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Reconciliation ‘critical’ in diversity, inclusion journey

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June 2, 2021
By Marcel Vander Wier

On Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered flags on federal buildings across Canada lowered for the 215 children whose bodies were found at a former residential school in B.C. (Maridav/Adobe Stock)

The discovery of unmarked children’s graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., highlights the need for reconciliation to be a part of workplace policies across Canada, experts say.

“It’s critical,” said Michael Bach, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion in Toronto. “Arguably, it’s the missing piece of the puzzle.”

“Employers seem to avoid work with Indigenous peoples because it’s going to take a long time to produce results. But if you aren’t doing anything, you’re not going to produce any results. No one said reconciliation was going to be easy.”

On Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered flags on federal buildings across Canada lowered for the 215 children whose bodies were found at a former residential school. The children’s remains were located using ground-penetrating radar last weekend.


Opportunity to educate

The process towards reconciliation begins with learning, and ensuring that corporations understand the history of our nation, said Rod Miller, president and CEO of CPHR Alberta in Calgary. The association is hosting a conference this week on this very topic, entitled Workforce Forward.

“It’s an opportunity to learn and to educate,” he said. “From a business perspective, there is a lot of opportunity within the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) calls to action around what corporations can do.”

“It’s about creating organizations where anybody feels as though they belong and they can contribute.”

No. 92 of the TRC report focuses on the private sector, calling upon the corporate sector to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework.

Rooting out any systemic discrimination policies from organizations needs to be conducted in order to provide an equitable workplace where Indigenous employees can thrive, said Miller.

“We have been so focused on the pandemic — trying to navigate what that world is like for all of us, that we’re not bringing this forward as much as we could,” he said.

MPs pass bill creating national day for truth and reconciliation

“I believe fully that there is a very important social community requirement around this, that we need to bring this forward as part of our social fabric of our organization.”

For Miller, reconciliation is a “very Canadian” aspect to diversity and inclusion.

“I do believe that is fabric that needs to be unwoven within Canada, and a focus on the Indigenous inclusion is critically important,” he said.

“There are systemic barriers that exist within our society that we need to remove to ensure that everyone feels as though they can contribute, that they  belong, and that they can be their best selves at work and in our society. The Indigenous conversation is a huge part of that for Canadians.”

“I hope that what we heard on the weekend proves to be a catalyst to move these conversations forward and deeper, to move us into action.”

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Charting a path forward

Indigenizing workplaces includes Indigenous engagement strategies and benchmarking performance, said Kelly Lendsay, president and CEO of Indigenous Works, a national non-profit in Saskatoon, Sask., with a mandate to improve the inclusion and engagement of Indigenous people in the Canadian economy.

“Hope is not a strategy,” he said. “It’s very purposeful, intentional types of steps that companies need to take.”

Education of people leaders is crucial, as many did not learn about Indigenous history in school, said Lendsay, noting corporate engagement on this issue has been low.

“There is progress — it’s moving along, but we have to accelerate it,” he said, noting the discovery of the unmarked graves has “hit a nerve” and may push a further adoption of the TRC recommendations by corporations. “It’s real. It’s painful… It has to be a sustained effort.”

Fostering an environment of consultation, such as bringing in Indigenous elders to educate employees, would be a worthy consideration for employers, according to Miller.

“It’s important for us to ensure that we’re educating our employees and organizations around the truth of all of this,” he said.

Towards a statutory holiday

On Friday, the federal government passed legislation to create a national day for truth and reconciliation. While not yet officially law, the statutory holiday would be held annually on Sept. 30, and would apply to federally regulated workers.

This history of residential schools needs to be commemorated, said Miller, noting the annual occurrence would be akin to Remembrance Day.

“To me, it’s a national day of mourning,” he said. “Lives were lost. Societies were broken. Cultures were disbanded.”

“We need to never forget that this is part of our history. It’s important for us as Canadians to step in that.”

It’s an important first step to “recognize the atrocities of the residential school system,” added Bach. “I think a statutory holiday will give us a talisman of sorts, to ensure we never forget.”

Marcel Vander Wier is the editor of Talent Canada.

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