Reconciliation in the corporate world

When Deborah Green first entered the corporate world, she pretended to be someone she wasn’t.

Her mother had experienced systemic racism as an Indigenous woman and wanted better for her daughter. So early in her career, Green acted as if she weren’t Indigenous when she went to work.

“I would never reveal anything that would identify me as Indigenous,” Green, Suncor’s senior specialist advisor, Indigenous workforce development, said at Forward Summit West.

In order to fit in, Green pretended to like opera and the “fancy restaurants” her colleagues went to – things she could have cared less for.

“That’s not sustainable,” she said during a panel discussion on Indigenizing the workforce. “Sooner or later, the truth always comes out.”

Carol Crowe, an Indigenous engagement consultant with Creative Fire, also spoke on the panel, offering insights on the struggles Indigenous employees may face.

“When you’re the only Indigenous person in an organization, it’s really hard,” Crowe said. “The systemic racism we face on a daily basis is subtle.”

Many corporations are now trying to make the workplace more welcoming to Indigenous employees. But to succeed on that front, employers need to welcome different perspectives, rather than expecting Indigenous employees to fall in line with the status quo.

“I don’t want to belong to the dominant society,” Green said. “I want to be who I am in the workplace.”

Some employers are looking to implement the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – but doing so without involving Indigenous voices compromises the process, Green said.

“If you don’t have Indigenous voices at the table, then you’re just being performative,” she said.

Reconciliation in the corporate world can involve some uncomfortable conversations – and employers should be prepared to embrace that discomfort, said Roselle Gonsalves, managing director of inclusion and reconciliation with ATB Financial.

“Invest yourself in the practice of being uncomfortable,” Gonsalves said.

It’s better to have an honest – if uncomfortable – conversation than continuing to make assumptions that perpetuate the discrimination Indigenous employees face in the workplace, Green added.

“I would rather see you get it wrong and ask me a question you’re worried is offensive than assume something that is offensive and really get it wrong,” she said.

Forward Summit West took place in Calgary from May 17 -18, hosted on Tsuut’ina Nation territory. The annual conference features panel discussions on economic reconciliation for Indigenous communities. MLT Aikins lawyers Billie Fortier and Bob Black both spoke at this year’s event. MLT Aikins was pleased to be an exhibitor at Forward Summit West.