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

As Krystal Abotossaway, a Toronto woman with Anishinaabe Kwe heritage and who is TD Bank’s senior manager of diversity and inclusion and the president of the Indigenous Professional Association of Canada, always took care to be on time, to watch her drinking at after-work events and to be agreeable in meetings. “I didn’t want to show when I was angry or that I disagreed with my peers. . . . I didn’t have the same privilege as non-Indigenous people and I was aware of it.”

Those decisions were her way of staying “on guard,” something many Indigenous workers in Canada say they must do to protect themselves from biases and discrimination at work, according to a report by Catalyst Canada. Indeed, 52 per cent of the 86 Indigenous people surveyed are “on guard” at work and approximately 60 per cent feel psychologically unsafe on the job.

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The report, which interviewed Indigenous people from the C-suite all the way down to non-management roles, found a majority experience an “emotional tax” — a feeling of being different from peers at work because of gender, race or ethnicity — which can affect a person’s well-being and ability to thrive. “Indigenous people in Canada, especially women, continue to face some of the workplace’s most entrenched hurdles, including bias and discrimination that impact their health, well-being and ability to progress,” said Vandana Juneja, Catalyst Canada’s executive director, in a statement, adding Indigenous employees who don’t feel psychologically safe are less likely to report a sense of belonging or being valued for their uniqueness, speak up when something isn’t right and be able to share their creativity at work.

As well, only four in 10 of the respondents who are Indigenous feel safe enough to make mistakes and take risks without being penalized. The sentiment of lacking safety doubles when gender is taken into account, as about 67 per cent (two of every three) of the Indigenous women surveyed reported they feel the need to be “on guard” at work, compared to 38 per cent of Indigenous men. “As a woman, there is definitely always a need to prove you deserve to be there,” said Tabatha Bull, an engineer and chief executive at the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.

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Bull finds Indigenous workers often feel torn between being true to themselves and ignoring colleagues’ unconscious biases, so they can seem amenable to corporate culture. As a result many Indigenous workers will stay “on guard” and not complain when colleagues refer to meetings as “powwows” or use idioms such as “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” “There’s only so many times that you can raise your hand and say that’s not appropriate.”

She wishes more people would take a moment to think about who they’re listening to in meetings and which speakers’ comments make them avert their attention. There’s a good chance the exercise will expose a bias, she said, adding managers also have a duty to think about who rarely speaks up in their departments and consider whether that’s because they may be “on guard” or carrying an emotional tax.