-Indigenous professors using pan-Indigenous approaches to teach cultural traditions, thus failing to acknowledge diverse cultures. 

Supportive and culturally aware education and workplace environments are essential to Canada’s reconciliation efforts. Addressing past harms, supporting strong and healthy communities, and advancing self-determination and prosperity are imperative.

High school completion and post-secondary participation for First Nations youth are increasing over time and it’s clear that they have similar goals and dreams of success as their non-Indigenous peers. Even with barriers such as poverty and racism, their ambition and vigour are evident. Seventy per cent had completed high school in 2016, up from 57 per cent in 2006.

Employers must also consider the variety of skills, talents, cultural knowledge and areas of expertise that Indigenous people bring to the workplace here on B.C. soil, a place we have called home for more than 10,000 years. Not only is hiring Indigenous people socially responsible, it’s also a strategic decision that can benefit organizations in numerous ways such as fostering innovation, building inclusion and relationships, and enhancing sustainability.

Indigenous people often have extensive knowledge of the land and environment. At a time when corporate sustainability efforts and meeting net zero requirements are central focus areas, this knowledge is valuable. On a practical level, Indigenous people’s knowledge of the land provides them with unique skills such as fighting fires – a health and safety skill offering important value to a trades position.

Indigenous people often have a strong bond with their local land and community. Hiring Indigenous talent is also likely to increase retention, allowing the employee to grow in their role. Being close to their home community is a significant value for many within local Indigenous communities.

Employing Indigenous talent, while incorporating an authentic Indigenous-led cultural education component for the organization, can break down stereotypes, leading to greater awareness and understanding of barriers that Indigenous people face.

For Indigenous people, culture completes their identity. When non-Indigenous colleagues commit to learning and understanding their culture, they can gain genuine respect, providing Indigenous employees with pride and complete recognition of their professional value.

Knowledge and understanding will result in decreased discrimination, replaced with respect and a healthy empathy for the increased challenges their Indigenous peers have faced in their journey to a fulfilling career.

A fair, culturally aware and knowledge-based workplace can help fill vital employment gaps while providing Indigenous people with fulfilling careers and boosting B.C.’s economy.

The talent B.C. organizations are desperately seeking may be much closer than they realize.

Lynn White is CEO of the Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society.