corporate social responsibility

Race, Religion, Politics Part 2

I am always told that the things that you shouldn’t talk about while out on a date are race, religion, and politics. I think the same goes for employment. Except this post isn’t going to be about race, religion, and politics and why you shouldn’t talk about it at work.

So I began writing a series of posts the first one was called So You’ve Hired an Indian. Now what? Part 1.

I talk about my opinion on non-Aboriginal settings versus Aboriginal settings and the themes present in the background of one and how those are not particularly present in the other. Self-determination. Awareness. Mutual respect. Perhaps these are similar themes in all types of organizations and businesses but the major difference is that these 3 themes focus on Aboriginal issues/relations.

I also talk about organizations or departments within an organization that focuses on these themes and what not to expect. However, I am sure that those that work in those departments are well aware of what not to expect, what to expect, and how to approach both. Usually job descriptions in those organizations/departments include a little phrase that indicates person filling those positions must

“Have knowledge of First Nations, Metis, Inuit relations”

OR

“Have knowledge of First Nations, Metis, Inuit issues”

OR

“Preference given to those with experience of working with First Nations people/communities”

It’s almost like First Nations issues/relations are separate in their own world when one reads that. However, there are some positions specifically set aside for hiring of Aboriginal people. That my fellow reader is called “Corporate Social Responsibility” or CSR for short–hiring someone or creating a department that deals with specifically creating more opportunities for an already marginalized group, like First Nations people. Some people think the world of CSR. I think it’s Okay. Why do I think CSR is only “Okay?” Well, I believe that it creates this sort of “glass ceiling” for certain groups of people. Not just Aboriginal people. It puts certain groups in a box and that organization views all people from that group in a certain light or in that box only. Some people may argue against me and say that CSR creates opportunities. I agree, CSR does create opportunities but I believe that people part of a certain group should go above and beyond those specific opportunities. Don’t just reach for the middle ground. Of course CSR happens in other ways, not all entirely bad. For example, scholarships created for certain groups or training/interning opportunities for certain groups.

So where does culture, traditional knowledge, and experiences all fit in with this?

Well, one, if you do hire someone based on the above points mentioned (knowledge of FN issues/relations, etc) don’t expect them to have ALL the knowledge in the world. Sure, they should have a good understanding and eager to educate their own self on FN issues but they shouldn’t be the only one that works for the organization with all that knowledge. Other people who work with that person or within the department should have at least some basic knowledge of FN issues/relations. And no, just because you work with First Nations people and say you create partnerships with them, does not mean that the organization should begin to think that they are giving the world to First Nations people/communities. That creates this sort of patriarchal partnership rather than an equal partnership with mutual respect.

Two, if you are given “traditional knowledge” from a First Nations person or community, it isn’t yours as an organization to keep and to benefit off of. What is traditional knowledge? I was once sent this link that was put together by the Chiefs of Ontario. In it, it nicely summed up what was happening to traditional knowledge. The report reads,

Traditional Knowledge is a way of life for the Anishinabek People and is handed down to us from our ancestors. Our knowledge is being misused, abused and misunderstood. Science does not respect traditional knowledge. —Traditional Knowledge Primer

At the last youth gathering I met, another youth told the individuals, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who attended his workshop,

“You don’t have to share anymore knowledge with anyone else than that this is sacred. You don’t have to tell them what it does or how to use it.”

I define “Traditional Knowledge” as the knowledge that a person who belongs to a specific group has on their own culture and traditions and the meaning and interpretation of certain/specific symbols. In layman terms, the crucifix/Jesus Christ is important to Catholics because it symbolizes that Christ died for their sins and to remind them of that. When it comes to First Nations people, historically and presently, some organizations/corporations have used traditional knowledge passed down to them and used that knowledge to their benefit–in other words, to undermine the traditional and cultural ways of First Nations people. Historically, the Canadian government used the cultural practice of “fasting” as legitimate means to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from their own homes and into residential schools. We all know how that turned out, or maybe we all don’t but those that do… you know.

Anyways, I thought when that youth had said what he said in his workshop to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal listeners, I thought that was pretty powerful for him to say that and didn’t really understand until it happened at a previous place of employment. I designed a logo for a team and I explained the logo. Then two days later, without my knowledge, the story of the logo was put into the powerpoint to be presented to the First Nations communities. I didn’t have to explain the logo to the rest of the people on the team but I did. That traditional knowledge I shared with them was literally taken without permission and then kept on file for them to use to their own benefit in future use.

Third and last, as an organization who deals with First Nations individuals and communities may specifically hire a First Nations person for their experiences or their knowledge of certain issues that other First Nations people/communities may face. Then, those individuals will most likely tell you their experiences as a First Nations person. From my experience in working with non-Aboriginal people, when I share my experiences or when people ask me questions about my experiences as a First Nations person, there is always that one person who blurts out, “Oh but it’s the same like everyone/everywhere else.” No, those experiences are not the same.

You can read about my experience in one workplace where an employee asked me “What it was like to live on a Reserve.” but before I could reply to her question another non-Aboriginal employee chimed in, “Oh but it’s like living anywhere else.” My hometown is just like your hometown.

To say that those experiences are the same to whatever or whomever else is to marginalize that First Nations person’s experience. And even worse, sometimes the organization totally dismisses these experiences and just re-iterates why I do not like CSR: sometimes it does not accomplish what it is meant to accomplish. Just because an organization thinks it is doing something good for a First Nations person or for First Nations people/communities, does not mean that it is all good. Sure, an organization/department can have good intentions but again, if the organization and department does not truly understand First Nations issues and just hires the First Nations person to take care of it, then what is really going to be accomplished? Nothing…other than the organization/department has just hired an Indian, and they are stuck asking their own self,

Now, what?

Just because I am First Nations…

I am writing this post because of a few things I have experienced in my life… mainly to do with school and work.

I have had my fair share of interviews, since having my first job when I was 15 years old. Some of the jobs I didn’t even have to have an interview. Some of them, I just had to introduce myself, answer a few questions and then I was hired. If I can remember one interview, I wasn’t asked any particular question about my background or my ethnic origins. However on my first day of employment, I was called into the boss’s office and told to sit down. My heart was beating. I had no idea what I did. My boss proceeded to tell me how lucky she was to have me…I remember her specifically saying:

We are so lucky to have you on our team. As soon as we found out you were Aboriginal, we just had to hire you

Being the shy, quiet girl I used to be, I didn’t really say anything except giggle a little and say thanks. I wish I knew better. I should have spoken up. This was a government job and someone was saying that they hired me because I was Aboriginal (is how I took it after wards and how I still interpret it) is just…wrong. Some people say, that I should be happy and should just let it slide. Honestly, who says that in any type of professional position? That is all I want answered.

That was when I was 17 years old.

Today, I am attending The University of Western Ontario. A big university. A diverse university. I am constantly reminded that other people look at me as a “First Nations student” whenever they ask me what I am studying, and before I can even answer they butt in…

Are you studying First Nations?

Ummm no, and just because I am First Nations does not mean I am studying First Nations [in fact, I don’t think I should have to study First Nations in order to get a minor in it on my degree–I think growing up on a First Nation, up north, just outside a predominantly white small-sized city is good enough to know what the issues First Nations people face… Okay maybe that last statement is a bit ignorant..the issues that First Nations people face are complex and vary across the board–I think a First Nations introduction course should be required to attend this university and I only say this because we are surrounded by three First Nations that I know of… and with many more close by (give or take a few hours).] In fact that should be required for any university or college in Canada.

Another experience here on campus, I just recently had an interview for a position. I didn’t get the position (and I am not upset…I am most certain they have picked the most appropriate person for the position). However, yet again, I felt like as if here I was again in another sticky situation where someone suggested something to me… This person suggested that I apply for the First Nations position because they said:

I know you are very passionate in this area and I think it would be a great fit for you

After reading that, yes I was upset, and I am sure this person meant no harm in suggesting it (and perhaps maybe I might apply for this position.. maybe I might not.) However, I wanted to send an email back, but I didn’t as I knew what I wanted to say wouldn’t come out right. I took a few deep breathes. Closed the email and didn’t return to it until later (**Ahem** Later would be today).

I know someone might think that I am being a little to overly sensitive with these experiences but really, I feel like as if I was generalized, and that by through each of these experiences I feel like that there is this “Invisible glass ceiling” that I must break through if I want to get anywhere that goes beyond people looking at me as the “First Nation” employee or “First Nation” student.

I am proud of who I am and I know why those positions or opportunities are created (Classic case of Corporate Social Responsibility or giving proper representation to a certain marginalized group) But what if a First Nation’s person, whether employee or student, wants to go for something that is beyond the “First Nations” position or “First Nations” area of study or “First Nations” label… will that “Invisible Glass Ceiling” always exist?

Just because I am First Nations does not mean I want your First Nations position.