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Culture shift

Credit unions are cultivating equitable job access and inclusive workplaces for Indigenous Canadians.

She witnessed violence, drug and alcohol abuse in her community from a young age; she became a mother of four by the age of 21. Chantel Buffalo had to grow up fast.

Buffalo spent years working in manufacturing and construction after dropping out of high school. But she returned to education, wanting to make change for herself, her family and her community. The 33-year-old, whose mother is from Kawacatoose First Nation and father from Laos, eventually graduated from Saskatchewan Polytechnic with honours, awards and a scholarship. Now she works as a member service representative for Affinity Credit Union (120,000 members, $5 billion in assets) in Saskatoon.

With years of struggle behind her, Buffalo is eager to connect with other Indigenous young people to tell them about her journey and encourage them to follow their dreams. “The more I share my story, the more people want to hear about how they can change their own lives. That’s my goal — I want to create change,” Buffalo says.

Buffalo’s efforts are well timed. In the wake of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, cultural attitudes are beginning to shift. Corporate Canada is redoubling efforts to ensure Indigenous community members have equitable access to jobs and training while creating safer and more inclusive workplaces for Aboriginal employees. And credit unions are playing a prominent role in these efforts.

At Affinity, one area of renewal has been their Employment Mentorship Program. Introduced in 2016, it replaced a longstanding Aboriginal mentorship program found to have inclusion and retention issues. One of the architects behind the new program is Heather Sully, Affinity’s employee services manager. “In the research and experience we looked at, designated hiring practices don’t necessarily work long term because they set new employees apart from other employees right from the get go,” Sully says.

The new mentorship program removes the group designation and focuses on building capacity by supporting Indigenous candidates through developing resumés and interview skills and increased community outreach. Created in consultation with the Saskatoon Tribal Council, Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies, Saskatchewan Polytechnic and the Whitecap Dakota First Nation, the program also engages with community partners in hiring, recruitment and training.

“Sometimes we just need someone to tell us, ‘yes, we do believe in you.’”  – Chantel Buffalo

Buffalo credits her mentors at the Indigenous Students’ Centre at Saskatchewan Polytechnic for connecting her with Affinity and coaching her through the application and interview process.
“It’s important to have people like myself working at Affinity and for more to jump on board,” she says. “That’s what I try to do is reach out to communities and say, ‘yes, it is possible, you can be here, you will be supported, there’s nothing to be afraid of.’”

Beyond recruitment and hiring activities, staff retention depends on ensuring workplace environments are inclusive and supportive. For Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (523,000 members, $21 billion in assets), this means promoting internal learning and development opportunities. Shannon Henderson, a diversity and inclusion adviser and a member of Vancity’s Reconciliation Canada Team, facilitates internal dialogue and cultural workshops, encouraging staff to participate in events and other engagements within the Indigenous communities that work with the credit union. “Supporting reconciliation has allowed me to share my culture but it has also further enriched my own personal journey as a proud Squamish Nation woman,” Henderson says.

Vancity also established a framework around decision-making to guide their efforts in making reconciliation a core value. Central to it is an open and ongoing dialogue with all employees and stakeholders, says Stewart Anderson, manager, Indigenous Partnerships at Vancity. “We’re seeing conversations around how we support Indigenous economic development, engage with Indigenous partners and work in Indigenous communities as critical to how we succeed moving forward,” Anderson says.

For Buffalo, efforts like these are critical to effecting lasting change for a new generation. “I feel like my generation is breaking down barriers because we want change too. Sometimes we just need someone to tell us, ‘yes, we do believe in you.’” ◊