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Educating the Public Service- a Critical Step Towards Reconciliation

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,


Today we will continue to explore Calls to Action in professional education, shifting our focus to public sector employees.


Over ten years ago, I worked at the Edmonton Valley Zoo during the summers of my undergraduate days. One day while working the admissions booth, a group of visibly Indigenous people were approaching, including two adults and about seven children. My co-worker commented that “these people” always try to pretend they’re a family to get the discounted family rate.

The atmosphere in the booth was tense. My co-worker told the group that the rate was for family members only and any non-family members would have to buy separate admission, while the group asserted that they were a family.


At that time, I thought it was inappropriate that my co-worker assumed they weren’t a family, but I chalked it up to them just trying to do their job ”by the book”. Looking back now, I see that the interaction was steeped with racist stereotypes, cultural insensitivity, and downright ignorance.

I mention this story here because working for the City of Edmonton meant that we were also public sector employees.


Image by pch.vector on Freepik

Call to Action 57 calls upon “federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to provide education to public servants on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.” [1].


Approximately 25% of Canadians work in public sector jobs, which include federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, as well as federal Crown corporations and government-funded agencies, like schools and hospitals [2]. Bureaucrats, elected officials, and office workers are common examples of public sector employees. There are also public-facing public sector employees, like those at the zoo, national parks staff, passport office staff, and more.


It is imperative that both office-based staff and public-facing staff receive training as per Call to Action 57.


Office-Based Staff


“The restoration of civic trust is essential to reconciliation.”

Truth & Reconciliation Commission, Final Report [3]


Since settlers have arrived in Canada, promises have been made and broken between the Crown and First Nations peoples. Treaties have not been honoured by the Crown, and legislation, like the Indian Act and Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act, has caused great harm with systemic racism. Trust has been broken by the decisions to enact these policies.

Within every level of government, there are numerous decision-makers. While a final decision may come from upper-level management, junior-level staff are the people who conduct studies, gather research, and prepare drafts. All of this work goes towards creating policies and procedures. These decisions impact Indigenous people and can cause great harm if they are not made thoughtfully.


Educating the public service on the history of residential schools, Indigenous law, intercultural competency, and anti-racism is essential in ensuring that policy decisions do not perpetuate systemic racism and cause further harm.


Frontline Staff

It is also essential to educate public service employees who will interact with members of the public on a day-to-day basis. Programs teaching the history and culture of Indigenous peoples will support understanding.


In the zoo example above, an employee educated in Indigenous culture could have understood that some Indigenous peoples may have a different interpretation of ‘family’. In place of considering a nuclear family as the norm, Indigenous cultures may consider families to be “extensive networks of strong, connective kinship”, or even “entire communities”. [4]


Day-to-day experiences with public service workers should not carry a risk of implicit or explicit racism. Ensuring that all employees complete mandatory Indigenous cultural awareness and historical education is a step to dismantle prejudice and racism.


What Governments are Doing

Each level of government has been called to educate its public sector employees. I will look at the federal, provincial, and local Edmonton governments, to see whether they are supporting Call to Action 57.


Canada

Image from the Government of Canada

Presently, the Government of Canada offers an “Indigenous Training Series'', with fifteen sessions available on Indigenous issues [5]. Courses are available online, in classroom, and through a mobile app, and are intended to “help increase cultural skills and awareness of issues related to First Nations, Inuit and Métis in Canada, as well as the role and responsibilities of the Government of Canada towards these peoples”. [6] Unfortunately, this training is not mandatory. Fewer than 20% of Federal employees have completed an Indigenous Training course. Employees in the Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada department are required to complete fifteen hours of “culturally competent learning each year”. [7] This can be considered a step in the right direction since it is likely that these employees may have the most impact on Indigenous peoples.


However, since employees at all levels and in all departments may have an influence on policy decisions, mandatory training for one department is not enough.

Another issue is that the RCMP has had the lowest level of employees engaging in the Indigenous Training Series. This is especially problematic because of the treatment of Indigenous people by law enforcement. [8]


Until this course is mandatory, the Federal government cannot claim to have fulfilled Call to Action 57.


Alberta

Image from the Government of Alberta

The Government of Alberta has a mandatory Indigenous introductory training program that provides public sector employees “with an overview on Indigenous histories, residential schools, treaties and contemporary issues”, and “how they can apply what they have learned to their work [9].

This mandatory training consists of a six-hour course, including:

  • an Elder-led ceremony

  • history and contemporary experiences from an Indigenous perspective

  • a sharing circle

  • a discussion on reconciliation [10]

I spoke with some Government of Alberta employees, and only one person indicated that they had completed the training. Since the training was introduced in 2019 and is provided in-person, another employee believes that COVID impacted their ability to participate. [11]

Overall, the content and format of instruction for this mandatory course is a great step in the right direction.


Edmonton


Image from the City of Edmonton, art by MJ Belcourt

At the local level, the Edmonton municipal government has introduced an “Indigenous Framework”. [12] This framework encourages City employees to “live out” four roles in interactions with Indigenous peoples: Listener, Connector, Advocate, and Partner. [13]. It also makes seven commitments to further efforts of reconciliation with an underlying goal of eliminating systemic racism throughout all departments [14].


While the Framework is being rolled out to management teams, to incorporate into their departments, it does not appear that there is dedicated training provided for employees.

People may encounter City of Edmonton employees on a daily basis: at recreation centres, on city buses, and in encounters with the police, to name a few. These frontline employees need to be actively anti-racist if the goal of eliminating systemic racism is to succeed.



The importance of cultural competency, anti-racism, and education on the legacy of residential schools cannot be understated. Policies and interactions need to be actively anti-racist, and must consciously consider the needs and experiences of Indigenous people. Unless this happens, broken trust will not be repaired, and reconciliation will not advance. Mandatory education would enable 25% of Canadians to work towards reconciliation in their jobs. Let’s hope that this mandatory training is available to all public service employees soon.


Until next time,


Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG


[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Ottawa, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015) at 276.

[2] Statistics Canada, “Employment by class of worker, monthly, seasonally, adjusted (x 1,000), (last updated 10 October 2022), online: <doi.org/10.25318/1410028801-eng>.

[3] Supra 1 at 268.

[4] Tanya Talaga, “The Power of Indigenous Kinship”, The Walrus (14 November 2019), online: <thewalrus.ca/the-power-of-indigenous-kinship/>.

[5] Canada School of Public Service, “Indigenous Learning Products”, (last updated 29 September 2022), online: Government of Canada <csps-efpc.gc.ca/ils-eng.aspx>.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Darren Major, “Few federal employees taking part in Indigenous training sessions from public service school”, CBC News (2 October 2022), online: <cbc.ca/news/politics/few-federal-employees-take-indigenous-training-1.6601462>.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Government of Alberta, “Indigenous Learning Initiative”, (last visited 11 October 2022), online: Government of Alberta <alberta.ca/indigenous-learning-initiative.aspx>.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Town and Country Today Staff, “Indigenous training mandated for public service employees”, (9 September 2019), online: <townandcountrytoday.com/beyond-local/indigenous-training-mandated-for-public-service-employees-1872291>.

[12] City of Edmonton, “Indigenous Framework”, (last visited 11 October 2022), online: City of Edmonton <edmonton.ca/city_government/initiatives_innovation/community-engagement-indigenous-framework>.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.


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