indigenous woman at conference

The Business Case for Developing an Indigenous Inclusion Strategy

February 26, 2018

The Indigenous population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada. Why then is Indigenous inclusion and engagement overlooked by so many organizations?

The Indigenous population in Canada represents a huge underutilized labour force. They are the fastest-growing demographic in the country, with an average age that is almost a decade younger and a growth rate four times higher than the non-Indigenous population. Why then is Indigenous inclusion in the workplace overlooked by so many organizations?

“There is a great disconnect in this country between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” says Kelly J. Lendsay, President and CEO of Indigenous Works, a national social enterprise founded in 1998 with the mandate to improve the inclusion and engagement of Indigenous people in the Canadian economy.

Lendsay explains that, historically, Indigenous people have been excluded in Canada: socially, economically, politically and educationally. He says that understanding this history of exclusion is the first place that organizations who want to embrace Indigenous engagement need to start.


For much of Canada’s history, Indigenous people were excluded from the political system. They were not granted the right to vote in federal elections until 1960. “In terms of social exclusion, we [non-Indigenous Canada] created the Indian Act, and so Indians were seen as different … They could not participate in parts of the economy … We created residential schools … The policy was to take the Indian out of the child. It was an assimilation policy that’s now been characterized as genocide,” says Lendsay.

The first residential schools opened in the 19th century with the goal of integrating Indigenous youth into the dominant culture. The last residential school closed in 1996. During this 100-plus-year period, the Canadian government developed a policy of “aggressive assimilation.” Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed into boarding schools as young as four years old, often living in substandard conditions and enduring physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

As many as 6,000 children died. “The government stopped recording deaths of children in residential schools, we think, probably because the rates were so high,” Justice Murray Sinclair, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), told the Canadian Press in May 2015.

The TRC was created as a result of the largest class action in Canadian history, when former students of residential schools settled out of court with the federal government and
four national churches. The TRC was included in the terms of the settlement to ensure that the former students’ stories were not lost by settling out of court. Its aim was to make the Canadian public aware of the appalling legacy of mistreatment of Indigenous people.

The resulting 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, which made public the testimony of more than 6,000 residential school survivors, includes 94 calls to action directed at different audiences. Number 92 was directed at the corporate sector. It asks corporate leadership to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and apply its principles and standards, including: engaging in meaningful consultation with Aboriginal communities before embarking on economic development projects; equitable access to jobs and education for Indigenous peoples; and education for staff on the history of Indigenous issues.

This has resulted in a spike in interest from employers. “I can definitely say that the appetite for Indigenous engagement from industry is quite robust … Reconciliation has a lot to do with it,” says Sherman Kong, Business Development and Industry Engagement Manager at Amik, an organization providing cultural sensitivity and soft skills training, an Indigenous job board, and ongoing services to improve retention.

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Kong goes on to say that though reconciliation is big, it is by no means the only reason for the surge in interest in Indigenous engagement.


Kong and Lendsay are in agreement when it comes to the business case for engaging Indigenous employees.


The 2016 census shows that the Indigenous population has grown by 42.5% since 2006, which is more than four times the growth rate of the non-Indigenous population. The average age of the Indigenous population was 32.1 years in 2016, which was almost a decade younger than the non-Indigenous population.

“The aboriginal people in this country present a workforce solution to many of the skills shortages that are already present or will be growing in the future,” explains Lendsay.


Not only does the Indigenous population boom present a new demographic for businesses to sell to, according to Kong, as Indigenous people increasingly get post-secondary educations and more lucrative jobs that demographic moves further into the middle class.

“For example, we have a financial institution that we work with, and one of the branches is in a neighbourhood where there is a high population of Indigenous people. [Engaging Indigenous employees] is going to be one of the tactics that they would use to capture a larger share of that Indigenous population [by ensuring] that there’s a familiar face behind that desk,” says Kong.


Increasingly, consumers are favouring organizations that behave in socially responsible ways. With reconciliation being such a hot topic, Indigenous inclusion and engagement is top of mind for many people.

“The Prime Minister said, ‘No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with the Indigenous people,’” says Lendsay. “If you’re a contractor bidding on federal contracts … and you know that the government has a priority for engaging Indigenous people, and you’ve got employment equity obligations, why wouldn’t you start to say, ‘Okay, we better figure out an aboriginal partnership solution here.’”

Additionally, Kong says that when the federal and provincial governments put out requests for proposals, there is increasingly an Indigenous involvement component included. “Because Indigenous reconciliation is quite a large topic nationally, a lot of companies are recognizing that not only is it their responsibility from a reconciliation point of view, but it also makes for good business,” says Kong.

Yet despite the compelling business case for improving Indigenous engagement, the majority of organizations have no Indigenous engagement strategy in place.

indigenous woman at conference

indigenous dancer

Inclusion Works 2017. Indigenous Work’s event is a management learning forum
focused on the theme of Indigenous/non-Indigenous partnership development.
Inclusion Works 2018 takes place April16 – 18, 2018 in Kelowna, BC.


In a 2017 Indigenous Works survey, 85% of the organizations surveyed had not prioritized Indigenous engagement in any way, and only 6% were developing viable partnerships with the Indigenous community. There are a number of reasons why organizations are not involved.

Kong says that the majority of organizations who approach Amik want to do better; it’s just that “they don’t know how to do it, and they don’t want to screw it up. Because if you make PR errors … and it has a negative Indigenous light on it, [for example if] it’s culturally insensitive — it’s very hard to backtrack from something like that.”

He says that companies are trying to encourage more Indigenous applicants, but because of “cultural nuances and systemic barriers” the application rate has typically been very low. To explain how cultural nuances might unintentionally disqualify someone, Kong gives an example: “If you get an Indigenous candidate and they don’t have a firm handshake, or they don’t make eye contact, or they don’t really boast about themselves, it’s not necessarily because of lack of confidence.  In the Indigenous culture those are seen as signs of respect.”

Amik does cultural sensitivity training with organizations to help them understand these nuances, as well as soft skills training with Indigenous candidates, thus approaching the cultural differences from both sides. “We help candidates understand that during the interview it’s okay to have a firm handshake, it’s okay to look your interviewer in the eye, it’s okay to talk about yourself, because they’re expecting you to.”

Amik also works with organizations to help them understand the socioeconomic barriers that many Indigenous candidates face, going on to emphasize that they’re “not asking an organization to make things easier by any means.”

“I believe in a shared accountability, shared responsibility approach,” says Lendsay. However, he says that though most people understand the need to close the socio-economic gaps that lead to exclusion, the real challenge lies in motivating people to action.

“Challenge people to read the TRC,” he says. “I’ll make you a bet. If we challenged 100 employers to read it over the next month and give us their views … how many would actually do it? I guess 5%. But how do we get 100% to do it?”

Despite these challenges, he and Kong both remain optimistic.

Lendsay’s advice to both Indigenous talent and the employers looking to engage them is the same: read more, get to know each other’s point of view, and meet people from the other side.

“Getting to know each other doesn’t mean we’re going to agree,” he says. “It means it’s going to create an opportunity to have a real, good, impactful discussion.”

In the spirit of reconciliation, that seems like a good place to start.


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Emily Follett-Campbell
Emily Follett-Campbell is a freelance writer and Assistant Editor at Your Workplace. Find her online at

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