Few federal employees taking part in Indigenous training sessions from public service school

An orange flag flies on the flagpole of a federal building in Ottawa on Thursday. (Frédéric Pepin/CBC - image credit)
An orange flag flies on the flagpole of a federal building in Ottawa on Thursday. (Frédéric Pepin/CBC - image credit)

The federal government offers its employees a variety of Indigenous cultural awareness and sensitivity programs through the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS), but participation in the optional sessions is relatively low.

The CSPS offers 15 different training sessions on Indigenous issues known as the Indigenous Training Series, but fewer than a fifth of public servants have attended any one session, according to the numbers from CSPS, which were included in a response to an order paper question submitted by NDP MP Bonita Zarrillo.

The most-attended session, called Reflecting on Cultural Bias: Indigenous Perspectives, has seen 51,430 public servants participate as of June this year.

According to the Treasury Board of Canada, the federal government employed as many as 319,601 people in 2021, meaning the training session with the highest attendance had roughly 16 per cent of public servants take part.

Other sessions, including Taking Steps Towards Indigenous Reconciliation, saw participation rates lower than one per cent, with little more than 1,000 participants.

'Disappointing, but not surprising': former bureaucrat

Employees in Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada are required to complete 15 hours of culturally competent learning each year, according to a department spokesperson.

But there is no government-wide directive for mandatory training on Indigenous topics, the Treasury Board said in response to the same order paper question.

Low participation rates in the training sessions are "disappointing, but not surprising," said Letitia Wells, a former federal employee and plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit alleging systemic discrimination in the federal public service.

"Confronting racism when you are part of an organization that has that very racism embedded as part of its culture is painful," Wells said in an emailed statement.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call to action 57 says governments should provide public servants with education on the history of Indigenous people, including residential schools, Indigenous law and Crown relations.

A statement from Treasury Board President Mona Fortier's office said that CSPS provides a number of training resources on Indigenous topics, but departments are responsible for determining what is made mandatory. The statement also said some organizations have mandate specific training.

WATCH | Progress on TRC's calls to action moving slower than hoped:

But Chris Aylward, the national president of PSAC, Canada's largest public service union, said the Treasury Board has refused to accept mandatory training on Indigenous issues at the bargaining table in the past.

"These low participation rates reinforce our call for mandatory training on systemic racism, Indigenous issues and harassment for all federal public service workers and managers," Aylward said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national organization representing the Inuit, said it's working with CSPS to develop mandatory training for public servants.

"We are working with the Canada School of Public Service to develop and deliver training that is mandatory for all public servants and provides essential information about Inuit in Canada and the role that public servants must take in fostering and supporting the Inuit-Crown partnership," a statement from the ITK said.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

NDP MP Lori Idlout said it's "unfortunate" that the optional sessions haven't seen more uptake, and she was surprised to learn government-wide mandatory sessions aren't already in place.

"For too long, the history about how Indigenous Peoples in Canada have been treated [has] been hidden or ignored," Idlout, who represents the riding of Nunavut, told CBC News.

"These kinds of statistics show that there is still a lot of work to do to ensure there is a greater understanding of why these relationships [between governments and Indigenous people] are so important."

RCMP among lowest in takeup

The RCMP has seen some of the lowest participation numbers of all government departments and agencies, with even lower numbers among uniformed officers.

Of 19,000 regular RCMP members, only 61 took the cultural bias training mentioned above, while 223 out of more than 8,300 RCMP public servants took the same course. Only four members of ministers' staff took the same cultural bias training.

Idlout said she often hears the government say it's committed to reconciliation, but commitment isn't enough.

"[Reconciliation] is so important now that we can't just expect to hear about governments' levels of commitments," she said.

"We need to move beyond empathy and make sure we're working toward action."