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'Nothing about us, without us': How the Canadian government approaches Aboriginal inclusion
Australian and Canadian interview, July 2015
The Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) was recognised, for the third consecutive year, as one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers 2015. Learn more about their initiatives to tackle a complex problem of Aboriginal inclusion in the workforce.
On March 31 this year, the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) was recognised, for the third consecutive year, as one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers 2015. We had the opportunity to speak to GNWT’S Deputy Minister of Human Resources – Bronwyn Watters, and Deputy Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations – Martin Goldney, about their experiences in their respective roles within the GNWT.
Bronwyn Watters, originally Sydney-born, has 35 years of service with the GNWT, previously serving as Deputy Minister of Justice. She has won a career excellence award in 2012, and gained public accolades for her social initiatives.
Martin Goldney has a wealth of expertise on the subject of Aboriginal inclusion as co-chair of the Aboriginal Employees Advisory Committee, and in his role in charge of Aboriginal affairs for GNWT.
Bronwyn and Martin spoke to us about how diversity and inclusion are critical aspects of a strong and stable public service, and is at the heart of the values shared across the Government of Northwest Territories in Canada. They shared with us some of their insights on practising inclusion over their time with the GNWT.
The following are 6 key insights from our interview on some of the ways GNWT helps to improve Aboriginal inclusion. The full transcript of our interview can be found below.
1. Acknowledgement. Acknowledging Aboriginal leaders and treating them with equal respect.
GNWT’s “Respect, Recognition, Responsibility” policy has an aim to formalise relationships with Aboriginal leaders, and give them the same level of attention and respect as government departments give each other. This means having regular, clear and well-prepared meetings with the leaders to optimise how productive their interactions are, and change the conversation to have a proactive tone around ‘How do we work together?’
“The fact that the Premier meets with Aboriginal leaders regularly within government has served to level the playing the field,” says Bronwyn.
2. Checking in: Frequently checking in with diverse Aboriginal representatives to boost their own inclusion practices.
GNWT has an Aboriginal Employees Advisory committee, which includes memberships from various regions within the territory. They meet with them four times a year to hear their concerns and ideas around how they can make GNWT more inclusive as an employer.
“Some good ideas have come out of that and have advanced us as a result of that work, including the cultural awareness training, which was identified fairly early on as something that we can do as an employer to build appreciation,” says Martin.
3. Recruit and Retain: Targeted programs to boost education as a means to enter the workforce
“In terms of having an inclusive workforce, a major challenge is getting people into the workforce in the first place,” says Bronwyn. GNWT seeks to address this with The Student Financial Assistance Program, which was established to help Northern students get post-secondary education.
“One of the challenges we face is ensuring that Aboriginal students, especially in smaller communities, are able to reach the level of education that is necessary in order to get better jobs, especially in government,” says Bronwyn.
4. Exposure: Providing opportunities beyond financial assistance
GNWT seeks to help beyond financial ways, for example through summer student programs. “We as a government take this very seriously because we know we are providing that experience and exposure to public service and we are hoping to attract many of our students to stay and work for our organisation,” says Martin.
5. Measure of success: Testing, as well as having the confidence to be tested
In their goal to hit the representative mark, GNWT were one of the first public sector companies to put their hands up to take part in a survey from the Aboriginal Human Resources Council to understand how inclusive their workforce is.
They also measure the success of their own initiatives, but they note that it can be complex to measure their initiatives due to how many drivers are at play for them as a government. "For example, sometimes despite all the efforts GNWT takes, if the mines are hiring and offering higher paying jobs, our affirmative action statistics are likely to go down because our employees can get better paying jobs in the mines," says Bronwyn.
6. Inclusion: A human approach to Aboriginal inclusion – thinking about their languages and culture
GNWT established that, in addition to English and French, nine other Aboriginal languages were established as official languages in the territory.
"Inclusion for me means everybody," says Bronwyn. "We can support not just Aboriginal individuals but also their lifestyles, and we encourage our employees to engage in these activities in their communities."
7. Culture: Weaving inclusion into the fabric of the organisation
“It’s not just about inclusion tools but more broadly speaking, making Aboriginal communities a part of our organisational culture,” says Bronwyn.
Martin mentions a slogan which comes up often in meetings internally - “nothing about us, without us”.
“It says so much because it’s very easy to do things for people or to people, without necessarily including them in how it is developed,” he says.
Q: The GNWT has received awards for its work with Aboriginal people. How do the Aboriginal leaders and the GNWT work together?
MG: The Government of Northwest Territories has done a lot of good work in building relationships with Aboriginal Governments and its people. One of the foundations that represents the GNWT’S approach to working together with Aboriginal Government s is our “Respect, Recognition, Responsibility” policy. It has a number of principles that outline how we should work with our Aboriginal Government and our shared goals of building those strong relationships.
The “Respect, Recognition, Responsibility” policy highlights doing things with the Aboriginal Government a little differently and in a more productive may. Much like we engage with other jurisdictions within Canada through formalised relationships and intergovernmental agreements, we have been working on developing these agreements with Aboriginal governments in the territory. These typically provide a more formal structure for engagement with leaders. So our Premier and his Cabinet will commit to sitting down and meeting with the Aboriginal governments and talk about matters of common concern and interest.
Leading up to the meeting, officials prepare common briefing notes for our leaders – because on the premises there shouldn’t be any surprises. Our leaders should be well-equipped to have meaningful engagements with their Aboriginal partners. The goal of this is not to add on more layers of formality and bureaucratic processes, but to make the meetings more productive.
We have had several meetings and are really seeing the tone of the meetings change and put the focus of these discussions around ‘how do we work together’?’ and ‘How can we improve this’?
BW: The “Respect, Recognition, Responsibility” has really been very effective in making a difference in promoting equality in all levels of government. The fact that the Premier meets with Aboriginal leaders regularly within government has served to level the playing the field.
Q: Could you provide some examples of programs and initiatives relating to the Aboriginal people of NWT that you believe have been the most effective in promoting equality? What are you most proud of?
MG: In terms of promoting equality, I co-chair the Aboriginal Employees Advisory committee that we formed within our government. The committee involves representation of Aboriginal employees themselves, and we try to include memberships from various regions within our territory so we have a cross-section of regional representation. We meet four times a year, and it gives us an opportunity to engage with Aboriginal employees and hear directly about some of their concerns and ideas around how we can make GNWT more inclusive as an employer. Some good ideas have come out of that and have advanced us as a result of that work, including the cultural awareness training, which was identified fairly early on as something that we can do as an employer to build appreciation and understanding of why it’s important to have an inclusive workforce.
BW: One of the other programs that helps promote equality is our Student Financial Assistance Program. The program supports Northern students, who often are primarily Aboriginal, to get a post-secondary education. One of the challenges we face is ensuring that Aboriginal students, especially in smaller communities, are able to reach the level of education that is necessary in order to get better jobs, especially in government. By supporting student development, the program does help promote equality across the board.
Q: What are some of the greatest challenges in practising inclusion in relation to the Aboriginal population, and how are you tackling these? Can you please tell us a story to bring this to life?
BW: In terms of having an inclusive workforce, a major challenge is getting people into the workforce in the first place. It’s important to provide developmental opportunities.
MG: One of the challenges for Aboriginal people is that they often come from places where they haven’t had the same opportunities to gain educational experiences. I grew up in Yellowknife and was very fortunate to take advantage of a program which made university far more accessible for myself. Then there was even further support from the GNWT after I completed my Bachelor of Arts degree and decided I wanted to go to Law school.
I greatly benefited from a couple of programs throughout my educational journey from the GNWT, not only our financial assistance program, which provided a monthly living allowance, and a good chunk of the tuition burden relieved, but also a summer student program. We as a government take this very seriously because we know we are providing that experience and exposure to public service and we are hoping to attract many of our students to stay and work for our organisation.
In addition to all that, after I had decided to go to Law school our Department of Justice at the time, had an Aboriginal student bursary program. So there was additional support in the form of some financial resources. Importantly, some summer student placements directly related to my studies and the promise of a position when I finished.
Q: What are some methods used by GNWT in tracking the performance and success of an inclusion initiative?
BW: In terms of tracking and measuring it’s very hard to track a specific initiative. We certainly keep affirmative statistics – we measure just about everything – it’s very difficult we couldn’t ascribe increase or decrease in numbers as a direct result of a particular initiative, as it all works together as part of a bigger picture. Sometimes the numbers vary for no apparent reason. For example, sometimes despite all the efforts GNWT take, if the mines are hiring and offering higher paying jobs, our affirmative action statistics are likely to go down because our employees can get better paying jobs in the mines and they will leave – which is unrelated to any initiatives that we may be taking. But we do have things like Employee Satisfaction Surveys.
MG: We recently worked with Aboriginal Human Resources Council, which is an organisation here in Canada that focuses on Aboriginal inclusion in the workplace and provides advice to employers. It typically deals with private sector employers, but we were the first public sector employer that raised our hand to work with them. We recognised the value they provided in looking at how they were engaging in Aboriginal inclusion. There was a survey conducted last year, and while we’re still digesting the results, we are told it’s very positive. Their methodology, which is generally tailored to the private sector, wasn’t well suited. So while we were very much assured that our scores were outstanding in comparison to any private sector firm, we still looked at that and identified room for improvement. We are always striving to hit that representative mark and have a more inclusive workforce in the GNWT.
BW: It’s called the Indigenous Inclusion Survey, and the Aboriginal Employee Committee and the Department of Human Resources Department will be working together to see where we go and what we can do to make things better. That’s one initiative that measures very specifically the inclusion rating in the workplace.
Q: Can you give some examples of the ways leader’s role model inclusion towards Aboriginal peoples?
BW: It certainly helps that our political leadership is primarily Aboriginal. A lot in Assembly or in Cabinet, even the last seven or eight premiers have all been Aboriginal. Within the bureaucracy – we try to walk the talk when supporting and advocating for the initiatives. We have direct appointments for Aboriginal leaders; we have programs where we bring in Aboriginal members as Associate Director at a very senior level, so that we can develop our Aboriginal employees and give them promotional opportunities.
Inclusion is more than just Aboriginal inclusion. We definitely also try to practise inclusion in all areas. For me I have a particular bias because I have been involved in Human Rights Commissions, so inclusion for me means everybody, and it’s important on a personal level to practise it and make sure we’re self-aware of our actions.
MG: And Bronwyn touched on the leadership at the political level, which is very helpful and obviously informs the corporate culture of an organisation like ours where we adhere as public servants to serve our government. Many of the things that come out of our legislative assembly are reflective of our commitment to supporting and including Aboriginal people. One of them that stands out is we are a unique jurisdiction which recognised not just English and French as official languages of Canada, but we have 9 other Aboriginal official languages as well. We are the only jurisdiction and territory, apart from Nunavut, who have a large Inuit population that has any Aboriginal language as officially recognised.
BW: And the other thing that is important aside from the recognition of these languages is the recognition and support of traditional lifestyle activities. For example, on the land healing programs supporting Aboriginal economies – these are all things we have introduced in our program development. So we can support not just Aboriginal individuals but also their lifestyles, and we encourage our employees to engage in these activities in their communities.
Q: What’s one thing you have learned that has made a difference to the way you approach Aboriginal integration?
BW: One thing that resonates with me that comes up a fair bit now is – “nothing about us without us”. It says so much because it’s very easy to do things for people or to people, without necessarily including them in how it is developed.
MW: I offer my full support for that sentiment, and I would like to echo one of the things that I’ve learnt as we’re looking at many of these issues, is that it’s really about partnerships with these Aboriginal communities. It’s not just about inclusion tools but more broadly speaking, making Aboriginal communities a part of our organisational culture - finding ways to do things better and serve the people you represent better.
A focused and human approach
It is encouraging to see how GNWT has such a focused yet human approach to addressing Aboriginal inclusion. It is a complex topic which touches on history, politics, culture and other aspects of modern civilisation. Bronwyn and Martin describe an approach which is conscious of the big picture of inclusion, yet still concentrated on producing tangible initiatives which make an impact. One of their major driving forces seems to be an internal culture of inclusion, which helps them to stay mindful about who is on the receiving end of their initiatives, and why those people’s inputs are key to success.