Indigenous Peoples place a high value on caring for sick, disabled and elderly community members.
Yet, the unique perspectives and experiences of Indigenous employees are often overlooked or excluded as they struggle to juggle work and caregiving activities.
These are among the observations of a joint research project being conducted by Brock University and the Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre.
Launched last year, the project examines the experiences of people in Niagara’s First Nations community who provide care to elderly or disabled adults while being employed full time.
“There’s a lot to learn about how Indigenous Peoples perceive and conceptualize care and eldercare in a workplace that is led by Indigenous values,” says Eva Jewell, an Anishinaabe Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Brock University who is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ryerson University.
Jewell is co-leading the research along with Andrea Doucet, Canada Research Chair in Gender Work and Care and Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Brock University.
Karen Hilston, Life Long Care Co-ordinator with the Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre (FENFC), says care work is especially valued and held in high esteem in Indigenous organizations. In her Centre, leaders take a case-by-case approach to supporting staff who are caregivers.
“Working for an Indigenous organization, we know that self-care is one of the most important aspects of being a front-line worker,” she says.
Last year, Brock and the FENFC held two focus group consultations with urban First Nations members and Centre support workers in which they discussed their experiences balancing caregiving duties and paid employment.
The discussions “were in the style of a sharing circle rather than formal, researcher top-down questions,” says master’s student Jessica Falk, who is on the research team.
Several themes emerged from the sharing circles.
First Nations and other Indigenous Peoples are from “relationship-based societies” oriented to kinship ties and care for elders, says Jewell.
These ties exist beyond immediate relatives, says Hilston. “You will see people take on responsibilities for other people who are not necessarily blood family but it’s a key community value.”
Putting the sick and elderly in institutions such as long-term care facilities is not an option for most caregivers, says Hilston.
“If you have elders who have come from a residential school, the last place you’d want to put them is in a nursing home,” she says. “You have to be aware of the past, you have to know and understand intergenerational trauma that has happened.”
Also emerging from the sharing circles were “unique social determinants of health that are different than other people living in Canada,” says Falk.
For example, Indigenous Peoples in Canada are three to five times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, she says. Differences in health stem from the legacies of residential schools and colonialism, systemic racism and household demographics such as income level.
These and other unique perspectives and experiences need to be incorporated into workplace policies so as to best support Indigenous employees as they care for loved ones, say the researchers.
Doucet says the research team is currently writing up what they learned from the sharing circles of urban First Nations caregivers.
The next step is for the team to make recommendations on how Indigenous perspectives can be added to the Canadian Caregiver Inclusive and Accommodating Workplace (CIAW) Standard.
“We want to enhance the Standard to include these culturally sensitive and culturally adaptable perspectives, to ensure the needs of Indigenous care employees in the Niagara region are met,” says Doucet.
The CIAW Standard outlines gender-sensitive, caregiver-friendly practices that guide employers, human resource professionals and others to support employee-caregivers in a wide variety of workplaces.
The Brock University and Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre research project is part of a larger initiative – headquartered at McMaster University and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – to scale up the Standard.
This is the second collaboration between the partners. In 2018, the FENFC-Brock team conducted research into barriers that Indigenous residents face in gaining employment, as well as supports that can help people obtain and remain in jobs. Their research included conducting focus groups/sharing circles (two with youth and two with adults) as well as interviewing area employers.
That study found that Indigenous people are better able to advocate for employment, well-being and prosperity if they have access to cultural education and support networks, either through family or the broader Indigenous community.