A photo of a welder at work.
A welder at work. Credit: Joshua Berson / Flickr

Urban Indigenous youth are having trouble finding meaningful employment according to a recent report released by the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC) and the Assembly of Seven Generations (A7G). These two organizations focus Indigenous cultural support and empowerment programs and policies.

The report, written by Ashley Bach and Gabrielle Fayant, details the conclusions drawn from a literature review and a survey sent to over 370 Indigenous youth across Canada. Beyond barriers related to discrimination and systemic racism that puts racialized people at an economic disadvantage, the report also found that a lack of meaningful employment made it hard for Indigenous youth to find work. Of the respondents in urban centers, 48 per cent said being unable to find meaningful work has made it difficult for them to get employment. 

“Meaningful work” is the term used in the report to describe the type of employment many respondents were seeking. According to the report, respondents had an overall desire to find work that has a positive impact on their Indigenous community or communities. 

“Meaningful employment is something that is close to my heart because of my own employment journey,” said Ashley Bach in an interview with rabble.ca, who helped write the report. “A lot of the time it feels like there’s jobs that exist but they aren’t necessarily meaningful or they don’t support our communities in the way we feel they should.”

Bach and Fayant wrote that an alignment between personal values and the values of one’s workplace is needed for meaningful work opportunities to exist. 

Bach and Fayant also pointed to higher levels of unemployment in Indigenous communities reported by Statistics Canada during COVID-19 lockdowns as evidence of employment barriers for Indigenous people.  

Unemployment rates in the Indigenous population took longer to recover in the period from June to August 2020. In that period, unemployment in the Indigenous population stayed at 16.8 per cent while it was at 11.9 per cent in the non-Indigenous population, according to StatsCan. 

The authors found that barriers persist for Indigenous youth based on the responses to their survey. 

“Survey respondents most wished that employers knew about the barriers they face to accessing and keeping employment,” The report said. “Some of these barriers, like intergenerational trauma, span across generations and have a profound impact on Indigenous youths’ entire lifetimes. Barriers like precarious living situations, mental and physical health issues, and interrupted work and educational experiences were commonly referenced by respondents. Potential employers need to make their postings accessible and advertise them in the correct places. They need to be willing to consider reasons behind resumé gaps, be they for raising a family, mental health, school, or other reasons, and not immediately disqualify candidates with several months or years between their work experiences.”

Employers can create meaningful work opportunities by creating workplace culture and policies that align with the values of Indigenous potential employees, according to the report. This includes valuing Indigenous employees beyond tokenisation. The report defines tokenisation as having a small number of “token” Indigenous employees who are then forced to speak on behalf of Indigenous communities in the workplace. 

“This is very unfair to an Indigenous youth who are just trying to live or work at a minimum wage paying job,” the report said. “Not only do they feel pressured by their employer but they will also be pressured by their community.”

For a more positive workplace, the report calls for mandatory sensitivity and anti-racism training that is built with Indigenous consultation. 

“There’s a lot of diversity, equity inclusion initiatives, but tokenization still happens,” said Bach. “And I think it does sort of relate to the mandatory training part. It’s making sure that there’s not just one Indigenous employee and they’re not just there to be the authority on Indigenous issues. Having a variety of voices there who are Indigenous is important.” 

It is time for workplaces to create strong policies and cultures that are community oriented, according to the report. Bach and Fayant wrote that this has been made clear by the report “The Gen Z Reckoning” done by the brand consulting agency BBMG and strategy firm GlobeScan. 

“The Gen Z Reckoning” found that Gen Zers are three times more likely to expect companies to serve the community and society rather than just produce goods and services. 

“Indigenous youth told us that they definitely do not want to live in poverty but they were also very clear that they also want work that does not go against their beliefs or that is unsafe for them,” the report concluded. “Indigenous youth do not want to live in fear of who they are and they want to make a living while also being able to maintain and reclaim their Indigenous cultures for the next generations. This is not a big ask, these are basic human rights.”

Gabriela Calugay-Casuga

Gabriela “Gabby” Calugay-Casuga (she/they) is a writer and activist based in so-called “Ottawa.” They began writing for Migrante Ottawa’s radio show, Talakayang Bayan, in 2017. Since then, she...