Over the past three years, Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars in Waterloo’s Industrial-Organizational Psychology program have been working with partners to explore and develop the qualities that make a workplace environment more equitable for Indigenous employees. Together they are contributing their findings to Indigenous Workways, a program that partners with companies and organizations to clear pathways for Indigenous employees and create safe and supportive space in organizations for Indigenous bodies and worldviews.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) final report had a strong hand in inspiring this work. Professor Wendi Adair, Indigenous Workways’ co-principal investigator and Interpersonal Trust Lead, explains. “Their report addressed how the treatment of Indigenous peoples and erasure of their culture by colonial settlers has led to the Indigenous population being less likely to attend post-secondary institutions and rise to upper-level management positions.”

Adair continues “The TRC report identified a population in Canada that is highly underrepresented in the workplace. There are a lot of barriers that account for that.”Her research in Industrial-Organizational (I-O) Psychology focuses on workplace behaviour. “That’s what my colleagues and I study — what leads to job satisfaction, organizational commitment, people wanting to do the job that they have.” The development of Indigenous Workways was a natural step in the evolution of the program.

Networks of trust

In 2018, Adair and her co-principal investigator Catherine Kwantes at the University of Windsor received a SSHRC (Social Science & Humanities Research Council) Insight Grant to fund “Indigenous Workways: Cultural Safety, Cultures of Trust, and Psychologically Safe Work Places” over three years. The team also won a significant Ontario Research Fund - Research Excellence Grant, one of only two awards given in the program’s first ever Social Science competition. Along with Waterloo and Windsor, Conestoga College and Wilfrid Laurier University are institutional partners on the project that focuses on Indigenous employees’ experiences with interpersonal trust, organizational trust, and networks of trust.

people in a circle with sage grass ceremony

Left to right: Professor Wendi Adair, Lori Campbell (then Director of Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre) and others open a project meeting with a smudging ceremony. Photos courtesy of Indigenous Workways.

The project's work is centred within each institution’s Indigenous student centre and includes engaging with Indigenous alumni — an important part of the project, says Adair, for understanding their career experiences and providing mentorship to current Indigenous students.

At every step the team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous colleagues are committed to an authentic approach to their work. For instance, all project researchers take Indigenous research method courses and seminars and regularly consult with advisory circles, elders, knowledge keepers, and other community members. Jean Becker, Waterloo’s Senior Director of Indigenous Initiatives, has been advising the project since its inception. The research methodologies used allow Adair and her team to credibly investigate some of the positive aspects of relationships, space, and climate in organizations that help Indigenous employees thrive and rise.

Graduate student Jaydum Hunt, who is Bay of Quinte Mohawk from six nations and European ancestry, is completing her MA in I-O Psychology and has been a researcher on the project throughout her graduate studies. She emphasizes how Indigenous Workways prioritizes participatory research methods, which adhere to the principles of Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession (OCAP) as they conduct their research with the consultation from and among members of the Indigenous community. “The incorporation of The First Nations Principles of OCAP protects Indigenous contributors, ensuring that they have complete agency over their information,” explains Hunt.

Participants help to direct the research

“Research has always been done on Indigenous people as opposed to with Indigenous people. And I think a big part of what is important—and what I like about this project — is that the people who are participating in the research are helping to direct it.”

In working with people from diverse backgrounds, some organizations attempt to solve potential issues by incorporating tactics such as “an anti-racist workshop that’s one day, or a few hours,” says Hunt. She recognizes that there are problems with taking a compartmentalized approach to equity issues. “I don’t think that that actually looks at changing the mindset of the people within the organization, because [the issues which have proven to be problematic] also stem from the mindset that the organization encourages.” Hunt believes that if a company wants to improve its approach to equity, it ought to analyse its whole structure, rather than merely its employees’ behaviours. 

At the same time Hunt notes that when employers indicate an interest in hiring Indigenous employees, they need to understand how they can authentically welcome them into their organization.

Appreciating different ways of thinking and working

“We can’t just hire one Indigenous person, and say, ‘We’ve got our Indigenous person…’ and not follow through with understanding what that means, and understanding how the person might think differently, or work differently, which is why you're bringing them to the table,” says Hunt. “You also need to be able to be open to what they're bringing, and not expect them to conform to your organizational ways, because that might not be the way that they work.” In short, it is important to let diverse employees’ differences be appreciated, and let that appreciation be genuine.

Indigenous Workways logo of two coloured flowerThe Indigenous Workways logo is designed by Métis artist Catherine Dallaire. It features a wild rose, a hardy flower that symbolizes resilience and beauty. The rose is supporting and lifting up the strawberry blossom, which symbolizes how project uses strong foundations to lift up and support Indigenous alumni and students.

Now, after three years of participatory research engaging approximately 60 members of Indigenous communities in Ontario, Adair acknowledges that the Indigenous Workways project is primed for growth. “We have developed enough organizational partners, and have some ongoing relationships, where we can continue to do this work, and make continued improvements in the workplace for Indigenous employees in the future.”

The researchers hope to see the program expand geographically. At the time of our interview, Adair was considering possible partnerships with institutions in Northern Ontario. And although Indigenous Workways’ initial funding covers their work only within Ontario, there is the possibility of expansion to other Canadian institutions, she says.

Adair also acknowledges that the challenges faced by Indigenous employees are also experienced by members of other racialized groups. Looking at their experiences is “an obvious next step.” Down the line the potential is there to develop programs to help build connections between employers and other marginalized groups.

The initiative has proven to be edifying for Adair. “Learning about Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous ways of knowing, and Indigenous research methods, has really opened my mind to an entire world of possibilities that I never knew existed before.” And those possibilities can only make an organization stronger.