“A place for us too”: Indigenous IT recruitment in the Government of Canada

by: that public servant | | Share

For the past four years, a team at Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) has been using a straightforward approach to help increase Indigenous representation in the Government of Canada’s (GC) information technology fields. Although there is still a lot of work left to do to increase Indigenous representation in the GC, there have been some promising results.

The recruiters

“We’ve been trying to make it easier for Indigenous people across the country to come and share their skills and talents with us, and we’re doing that in ways that are not typical in the GC hiring process.”

I had the chance to chat with James Heffernan, Tracy McClellan, and Kevin Lagace of the Office of Indigenous Initiatives at ESDC to gain some intel into their recruitment methods. "We’ve been trying to make it easier for Indigenous people across the country to come and share their skills and talents with us, and we’re doing that in ways that are not typical in the GC hiring process," explained James Heffernan, Executive Director of the Indigenous Recruitment and Engagement Team.

So, what’s the strategy? Is it some sort of confidential, hush-hush, government initiative that only the highest executives are in the loop about? Nope. In fact, the team employs some straightforward approaches:

Recruitment program

The experience gained in the first three years of working in this way, during which time over 90 Indigenous people were hired from across the country, led to the capstone program that is now the team’s primary focus: the IT Apprenticeship Program for Indigenous Peoples. The program creates opportunities for Indigenous people who have a passion and an interest in working in the information technology community within the GC.

This first-of-its-kind program launched by the Office of Indigenous Initiatives within the Innovation, Information Technology Branch (IITB) at ESDC accepts participants with a high school diploma or a GED, while creating a supportive and integrated learning environment within which apprentices can learn and grow.

Once hired, apprentices start in entry-level IT positions in government and immediately begin immersive two-year employment terms. The apprentices shadow IT veterans, or "peer partners" four days a week. The remaining day of the work week is dedicated to online learning, using materials to help bolster apprentices’ personal and professional development. The program also provides mentorship and weekly Sharing Circles, to make sure that every apprentice feels supported during their apprenticeship journey.

The program was launched in a pilot mode at the end of 2020. At the time, the team’s vision, and initial success with Indigenous recruitment within ESDC struck a chord with central agencies and CIOs in the GC community. To date, 31 departments and agencies have expressed interest in hosting apprentices. Since April 1, 2021, over 100 applications from Indigenous individuals have been received; 25 have been hired and placements for another 50 others are being sought. The program team is working collaboratively with central agencies to finalize program details and ready the initiative for government-wide launch.

Another exciting aspect of the program is that it’s not strictly tied to the GC. In fact, the team is receiving interest from the private sector—organizations intent on donating critical resources to support the program and, importantly, to hire apprentices who graduate from it—as well as not-for-profit and academic sector leaders, such as the Information and Communications Technology Council and the Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Diversity and Inclusion. Across the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors, there’s a strong sense that this program has the potential to create long‑lasting, positive social and economic change.

Importantly, the program is also receiving a lot of support from Indigenous organizations and communities. The First Nations Technical Institute, one of Canada’s oldest and largest Indigenous-controlled post-secondary institutes, is working with program coordinators to ensure that the program’s training curriculum is infused with Indigenous knowledge and is delivered in ways that meet the needs of Indigenous learners. There’s also the Native Women’s Association of Canada, which is helping ensure that the program responds to the needs of Indigenous women and gender-diverse people.

Firsthand accounts

As ambitious as the program is, I wanted to get a sense of how it’s directly impacted Indigenous employees, so I was excited to have the opportunity to talk with a few public servants that went through both the current and early phases of the program. Not only was it an opportunity to get their feedback on the program itself, but I gained valuable insight as to what Indigenous representation means to them and how it can be improved in the GC.

Jordan Jackson
Automated Deployment Services Team, ESDC

Jordan Jackson, a Métis from Winnipeg, Manitoba was recruited to ESDC in 2018 through what would eventually become the IT Apprenticeship Program for Indigenous Peoples. He eventually got a full-time position and is now part of the Automated Deployment Services Team, where he helps ensure that teams within ESDC get the applications they need.

“It was the best decision I could’ve made for me and my family. I couldn’t recommend it more, especially for those who really enjoy technology and learning enterprise systems.”

"It was the best decision I could’ve made for me and my family. I couldn’t recommend it more, especially for those who really enjoy technology and learning enterprise systems." For Jordan, Indigenous representation helps shape how government and the public service looks, behaves, and handles itself: "It’s important that these unique perspectives are brought forward to help shape the future of projects, and fundamentally of government and its priorities. Change happens from the inside, and this is a great opportunity to do so."

When asked how the GC could improve Indigenous representation in its workforce, Jordan explained that we need to "Identify and collaborate with communities and organizations to find solutions that work and build trust. We need to ask what we can do for those we’re recruiting—not just for the individual, but for the community behind that individual."

Noodloo Pishuktie
Innovation and Technology Branch, ESDC

Noodloo Pishuktie

Noodloo Pishuktie, an Inuk woman living in Gatineau, Quebec, was recruited to ESDC through community outreach three years ago. Now a Project Officer with the Office of Indigenous Initiatives, she works on recruitment for the program.

Noodloo was pretty surprised when she saw James and his team come to her community to talk GC recruitment: "When I was growing up, we wouldn’t really see government employees come to us and promote the public service to us. But James and his team were friendly, gracious, and kind, and told us that a career in the GC was possible, so here I am!" When asked if she would recommend the new Apprenticeship Program to others, her eyes lit up: "Absolutely! In the beginning, there were a lot of unknowns, but throughout my time here, everyone has been completely supportive. And I love the work."

“Having a voice at the table and being able to give our feedback is how we can all move forward together.”

According to Noodloo, Indigenous recruitment in the GC is critical to the health and well-being of Indigenous communities: "Having a voice at the table and being able to give our feedback is how we can all move forward together. It also promotes economic growth and diversity. Our communities lack opportunities, so being able to provide those opportunities has been an honour. To be heard and seen and to ensure that others are as well has been a privilege."

David (Jamie) Boomhour
Apprentice in the IT Apprenticeship Program for Indigenous Peoples

David (Jamie) Boomhour

In the winter of 2020, David (Jamie) Boomhour was at a professional crossroads. Up until that point in his career, most of his jobs were in warehouse settings and retail, but his real passion had always been technology. It was tough to find a job as part of the digital workforce, though, because Jamie didn’t meet the education requirements most positions called for.

That’s when Jamie, a member of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, a First Nations community in eastern Ontario, learned about the IT Apprenticeship Program. He applied and is now officially an apprentice. The ability to work hands-on with the computer equipment in the office is "a learning environment that is much better than sitting in a classroom day in and day out."

Jamie’s grateful for the opportunity, as he couldn’t afford to go back to school to gain similar skills: "This program has been a life-changing opportunity for me. With the knowledge and training I’m gaining as an apprentice I can already see the doors opening up for me and I see a greater future ahead."

"A place for us too"

Although it’s already making an impact, the program isn’t formally scheduled to launch until this summer. But as James and his team have developed it over the years, one of the things they’re most proud of is a certain level of trust they’ve built with various Indigenous communities and organizations—and the results are encouraging.

“With this program, the GC has a unique ability to become an incubator of digital Indigenous talent in Canada..”

Over the last three years, they’ve shown that better results are possible by doing things differently and by focussing on an individual’s passion and potential. But for James, this is just the tip of the iceberg: "We can leverage our position in government to really advance the process of reconciliation. With this program, the GC has a unique ability to become an incubator of digital Indigenous talent in Canada, with some apprentices also taking jobs in the private sector, in their home communities, or to become entrepreneurs to support the goal of Indigenous self‑determination."

Noodloo powerfully summed up the sentiment: "I have Indigenous friends back home that have joined the GC and are enjoying it as much as I am. Representation matters because at the end of the day, this is a place for us too."

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