Indigenous spotlight: A trauma-informed approach to Truth and Reconciliation

'Unfortunately, discrimination of Indigenous Peoples in Canada is not new,' says lawyer

Indigenous spotlight: A trauma-informed approach to Truth and Reconciliation

Two in five Indigenous employees in Canada report having experienced discrimination at work, according to data from the Diversity Institute. What’s more, for First Nation individuals, that number rises to 47%.

And as much as Canadian employers and organizations claim to want to help, how far are their efforts genuine? Or, more importantly, what can leaders do today to ensure their initiatives hit the mark and don’t come across as ‘paying lip service’?

It all begins with being trauma informed, according to Carrie Lamb, Indigenous recruitment and retention lead at Fraser Health Authority and expert in Indigenous relations.

“Being trauma informed means having an understanding of the impact of trauma and how it affects individuals who’ve experienced traumatic events,” she tells HRD. “Being trauma informed creates an understanding of how someone who carries trauma in their life experiences may behave when triggered. This awareness creates safety on how to support those who carry trauma experiences.”

A trauma-informed approach means recognizing the actual impact historical, economic and societal events have had - and are still having - on Indigenous Peoples. This means rather than preaching and assuming that you know what will help champion Indigenous employees, you take a comprehensive and cultural approach to any initiatives – and seek their opinions first.

“Understanding the history and cultures of local communities helps to frame the groundwork of understanding our rich and diverse cultural ways of knowing,” Lamb tells HRD. “Many of us have protocols and ways of engaging that pertains to our cultural ways, and having at least a basic understanding and kind, curious approach goes a long way in creating a respectful relationship that often filters into how we can attract and retain Indigenous talent.”

What constitutes Indigenous discrimination?

According to the data, women are more at risk of being harmed by false approaches to Indigenous issues, with 36% of men being discriminated against versus 45% of women. But what exactly constitutes discrimination when it comes to Indigenous employees?

“As a general point, racism and racial discrimination in the workplace, much like in any other sphere, is distilled down to perceiving and treating persons differently on the basis of their race, usually using stereotypes to inform expectations or conclusions,” says Ed Matei’s, Ontario-based labour lawyer and in-house legal counsel at Peninsula Canada. “In so doing, the person’s actions are viewed through a lens of prejudice predicated on their race or culture, rather than on the value of their actions.

“In the workplace, these effects can manifest either acutely through hostility and derision in the workplace, leading to unfriendly and toxic environments, or subtly through hiring and promotion practices that favour racial traits, ultimately reinforcing the same unfair stereotypes.”

And Indigenous discrimination is no different - except that it’s both widespread and well documented in Canada.  

“Unfortunately, discrimination of Indigenous peoples in Canada is not new,” he tells HRD. “Despite inhabiting Canadian lands for centuries before European and other migration, modern Indigenous peoples have faced discrimination, racism, and marginalization that is systemic and entrenched. Not only has this resulted in significant disparities in areas such as health, education, employment, and income between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, but has also regularly made regular news cycles as the dark legacy of Canadian residential schools comes to light.”

‘Historic trauma’ for Indigenous Peoples at work

The result is that many Indigenous peoples face isolation, wage gaps, and underrepresentation at work. The last point creates further issues as it results in being surrounded by managers, colleagues, and senior executives unfamiliar with their cultures, histories, and burdens – making a correct trauma-led approach to education even more important. 

And, when planning to approach Truth and Reconciliation from this perspective, Lamb warns employers against harmful assumptions.

“Often employers are unaware of the historic trauma or barriers to employment that Indigenous Peoples face,” she tells HRD. “When there isn’t an awareness, employers really struggle to retain talent in a meaningful way. 

“The easiest way to amend this is to ensure that their non-Indigenous workforce has completed workshops or participated in events that deepens their understandings of the historic trauma and barriers Indigenous Peoples face.”

In the light of trying to help, sometimes employers miss the mark entirely. To embrace a trauma-informed approach, organizations need to nail the ‘trauma’ aspect – looking back and understanding why the discrimination is there in the first place.

“The implications of the residential school system have had an intergenerational effect on Indigenous families,” explains Lamb. “When the truth of those experiences is heard, it helps for the humanization of those experiences to occur. 

“I found that when the announcement in Kamloops that the bodies of 215 children were found, it was a surprise to me how often Canadians responded in not understanding the damage our families carry because of those schools. Knowing the truth first helps us to move towards reconciliation.”

‘In the title of our profession, we have the word human in it’

So what would Lamb like to see employers doing in 2024 and beyond? She tells HRD that for HR leaders, it’s about embracing the inherent people side of their role.

“In the title of our profession, we have the word human in it,” she says. “I really reflect on this word a lot and how I show up in the space of being a human resource professional. I feel it is my personal responsibility to interject humanity back into our practices. So many of the ways we work with the employees we serve are harmful.”

In speaking to other HR professionals, says Lamb, “they also feel pain because they’re often asked by employers to carry out the painful tasks on behalf of their employers. It’s my belief that all processes we support can have the spirit of kindness. All of them - including the disciplinary and termination processes. 

“We have a terrible reputation of being the most feared professional in many organizations but I feel we consider kindness first, then process — it changes the whole dynamics of how we all are showing up in the world.”

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