Christine Paquette was scrolling through an online job site when she came across a posting looking to recruit Indigenous people for customer service jobs at CIBC.
The 21-year-old Ojibway and Métis woman works as a part-time receptionist at an esthetics salon and was hoping to find a second job, one that could lead to a possible career.
“It seemed kind of like a good way to get my foot in the door,” Paquette said in an interview with Go Public from her home in Winnipeg.
Her fluent French and work experience made Paquette think that a banking job could be a good fit for her — until she started going through the questions in the online application.
“It said along the lines, ‘Please explain, like, your favourite tradition or your favourite story,'” Paquette said. “I was like, ‘Huh, that’s a little odd thing to be asking.’ … How is a traditional story going to help me excel in, like, the role of a bank teller?”
Paquette continued with the application, even though that question didn’t sit well with her. But she didn’t get very far after that.
“That was, like, the appetizer,” she explained.
The questions continued: “How would you describe your communication skills? TIP: Why don’t you show us instead?” the application read.
It went on to encourage Indigenous applicants to let their personality shine in a video cover letter and “to write a song, poem, dress in traditional regalia or bring in back-up dancers!” as part of the video submission.
“I was like, OK, that’s enough, that’s all I need to see,” Paquette said.
“I want you to prove to me how Indigenous you are,” she said. “That’s how I took it.”
Like many businesses across Canada, CIBC told Go Public that it is committed to taking steps to ensure its workforce reflects the communities where its employees live and work. But experts in the field of Indigenous recruitment strategy say the bank’s job application — and Christine’s experience — is a good opportunity for companies to learn better practices when pursuing diverse workplaces.
The sacredness of regalia
Paquette says that the question asking her to share her “favourite Indigenous tradition/story” brought up a wide range of emotions.
She says her grandmother went to a residential day school and was made to be ashamed of her heritage, so she didn’t pass down any traditions to her daughter, Christine’s mother — who in turn couldn’t teach Christine.
“How are you going to go on and ask me to share my favourite story or tradition when … settlers and, like, residential schools taught us that it’s not OK?” Paquette said. “To be asking Indigenous people to share their favourite story or their favourite part of their culture that they don’t even have access to anymore is really insensitive.”
Paquette also thought it wasn’t appropriate for CIBC to suggest that she dress in traditional clothing as part of the application.
Go Public showed the CIBC application to experts in Indigenous recruitment work.
Patricia Baxter is a member of Sheguiandah First Nation and a board member with Indigenous Works, a non-profit organization that promotes inclusion and engagement of Indigenous people in Canadian workplaces. The group consults with a wide variety of companies across the country, including McDonald’s, Bell Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Baxter says that for a professional position within a financial institution, she doesn’t see the purpose of the question.
“What many Canadians don’t realize is that regalia isn’t just traditional clothing,” she said. “It’s a right to wear that clothing, and it’s a responsibility on how you use that clothing…. It’s very sacred and it’s attached to ceremony. So it’s not something you just put on.”
CIBC consults Indigenous group
Paquette says she was so upset by the questions that she decided to post her concerns to CIBC on Twitter.
She says she was surprised by the response. The bank said it has been working with a not-for-profit Indigenous organization, Our Children’s Medicine (OCM), and that the questions that offended Paquette had actually been designed in consultation with Indigenous community leaders and elders.
“The purpose of these questions is to help remove barriers that may exist as part of a traditional job application process by showcasing transferrable skills and potential, while giving Indigenous candidates the opportunity to share stories that are important to them,” CIBC said in a Twitter response to Paquette.
“We encourage candidates to simply say ‘prefer not to answer’ if they … don’t feel comfortable with any specific questions.”
After Paquette shared her thoughts on social media, the regalia reference was removed from the CIBC application.
Go Public contacted the bank to ask more about the thought process behind the questions.
“At CIBC we are committed to taking steps to ensure our workforce reflects the communities where we live and work and to removing barriers that may exist through traditional job application processes,” Trish Tervit, CIBC’S director of public affairs, wrote in an emailed statement.
Tervit said CIBC’s relationship with OCM has been instrumental in creating relationships with First Nations, Métis and Inuit job-seekers and that the bank has hired more than 70 Indigenous people through its Indigenous recruitment program.
What CIBC didn’t say is that OCM wrote the questions on the application.
Go Public contacted OCM. In a statement, the organization confirmed that the questions were created “in consultation with Indigenous elders, knowledge keepers and other members of the community.”
The statement, sent to Go Public from one of the group’s managers, Kelly Hashemi, said that OCM’s application process “is crafted to allow hiring managers to identify lived, cultural and transferable skills which get lost during a traditional ‘corporate’ application and interview process.”
OCM said it’s a registered charity in Toronto that works with employers to “implement our hiring process at their companies and create action plans to learn from, engage with and attract talent from the Indigenous community.”
‘A learning experience’
An expert who spoke to Go Public says the situation is an opportunity for all businesses in Canada — not just non-Indigenous groups — to learn something and to recognize that any organization can make a mistake.
“Just because you’re an Indigenous person, Indigenous organization or Indigenous company doesn’t mean you’ve got some magical perspective on everything,” said Kelly Lendsay, who is Cree and Métis, and president and CEO of Indigenous Works, based in Saskatoon.
Lendsay says recruiters should ask open-ended questions, such as, “Tell me something you’re proud of,” and then leave it up to applicants to bring up stories about their culture or experience if they choose.
“Someone might say, you know, ‘I’m really proud of the fact that I chair the food bank,'” Lendsay said. “Another person says, ‘I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve reconnected with my culture to learn powwow dancing. I’m a fancy dancer.'”
While he commends the efforts of CIBC and OCM to help Indigenous people enter the banking sector, Lendsay says there’s room to grow.
“They’re obviously making good efforts here. But we have to listen to this, to Christine, and take that feedback and make the changes,” Lendsay said. “We don’t want employers to be turned off by … these stories. Let’s use it as a learning experience.”
Strategy in action
More than a decade ago, Calgary-based organization ECO Canada consulted with Indigenous Works — then called the Aboriginal Human Resource Council — to create a concrete strategy to break down barriers faced by Indigenous people looking to enter the workforce, particularly in the environmental sector.
The organization launched a weeks-long program called BEAHR, available to Indigenous community members looking to learn new skills in order to boost their chances of finding employment in that field. More than 4,000 participants from over 250 Indigenous communities across Canada have graduated from the program since its inception, and it’s caught the attention of employers across the country looking to develop their own recruitment policies.
“It’s a very complex issue, and it’s an issue where cultural sensitivity is very important,” said Yogendra Chaudhry, ECO Canada’s vice-president of professional services.
When it comes to job applications, Chaudhry says, the process should have a consistent set of questions for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups.
“If you design two separate sets of questions … then you’re not looking at the inclusion part,” he said. “You’re still working with two separate systems and then trying to integrate the workers.”
Chaudhry says his organization is focused on creating meaningful and long-term employment, rather than looking at plans to create a diverse workplace as one-off opportunities or PR strategies.
As for Paquette, she says she supports the idea of companies, like CIBC, investing in diversifying their workforce. But she says the only questions related to an applicant’s Indigeneity should be whether the person identifies as First Nations, Métis or Inuit. The rest, she says, should be left out of the hiring equation.
“I think it’s great to encourage Indigenous people to show off their culture and be who they are,” Paquette said. “But to … ask them to do it just for you to land an interview, I don’t think that was appropriate at all.”
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