A COVID-19 recovery plan must take Indigenous realities into account
This article originally appeared in The Journal of Aboriginal Management published by AFOA Canada.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fact that when crises occur some Canadians suffer more than others. Barriers to employment, health care, and education have meant that Indigenous Peoples have generally experienced different challenges in handling and recovering from the pandemic. Through the pandemic so far, we have seen many of our clients withdraw funds from their trusts to provide a COVID-19 relief payment to members or citizens.
Unfortunately, due in large part to the barriers listed above, this was necessary to sustain the community during this time of crisis. With 2020 finally behind us, we are hopeful that the world can begin to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.
Periods of significant social and economic upheaval, such as we are experiencing now, can create immense opportunities for change and advancement. Recovery in Canada will remain difficult if plans do not prioritize inclusivity and more urgently address the gaps experienced by Indigenous communities in a number of areas. In this article, we discuss the gaps relating to employment, healthcare, and education, and we discuss areas where we see opportunities to make significant steps forward.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indigenous unemployment rate was almost double the non-Indigenous unemployment rate. This figure may not be surprising, as it has often been challenging for many Indigenous Peoples to find meaningful, stable employment – especially those living in remote regions. Statistics Canada reports that of the 1.7 million Indigenous Peoples in Canada, 46% live in rural remote regions. Many of these communities are only accessible by air.iFrom December 2019 to February 2020, the unemployment rate for non-Indigenous People was approximately 5.5%, while Indigenous Peoples experienced a 10% unemployment rate during the same period.ii
The pandemic caused the unemployment rate to increase in Canada. Despite adding approximately 290,000 net jobs in May, the unemployment rate reached a record 13.7%.iii As Canadians struggled to find work, the federal and provincial governments made economic stimulus a priority. This resulted in a lower unemployment rate for non-Indigenous groups during the months of May to August 2020, when provinces began to move out of the first lockdown. The same was not true for Indigenous Peoples, however, whose unemployment rate increased to 16.8% during the same time period.iv
It remains important that efforts continue by our government and other stakeholders, such as corporations and nonprofits, to acknowledge the challenges Indigenous Peoples face in gaining meaningful employment and to integrate solutions into the recovery plan. Organizations must strive to increase their number of Indigenous employees. Gaining access to the pool of Indigenous professional talent requires the development of more effective strategies and better pathways to connect with them. Otherwise, Indigenous Peoples will continue to be hindered by a much lower rate of participation in the economy, and key benefits to the workforce will be lost.
A Conference Board of Canada report, Working Together: Indigenous Recruitment and Retention in Remote Canada, found that the top three barriers to recruiting Indigenous workers are:
- Finding candidates to interview/recruit
- A lack of education or training on the part of the candidate
- A lack of technical, job-related skills.v
Focused Employment Connections
In addressing the first point above, it is clear that targets and a strategic approach are required on the part of employers. People who identify as First Nation, Métis, and Inuit make up almost 5% of the Canadian population.vi To reflect this statistic, organizations should strive to build their Indigenous staff to this level.
We have begun to see gradual success through our experience with Our Children’s Medicine (OCM), an organization created with the mandate to connect Indigenous job seekers with Canadian businesses.
OCM states that a key component of their work is to “reduce unconscious bias and Indigenize corporate culture in order to attract and retain amazing Indigenous talent.”vii The organization works with both job seekers and employers to ultimately enable employers to source, hire – and very important – to retain remarkable First Nations, Métis, and Inuit employees.
The sourcing component involves ensuring that job posting language is inclusive and uses targeted wording that speaks to a sincere commitment to attract and support diverse Indigenous talent. As an employer, it can help to enlist dedicated Indigenous recruiters and keep an open mind as to how a candidate’s unique, less “corporate” past experiences (such as roles in community) can be applied effectively in the workplace.
A firm’s corporate brand must deeply align with values of inclusivity to welcome diverse voices and talent. Within a company, active Indigenous Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) represented by Indigenous Peoples and allies can bring like-minded employees together to raise awareness of relevant issues, build camaraderie, uncover barriers to diverse representation, track progress, and share ideas. Our firm has an Indigenous Peoples and Allies ERG and we have several off-reserve staff members on our team. We know that this brings a critical advantage to our business approach and is important to our client base. Career progression and development has proven to be a critical factor in retaining Indigenous professionals.
Support for Job-Ready Skills
Barriers to employment for Indigenous Peoples are an ongoing issue for individuals, both on- reserve and off-reserve. Success in finding employment for urban Indigenous individuals may be easier given the resources and agencies available in the city. For example, in Edmonton, Alberta there is Rupertsland Institute and Oteenow Employment & Training Society, both of which offer career counselling and job search assistance. The Ben Calf Robe Society holds resume writing workshops and offers access to computers and printers to aid in an individual’s job search. These resources are precious for Indigenous individuals who are living off-reserve for the first time, and they can help build a successful path to employment. Over one-third of First Nations people living off reserve took courses, workshops, seminars, or training to develop their job skills in the twelve months prior to January 2017.viii
Internships and co-op placements are offered for Indigenous youth across Canada by some of the major banks, other large companies, and provincial governments. These programs will provide pathways for employers to find and develop young Indigenous talent. They will also support students financially through post-secondary schooling and provide professional experience, leadership development, cultural support, and a professional network.
Remote Work Can Break Barriers
Statistics Canada has reported that 38% of male off-reserve individuals and 36% of female off-reserve individuals could not find employment because of a lack of transportation.ix Even in an urban area, transportation costs and/or lack of accessible and convenient public transportation can mean the difference between job security and unemployment.
COVID-19 has changed how on- and off-reserve Indigenous individuals seek and obtain employment. With the major shift to working from home caused by the pandemic, this is an opportune time to break down some of the barriers, like transportation within a large city or the need to move away from community to work in an office. Remote work appears here to stay, so outreach to working-age people living in Indigenous communities could be part of an inclusive economic recovery plan.
This opportunity to secure work from home means new opportunities for employment positions not previously available. At T.E. Wealth Indigenous Services, we recently hired and on boarded a new employee in a Client Service support role who is physically located in a different province than their team members. Reliable Internet service and up-to-date computer equipment remain obstacles that must be addressed for many, yet temporary measures can help. Access to a mobile hotspot to deliver fast and secure online connectivity can go a long way. These new developments could mean opportunities for a stable and promising new career and more Indigenous voices in the broader workplace.
The geographic isolation of many Indigenous communities also leads to barriers in accessing medical care or health advice. Many communities do not have sufficient health care facilities to meet the needs of community members, so patients must travel long distances to obtain proper care. 82% of Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat, for example, reported that they did not have a family doctor. In comparison, less than 20% of Canadians do not have a family doctor.x
This lack of access to proper health care has put Indigenous Peoples at a distinct disadvantage throughout the pandemic, especially since Indigenous populations are at higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19. The direct impacts of the disease are not only physical, but also mental, as many are struggling with isolation, fear, and economic stress.
Historically, Indigenous Peoples have also faced discrimination and stereotyping in the healthcare system. With many family doctors limiting or refusing new patients, health care barriers for Indigenous Peoples are only increasing.
Initiatives are growing to attract more individuals who identify as Indigenous into medical careers. Programs to ensure medical professionals are more culturally aware and supportive of Indigenous patients have also been increasing. More culturally competent practitioners and methods will lead to increased recognition of the benefits of including traditional learning from various Indigenous perspectives into healthcare more broadly.
Dr. Lisa Richardson, Co-Lead Indigenous Medical Education & Assistant Professor in the MD program at the University of Toronto, and a General Internal Medicine Physician within the University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto, incorporates her Anishinaabe heritage into her work. She believes it is important to teach medical students about “cultural safety”, which is “more than just cultural sensitivity and awareness, but about recognizing the power imbalances in the relationships between patients and their health care providers, and also about finding out what is important to the patient.” Richardson highlights the fact that UHN is working on developing health equity strategies, which strives to ensure people across every demographic, including Indigenous Peoples, are able to access our health care services equally.xi
Encouragingly, the pandemic has led to an explosive shift to “virtual” healthcare. Digital technology has made it easier for healthcare professionals to communicate with their patients in new ways. Healthcare providers may use live video, audio, or instant messaging to address a patient’s concerns and diagnose their condition remotely. Other applications include checking in after an in-person visit, monitoring a patient after surgery, or responding to questions. Imagine how helpful it would be to have another close family member able to join a video call with and elder and his doctor. This represents great opportunities for broader access, particularly once remote communities are better served with adequate Internet connectivity to facilitate these types of appointments.
On a positive note, Indigenous communities are being prioritized to obtain earlier access to COVID-19 vaccines. This is an important initiative.
Education will also see a permanent shift to more remote activities coming out the pandemic. Universities and colleges have had a very fast learning curve to provide their programs online, enabling professors to teach, students to participate, and evaluations and exams to move forward. There is no doubt that once learned a huge potential exists to continue offering online options for students in the future. This presents an opportunity for Indigenous Peoples who are living in remote regions to access online post-secondary and potentially even high school-level education with more flexibility. Given that it is sometimes challenging to retain qualified teachers in remote communities for extended periods of time, could more teaching be done over the Internet – especially with a teacher who already has an existing affiliation with the community, but is unable to now live there permanently?
Connected North is a program that demonstrates the power of this possibility once certain challenges with Internet connectivity are overcome. This program fosters enhanced education outcomes in remote Indigenous communities through high-definition two-way Cisco video technology.xii Operating as a charity, the organization’s goal is “to provide students and teachers with access to content that is engaging and innovative, with the hope of increasing feelings of empowerment in school and in life.”
Because of school closures during the pandemic, learning experiences are now offered by Connected North to individuals in their homes, enabling connections to museums, zoos, and storytellers. As institutions all over the world have moved to offer content online, the possibilities for enriched learning are endless. Virtual career fairs, cultural exchanges, teacher capacity building, and networking between schools are all offered through this exciting initiative.
An Opportunity That Must Not Be Lost
Structural determinants of health and economic success, including access to meaningful employment, health care, and education, are not distributed equally in Canada.xiii A diverse and inclusive COVID-19 recovery plan must take these realities into account. Additional government funding has been announced for childcare and early learning facilities, post-secondary education, housing, elders support, and initiatives to help limit the spread of COVID-19, among other needs.xiv
As of January 14, 2021, the government has announced more than $4.2 billion in COVID-19 support to Indigenous communities and organizations since the beginning of the pandemic.xv This is a promising start – but targeted and community-involved plans are needed to address the specific needs of Indigenous communities. A bold recovery plan that addresses each of these areas needs to be an ongoing effort, not just a one-time consideration.
In addition to government funding, the business community can also play an important role, as mentioned above, to help ensure that inequality does not continue to grow. Creative approaches to gaining access to the Indigenous talent pool will be needed. This can include targeted partnerships with community agencies to connect with candidates and offering customized internship programs that support and develop candidates while they are still in school.
Searching out small Indigenous-owned companies that offer unique products for corporate and personal gift giving is a positive step to support a growing number of entrepreneurs tapping into the huge online shopping trend. Sharing website links of these businesses, through organizations such as AFOA and NATOA, is a small effort that we can make within the financial sector to promote the burgeoning Indigenous economy. Connected North, mentioned above, and Indspire, an Indigenous national charity that invests in the education of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, are organizations that we can also sponsor to help meet the educational needs of young people.
Internet connectivity has become a gateway to enormous enhancements and during COVID-19 an actual lifeline, yet Indigenous communities often do not have reliable access to what we believe is a basic human right. Just one-third of on-reserve households have access to adequate download and upload speeds.xvi
Improvements to Internet services are critical so that Indigenous communities can have equal access to online employment, education, healthcare, and countless other benefits.
In many ways, the pandemic has been a wake-up call for our society. It also presents an opportunity to be certain that the efforts we make as the recovery takes hold address the existing systemic weaknesses and inequities that have been exacerbated by this crisis. Our society has great need to support and elevate the diverse voices, strengths, and unique approaches of Indigenous ways of knowing and being to truly benefit from our diversity.
These articles are for general informational purposes only. Please obtain professional advice before taking any action based on this information. No endorsement or approval of any third parties or their advice, information, products or services should be implied by any references to third parties contained in any article. Trademarks cited in these articles are the respective properties of their owners.