An Indigenous Future and Present of Work

If we want an inclusive and fair future (of work), it must also be an Indigenous one. A future that makes space for Indigenous knowledge and worldview, languages, and connection to lands and waters.

This piece was first co-published by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Future of Good.

COVID-19 has brought up important questions about the future of work—which professions are essential to a functioning society, or how digital ways of working might soon become the norm, for instance.

But too often, these conversations about the future of work focus on the impacts of technology and automation and less on the impacts on populations who have been historically excluded from employment opportunities and economic self-sufficiency.

This includes ignoring the present and the presence of Indigenous people in the labour force, the real-life barriers we experience to career entry and progression, and our significant present day and potential future contributions to economic development and innovation, both for our Nations and Canada. The future of work conversation also fails to include an Indigenous vision for the future of work, one that values our knowledge and worldview, languages, and connection to our lands and waters. It is clear that the future of work needs to look a whole lot different than the present of work for Indigenous people.

Our Realities

Indigenous people are unemployed at a significantly higher rate than our non-Indigenous friends, relatives, and coworkers (or, given our current unemployment rate, our lack thereof). In parts of the country, such as Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, the differences in unemployment rates are huge. For example, in my home province of Saskatchewan, in January 2019 the Indigenous unemployment rate was 10% higher than for non-Indigenous Saskatchewanians. Across the board, Indigenous people are underemployed and underpaid. In some of the fastest growing sectors, such as the tech sector, Indigenous people are even worse off. The Brookfield Institute’s 2019 report Who are Canada’s Tech Workers? notes that Indigenous people are both underrepresented and underpaid relative to non-Indigenous counterparts in the tech sector, with Indigenous women being even worse off. In response to these gaps, the First Nations Technology Council have called for an Indigenous Framework for Innovation and Technology (IFIT) “to coordinate a comprehensive and collaborative approach to achieving digital equity, technological advancement, and economic reconciliation for Indigenous people in British Columbia.” This sort of framework would be hugely beneficial not just provincially, but nationally to tackle the digital divide and move the needle for Indigenous Nations and people.

Things are not a whole lot better in terms of education. Although education rates are improving for Indigenous people, a sizeable gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous education rate persists. According to research by the National Indigenous Economic Development Board, nationally, Indigenous high school graduates rates are 14.8 percent lower than for non-Indigenous people. For First Nations living on-reserve and Inuit, the gap widens to 30 percent. College and trades completion rates are much better, with Metis and First Nations living off-reserve completing college and trades programs at a higher rate than non-Indigenous folks, although they remain lower for First Nations living on-reserve and Inuit. Lastly, a gap persists, and even may be widening, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous university completion rates with 13.6 percent of Indigenous folks completing a university diploma, certificate, or degree, compared to 32.4 percent for the non-Indigenous population.

The reasons for these very different realities are well documented. Grandmother Google has all the answers, but as a start Canadians should remember: removing us from our lands, attempting to disconnect us from our cultures, the residential school system, the Métis scrip policythe 60s scoop, a broken justice system, underfunded education, inaccessible or culturally irrelevant training, or just plain old racism. All of which contributes to Indigenous people not having a fair shot in this country and runs counter to Canada’s self-concept as a fair and just country. This is not just something to feel bad about, it is also a missed opportunity. Failure to tackle these realities means that we all lose out on Indigenous-led innovation, creativity, and problem-solving from unrealized and unrecognized Indigenous talent. It also poses unnecessary costs to our health and social systems and harm to our communities. Having a job has major positive implications on one’s health and well-being; people who are unemployed or underemployed are more likely to have lower health outcomes and rely on the healthcare system more often.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on people’s lives and livelihoods — and has ravaged the Canadian economy. It has also unveiled the shortcomings of our existing systems and the ways in which the most marginalized in our society continue to be underserved. Indigenous people and communities not only struggle with the existing realities, we are now dealing with a whole suite of compounding challenges brought on by the pandemic. As educational institutions have shifted to distance and e-learning, many Indigenous students struggle to access these new offerings as a result of the longstanding digital divide in Canada. Access to personal protective equipment, let alone adequate health services, in Indigenous communities has posed further challenges. Many businesses and entrepreneurs in Canada are struggling, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), of which the vast majority of Indigenous businesses are. Key sectors for Indigenous people and communities such as eco- and cultural tourism have been particularly devastated by the pandemic and are unlikely to recover for some time. 

The Opportunities

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of opportunities for us to collectively build on what works, make progress, and continue to address these inequities. The Indigenous population is young and growing quickly. The average age of Indigenous people is 32, compared to 40 for non-Indigenous people, and we are growing at about four times the rate of the non-Indigenous population. This is a tremendous opportunity that cannot be missed. Indigenous people are already contributing significantly to the country’s economy. In Manitoba, for example, the Indigenous economy contributed $2.3 billion to the province’s economy and created and maintained 35,734 jobs in the province. There is potential for significant growth within the Indigenous economy that will benefit Canada as a whole. Organizations such as the Indigenomics Institute are pushing to help grow the Indigenous economy from $32 billion to $100 billion over five years. Our own knowledge systems, leadership, and expertise continue to be critical to our way of life, but also have much to offer others. Indigenous knowledge continues to save lives, innovate, and provide pathways forward.

The future of the economy, and thus the future of work, must include Indigenous people and our visions for the future, and it must be grounded in meaningful partnership with our people and Nations. The future of work for Indigenous people and Nations must be one that recognizes our tremendous diversity and includes our values. Many Indigenous communities have limited economic and employment opportunities and the only options made available are resource-focused with limited revenue sharing and some training for community members. Our people and Nations need real options to grow diversified economies with a range of employment options. Indigenous people are on the frontlines resisting harmful resource extraction activities, pursuing sustainable alternatives, ensuring our territories are protected, and making sure we get a fair share of the revenues. Failure on the part of government and the private sector to build meaningful partnerships with Indigenous Nations is a tremendous risk to the country’s economy and a more equitable future.

COVID-19 has also forced foundations, charities, businesses, and governments to move quickly and “break” existing norms and rules to ensure people’s basic needs are met. We are seeing new innovations, previously unimaginable collaboration, and a recognition that the world beyond COVID-19 will look and function very differently. Of course, existing inequities must be addressed. Beyond that, the voices, wisdom, and expertise of Indigenous people must be part of responding, revisioning, and rebuilding beyond COVID-19.

If we are not careful, the future of work will look uncomfortably and unfortunately like the present, wherein this country continues to miss out on the full potential of what Indigenous people have to offer.

Where do we go from here?

Start by focusing on today. We need to recognize the inequities that exist in our workforce, our economy, and the country and start tackling those now. The significant differences in employment rates, salaries, and education levels between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people needs to be addressed. We also cannot ignore the evolving realities of how technology will impact work. In 2016, the CRTC declared internet access as a basic service. Despite this, COVID-19 has brought the longstanding digital divide into view for many Canadians, revealing the gaps in access to internet and technology that many Indigenous peoples and communities continue to experience.

This gap was unacceptable before COVID-19 and is even more unacceptable now. It is critical for all people in Canada to have access to affordable and reliable high-speed internet. We need to ensure Indigenous kids across the country have access to culturally grounded education that incorporates both the hard skills of STEM and the soft skills that we know will continue to be critical to their success.  Indigenous young people should leave school confident in who they are as an Indigenous person, while also being prepared for what’s next in life.

Indigenous-led solutions, including training and employment initiatives, are shown to be more effective so let’s find ways to fund them. These programs tend to focus on the whole person and aim to not only equip people with the skills needed for a job, they also incorporate cultural components, mental health supports, and other supports around childcare and housing. Beyond that, we also need to look at employers, and ensure that they are creating inclusive, anti-racist work environments where Indigenous people feel safe, respected, and accepted. Employers need to value different forms of knowledge, expertise, and ways of working. Let’s reconsider who we view and do not view as leaders and experts. We need to see the value that Indigenous entrepreneurship, innovation, and business brings to this country and help expand the Indigenous economy. We should be conscious that the realities of today and tomorrow differ drastically between provinces and territories; urban, rural, and remote communities; and young and old.

As Indigenous people, we need real options for the future. This includes employment and education options, and the essential technology and internet access, that allow us to stay in our communities if we choose to, post-secondary programs grounded in Indigenous knowledge and languages and aligned with community social and economic aspirations, and jobs that value and draw on our values, knowledges, and worldviews.

If we start building the future we want today—an inclusive and fair future—where difference is valued, we might just have a future (of work) where our potential as Indigenous people can truly flourish unhindered.

Justin Wiebe is Michif (Métis) and grew up in his homelands in Saskatoon on Treaty 6 territory and the Homeland of the Métis. He is a member of the EleV team at Mastercard Foundation, where they work alongside partners to support Indigenous learners on their pathways through post-secondary education and onto meaningful work.