Are We Setting Indigenous Relations Resources Up for Success?

Are We Setting Indigenous Relations Resources Up for Success?

October 27, 2019, |Bullying, Colonialism, Compliance, Harassment, Human Resources, Indigenous, TRC 92 (ii), Workplace Respect


When it Comes to Indigenous Relations Portfolios, Company Leaders are Oft’ Dropped into the Ocean Without Compass.

 Many managers are not fully aware of the root causes of their organization’s decision to create an Indigenous Relations position or portfolio. They first see requirements within a client’s request for a proposal to engage with and hire Indigenous members of a community; key performance indicators are weaved into contract administration to report on the number of people hired and on the number and value of subcontracts left.

Indigenous Relations[/caption]

Some may be vaguely aware of the regulatory project requirements from which socioeconomic project conditions may be directly inherited. The terms are usually negotiated by and between the project proponent and those directly affected communities, under varying federal government levels or regulatory supervision (or lack thereof).

Suppose that remains to be the full extent of the managers’ understanding. A corporate direction lacking vision ensues, typically resulting in awkward attempts at rudimentary “beads and feathers” exercises to procure a check-the-box understanding of a culture, usually accompanied by underlying resentments towards the perceived-to-be misplaced preferential treatment given to First Nation, Metis, and Inuit communities.

After a while, the manager notices that fostering and maintaining these relationships takes time and resources and often travels to remote locations. The task is too big for anyone to run from the “corner of their desk.” This is how one feels, while there is a lack of understanding of the “why” and a lack of appreciation of the larger picture and importance of the relationship.

Eventually, that part of the senior leaders’ portfolio becomes an irritant. Sadly, it is often under these circumstances that the process of delegation ensues.

Selection and Placement on the Org Chart

Once an organization decides to recruit an Indigenous Relations resource, the selection criteria are often initially driven based on several potential attributes such as:

  • capacity for relationship building,
  • reflecting the representation of a particular group or community, and
  •  level of position and compensation level (how much does the organization want to invest in this).

Often the exercise fails to source someone:

  • a representative of and/or with intimate knowledge of the sources, history and communal experience of colonialism,
  • with an understanding of the ongoing inequity, barriers, and intergenerational harm both generally in Canada and with the communities directly involved, together with
  • the skill and experience required to operate and effectively navigate corporate organization structures.

This is a tall order, indeed. We must note that often those who have the skills above have likely overcome tremendous barriers themselves and may have their own trauma stories (we will touch on this again later).

The good news is that choosing to walk this path will introduce leaders to some of the most unique, strong people they will ever meet. Once onboarded, Indigenous staff/leaders will need significant direct leadership support and the whole organization’s support. We must note that unlike safety, which over years and years has become embedded and ingrained into the fabric of organizational culture, with safety representatives providing primarily educational and technical support; Indigenous relations resources are at first, in a sense, behind enemy lines and face hostility when attempting to introduce the required changes.

Where an Indigenous resource is installed into an organization as a dedicated but isolated resource, that resource must have a direct or at least a dotted-line reporting relationship to executive leadership levels. They must have open and ongoing access to this support. We can point to examples where Indigenous relations resources have been successful without this direct support. Still, those individuals and circumstances are remarkable – as most will agree, repeatable success cannot bank on the remarkable. Therefore, we recommend installing the executive-level supports upfront. The following describes what happens to resources installed absent such supports to emphasize this point.

Who in Their Right Mind Would Want Their Organisation to Run Like This?

Because of the unintended consequences and further potential harm caused by getting it wrong, it’s worth investing in understanding where most organizations are and how they start this journey. Particular challenges are unavoidable parts of the process, and certain of the missteps we’ve noticed, have been self-imposed.

Most organizations are not capable of going directly into an embedded/integrated reconciliation result; most organizations are large enough that it is going to take a cultural shift. Similar to how the safety culture eventually became woven into the fabric of most modern management systems, heavy lifting is required by the subject matter expert(s), Indigenous peoples themselves, with executive support. Before it becomes decentralized, it must start with a dedicated resource, which typically means it is a resource that moves alongside and among departmental areas cross-functionally.

While this makes the individual agile, it also can make the Indigenous staff/leader isolated and exposed to organizational friction and interpersonal hostility.

Literature supports the notion that where individuals have experienced trauma in their life, potential health impacts associated with prolonged interpersonal hostility at work may be exacerbated more so – absent support. Recall that there is likely a correlation due to existing present-day colonial forces and intergenerational trauma, the trauma that many subject matter experts secured as the organization’s Indigenous relations resource has faced and may continue to face. So if the Indigenous relations resource is without support, while in prolonged hostile and socially isolated environments, that individual’s sympathetic nervous system takes over, creating real psychological and physiological effects that inhibit their digestive system and increases their heart rate, leading to an over-activated nervous system which is associated with:

  1. emotions of fear and rage
  2. enhanced negative psychological bias
  3. increased attention to harmful stimuli, and
  4.  perception of ambiguous situations as negative

Essentially Indigenous peoples may exist in a fight or flight state of being while at work when that workplace is hostile. If much of a person’s time is spent over-activated in this sympathetic state, it taxes the nervous system. Eventually, the person will crash. While in a “crashed” state, emotions of blame and depression may dominate. Without intervention, this leads to health concerns, behaviour concerns and ultimately, turnover of its Indigenous relations resource. This likely leads to a one-step forward, two-steps back level of progress in developing a supportive reconciliation culture.

What leader in their right mind would intentionally roll out a plan that would lend itself to this result? In our experience, none. And further, good leaders have a genuine interest in protecting and supporting their people.

Some Less Than Obvious Supports

Senior leadership can support by shouldering some of the burdens of overcoming change inertia by visibly sponsoring broad-based and meaningful culture awareness training (like the blanket exercise), followed by setting the precise tone of where the leadership wants to take the organization while ensuring Indigenous staff/leaders are the resources to help achieve that objective. Formally adopt the Truth and Reconciliation’s Calls to Action.  This will help reduce unnecessary friction at the outset.

Frequent meetings with the Indigenous staff/leader are recommended. Don’t rely solely on the individual initiating meetings with senior leaders. Use the early meetings to establish a supportive rapport before significant issues arise.

Make space to attend to holistic needs and encourage the person to book focus/decompression time. The Indigenous staff/leaders’ office and surrounding area (to and from the office) must be a safe place to offer meaningful exchanges with others at work.

Encourage attendance at conferences and workshops. The organization’s Indigenous relations resource may feel isolated and alone. Offering opportunities to attend conferences and workshops will allow resetting of perspective, refocus and recharge as the person gets to spend time with colleagues who understand precisely what they are going through.

Short Term Service Offerings

Short Term Service Offerings

Current environment  Heavy layoffs commenced in 2015 and more are expected in 2017. Wage freezes and wage rollbacks remain a water cooler topic. Capital spending reviews and cuts are in the headlines.  There are many signals that 2017 will continue to be about managing costs and running current operations as lean as possible.   But there is still major project work and maintenance for existing operations underway, and bids to submit to secure future work.  In 2017 companies are properly wary about adding staff or making long-term spending. Essential services and activities will go on but with a sharp eye on costs. There is less organizational slack in most organization charts which may increase the need for temporary or ad hoc assistance for either technical expertise or to have access to increased variable capacity.   

Services you may need:  You may need the plan to source labour and scale up rapidly for maintenance purposes or due to changes in schedule.  And you will need to ensure costs to get workers to the site are tightly controlled. Flying tradespeople across the country every shift may be justifiable in a tight labour market but makes little sense when local or regional options exist.

Labour relations or employee investigations may arise that require staff dedication of time or expertise that no longer exists within your organization.  These are examples of areas of short-term services where Workforce Delivery can help. 

Our knowledge and experience can allow us to build a labour supply strategy that takes the current market into account. We can provide plans and execute them as needed.  

Another area of concern in active projects and worksites is managing spikes in labour relations activity such as misconduct, substance abuse or increase in complaints.  Tension and animosity among workers can build due to the job market outlook or knowing that layoffs may be coming soon.  You need cost-effective options to deal with increased labour relations activity.  Or you may be facing what you consider to be regular workload levels resulting from managing your labour force, but the team you manage has been drastically reduced.  

Your internal capacity and expertise are not what it was two years ago, but the demands remain.  Workforce Delivery can pick up challenging labour relations issues for you such as collective bargaining, grievance handling and complex investigations.  

Where With Peopel Inc. can help – Effective and cost-conscious solutions.  With People Inc. can offer ad hoc labour relations and labour supply services for places where project work is still underway and existing operations in all sectors continue.   

Cost pressures may create an opportunity (or pressure) to review labour supply costs from top to bottom.  

Approaches or sources that were never up for serious consideration in the past may now make sense.  

With People Inc. can be the source for unbiased analysis of the value provided by various labour-sourcing strategies together with transition plans.

The final call remains yours, but demands have never been greater for your decision to be based on critical screening of all the options on the table since 2015.  Our services for labour relations or labour supply can be provided on an ad hoc basis at an hourly rate.  Some common service types we offer:  

  • Single grievance or investigation file completion. 
  • Interim backfill of an unexpected vacancy of a labour relations manager or site role. 
  • Develop a labour supply strategy, with the option to execute that strategy, reporting back progress. 
  • Provide collective bargaining services for a full round of bargaining with one or more trades or unions. 
  • Fulfill labour supply shortfall needs including sourcing, screening, onboarding and booking of travel and accommodations.  

With People Inc. supplies its own phones, common business software and computers and workspace.  So none of the items represent an added cost to our clients.  For full rates and terms please contact us.  Our principal labour relations Practitioner, Sam Kemble have a combined 18+ years of experience in all aspects of labour relations.  


Metrics Required to Justify Random Alcohol & Drug Testing

Metrics Required to Justify Random Alcohol & Drug Testing


In 2012 Suncor implemented random drug and alcohol testing for workers in safety-sensitive positions. Unifor challenged the policy alleging it infringed on privacy rights. In Arbitration, the tribunal ruled in favour of Unifor and this was later properly overturned by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench.


All agreed in this instance, that safety procedures are critical to prevent workplace incidents that could result in human or environmental disasters.

Suncor has a robust alcohol and drug program in place including education, training, reasonable cause, post-incident and return to work testing, drug interdiction procedures, policy and work rules, and counselling and treatment for those that required support.

Unifor challenged the presupposition that there was a pervasive problem with alcohol and drugs in the workplace (and in particular, within their bargaining unit) that would justify the potential privacy infringement associated with random drug and alcohol testing.

[T]he dangerousness of a workplace – whether described as dangerous, inherently dangerous, or highly safety-sensitive – is, while clearly and highly relevant, only the beginning of the inquiry. It has never been found to be an automatic justification for the unilateral imposition of unfettered random testing with disciplinary consequences. What has been additionally required is evidence of enhanced safety risks, such as evidence of a general problem with substance abuse in the workplace.
Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Local 30 v Irving Pulp & Paper Ltd, 2013 SCC 34, [2013] 2 SCR 458 [Irving] 

Suncor provided evidence of 2,276 onsite drug and alcohol incidents that did not delineate between type of employee, direct hire, contract employee, union or non-union. Unifor then argued in part that the evidence could not be relied upon, as said statistics could not be directly and solely associated with the Unifor bargaining unit members.

The Court found “[i]t was unreasonable for the tribunal majority to insist on “particularized” evidence specific to Suncor’s unionized employees.” Clarifying that:

Irving “calls for a more holistic inquiry into drug and alcohol problems within the workplace generally, instead of demanding evidence unique to the workers who will be directly affected…”

The Court further noted that the lack of a requirement for particularized evidence was supported by the integrated nature of direct-hire and contract employees working side-by-side. Caution should be used in co-mingling statistics in more segregated, discrete work scenarios. 


Employers must capture metrics on an ongoing basis regarding the performance and experience of their alcohol and drug work rules. If certain segments of your workforce are not deployed in an integrated manner, employers should include in the capture, statistics delineating employee type where it makes sense to do so. Examples of experience factors to track include:

  1. Positive tests,
  2. Site Access,
  3. Post-Incident,
  4. Reasonable Cause,
  5. Possession,
  6. Possession of paraphernalia,
  7. Refusals,
  8. Return to work agreements,
  9. Possession of products use to adulterate tests.

In addition, employers should track either directly or through a third party, the type of substance identified by the tests.

I have been on sites where over 70% of post-incident test results have correlated with positive results or possession of drugs associated with the cannabinoid panel. With the advent of legalization, more attention will be put on this particular class of substance.

This article relied upon the decision, Suncor Energy Inc v Unifor Local 707A, 2017 ABCA 313, and was inspired by an October 11, 2017 article written by Graeme McFarlane of Roper Greyell LLP, Justifying Random Drug And Alcohol Testing In The Workplace.

Please contact us if you have an interest in developing or reviewing your metrics capture of your Alcohol and Drug program.

Thank you for your time and we hope this is useful to you and your organization.