Real progress means walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

In recent months, many employers have shown support for the Indigenous community by lowering flags, participating in Orange Shirt Day and starting meetings with land acknowledgements. While symbolic gestures are a start, employers looking to attract and retain Indigenous employees need to do the groundwork to provide an inclusive work environment and benefits offerings.

“Depending where the employer is [doing business] in Canada, the issues facing First Nations, Métis and Inuit are different,” says Kelly Lendsay, president and chief executive officer of Indigenous Works. “In order to customize, adapt and target your benefits for the Indigenous marketplace you need to understand the workforce, you need to understand the labour market issues and I think, for many, there will simply be a knowledge gap.”

Read: Expert panel: Less talk, more action needed to move needle on DEI at top

To help close that gap, the national non-profit organization has partnered with a range of employers on everything from offering a certification program to become an employer of choice with the Indigenous community to facilitating fireside chats on diversity, equity and inclusion.

By the numbers

1.67 million people (4.9% of the Canadian population) self-identified as an Indigenous person on the 2016 census. Indigenous peoples are the fastest growing population in Canada, growing by 42.5% between 2006 and 2016.

Indigenous peoples are also the youngest population in Canada — about 44% were under the age of 25 in 2016, compared to 28% of the non-Indigenous population.

Source: Annual Report to Parliament, 2020

Lendsay acknowledges talking about topics such as systemic racism, the Sixties Scoop and the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools can be difficult for both employers and employees, but adds these “courageous conversations” are key to ensuring an inclusive workplace and understanding how to tailor benefits to the Indigenous community.


For the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, listening to feedback from employees led to adding Indigenous elder healing counselling services on top of its traditional employee assistance program.

The program launched about four years ago and currently has five elders — one in British Columbia, two in Winnipeg, one in Northern Canada and one in New Brunswick — for employees to talk to. While almost 65 per cent of the Winnipeg-headquartered media company’s employees identify as Indigenous, any employee, regardless of identity, can go to the elders for a range of services, including blessings, counselling and smudging ceremonies.

Read: APTN introducing counselling with Indigenous elders into EAP

“It’s breaking down barriers, but it’s also providing an Indigenous focus and an Indigenous lens which is so, so important,” says Alan Bouchard, labour relations and human resources projects specialist at the APTN. “It’s sort of decolonizing the counselling approach that can and should be provided for Indigenous people, so I think it’s a great idea.”

While the response to the additional offering has been very well received, the usage is moderate with about three to four connections every quarter, says Bouchard.

The APTN also brought in elders to support staff in the news department who were deeply affected after the discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops, B.C. in May. And the organization has recently introduced a health-care spending account, which helps “opens doors and removes barriers for employees to access whatever kind of health supports they need, whether it be traditional services or non-traditional.”


Flexibility is an important way that employers across Canada can open doors and break down barriers for Indigenous employees.

“One of the biggest things that employers need to consider with respect to benefits in attracting and retaining Indigenous employees is benefits flexibility — being able to use benefits in a flexible way that meets the needs of the employee,” says Gene Jamieson, managing director of Turtle Clan Management Consulting. “I think we spend too much time trying to be fair and consistent with our benefits packages so all people get the same thing, [but] no two people are alike.”

Read: 60% of Indigenous workers feel psychologically unsafe on the job: survey

Both Jamieson and Lendsay suggest employers consider offering more flexible bereavement and general leave policies as different cultures have different rituals they observe throughout the year.

“In Indigenous communities, a family member often includes those within their extended family, even clan,” says Jamieson. “To say that one can only take bereavement leave for those who are in the immediate family discounts the concept of family for Indigenous folks, [as] some have bereavement responsibilities when a member of their extended family passes on.”

Offering more flexible wellness options is also a key way to advance DEI initiatives for all employees, including those who identify as Indigenous.

“Many Indigenous people are still skeptical of a problem-based health-care system and prefer to use proactive alternative methods to take care of their wellness,” says Jamieson. “This could include physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellness. I believe that benefits [plan sponsors] should consider how they might be able to accommodate some more traditional Indigenous practices in their ‘health-care’ plans to include if employees would like to see their traditional Indigenous wellness professional rather than a mainstream wellness professional.”


In recent decades, employers have increased the requirement for degrees and diplomas for even entry-level jobs. Lendsay says one way of increasing the number of diverse applicants is to re-evaluate formal education requirements and offer people with potential more on-the-job learning opportunities.

Some Indigenous candidates may not have all of the skills and training an employer is looking for “for a whole host of historical and exclusionary reasons,” says Lendsay, suggesting employers looking to attract candidates from the young and growing Indigenous population can build more training and educational offerings into benefits offerings to support job candidates without traditional credentials.

Read: Indigenous, racialized seniors have less retirement security: report

Saying and doing are two very different things. While many Canadian employers often say the right things publicly in support of DEI in the workplace, it’s the everyday, behind-the-scenes efforts that will truly make an organization an employer of choice for Indigenous peoples, says Lendsay.

“Like all people, [Indigenous peoples are] looking for employers with a view to understanding: ‘How inclusive are their workplaces? Is this an opportunity where I can grow my career? Are there developmental opportunities?’” says Lendsay. “So many of the questions and issues are similar to everybody else. It’s about attracting and creating a world-class workforce, which is generally the goal of most employers.”

Melissa Dunne is the managing editor of Benefits Canada.