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Employment Counselling for Indigenous People

As a counsellor, you need a clear understanding of the challenges Indigenous people face when preparing to look for employment or take part in further education. 

These challenges are very real and may contribute to lower labour force participation and higher unemployment rates. However, many Indigenous people have overcome challenges, achieved educational goals, developed solid job search skills, and enjoyed positive work experiences.

You will need to consider how to help Indigenous clients with work search and employment discrimination. You may also need to support employed clients as they learn to manage the transition to the workplace.

Helping Indigenous clients with career planning

Identifying career goals may be a challenge for Indigenous people. While career planning is often difficult for clients in general, it has particular impact on Indigenous people because they are a group whose traditional career opportunities have changed considerably. Some clients may find it hard to balance their desire to give back to their community while trying to achieve personally satisfying work.

Other clients may have limited exposure to the variety of occupations they might consider. They may be inclined to focus on occupations they have had direct contact with or have seen other Indigenous people involved in.

It is important to help clients consider a variety of careers in order to broaden their view of work options. Taking part in job shadowing, co-op experiences, and internships offers hands-on exposure to a variety of work options.

Guiding Circles

Indigenous clients who have not had the chance to gain work experience often have trouble relating their life experiences and skills to the opportunities in the labour market. Culturally sensitive counselling tools will help Indigenous clients make appropriate career choices.

The Guiding Circles program provided by Indigenous Works offers an effective approach to holistic career planning with Indigenous people. The tool combines traditional teaching with sound contemporary career development exercises. It can help clients better understand themselves in terms of possible career goals.

In using the Guiding Circles program, consider:

  • Approach. Use a client-centred approach that engages clients wherever they are at in life, at the moment. Be creative, flexible, and innovative. Use a holistic approach and involve clients at all levels.
  • Working relationship. Find common ground with clients. Set clear goals and objectives. Emphasize that it is a collaborative process, and make sure that it is.
  • Reflection and action. Encourage clients to take time for reflection. Ask them if what they have been doing is working. If not, ask them if they might want to try something different. Emphasize the importance of the journey to clients who don’t think they have time for reflection and are anxious just to get a job.
  • Boundaries. Create a climate of emotional safety for clients. Encourage them to share only what they are comfortable with. Give them permission to stop if they seem to reach an uncomfortable level of self-disclosure.
  • Connections. Encourage clients to focus on what they have, not what they are missing, especially with regard to family, social groups, and friends.
  • Patterns. Encourage clients to talk about their involvement in hobbies or leisure activities. Facilitate the storytelling process, but don’t direct it. Capture clients’ stories and details with their permission.
  • Values. Help clients identify values that are important to them.
  • Understanding. Help clients review and understand what they have learned about themselves. Help them become aware that who they are relates directly to what they might do in both work and life.
  • Planning. Help clients articulate where they want to go (their vision) if they have not yet done so. Help them relate their action planning to their vision. Any action that they take has the potential to move them closer to or farther from their vision.
  • Clients’ journeys. Help clients understand that their journey is not likely to be in a straight line. Emphasize that people don’t need to know everything before they start taking small steps. Let clients know that their vision will evolve as they learn more. Their career journey is taken a step at a time, with each new step helping to clarify the next steps.

In addition to the Guiding Circles resource, Indigenous Works also provides supports for career counsellors and several programs through partnerships to advance the Indigenous workforce.

Combining Indigenous values with careers

When making a career decision, Indigenous clients may wish to consider how they will maintain their cultural identity while living and working in the dominant society. Achieving this goal requires a commitment of time and energy that must be factored into clients’ career decisions and work lifestyle.

Knowing who you are—"Never create a ‘greater than and less than’ dynamic. Know who you are and where you come from and know your own boundaries and effectively maintain them. Listen, let go and be a role model."

It may be helpful to raise the issue by asking clients these questions:

  • What kinds of activities do you want to be involved in?
  • Where do these activities take place?
  • Do they require a rural lifestyle or an urban lifestyle?
  • Do these activities place a limit on the distance you might want to be away from your family or from a particular reserve, settlement, or organization?
  • If you are in an urban area, will you encourage your family to speak an Indigenous language at home?
  • How will you maintain emotional closeness with your extended family while living away from them?
  • How will you make sure that the customs, values, and attitudes that are important to you are passed between generations?
  • What cultural activities can you take part in when you are in the city?

Helping Indigenous clients with work search


Entrepreneurship is growing in Indigenous communities. Opportunities are developing through ventures and collaboration with existing companies. The concept of inclusive economic growth as an important aspect of reconciliation is gaining ground. As with the majority of Canadian businesses, most Indigenous enterprises are micro-businesses that have anywhere from 1 to 4 employees. And most of these enterprises produce goods and provide services to local consumers.

Business Link offers specialized support to Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs across Alberta.

Helping Indigenous clients with discrimination

While measures have been taken to address discrimination and improve employment opportunities for Indigenous people, these efforts must continue. Discrimination can feed a destructive cycle in which an Indigenous person withdraws or else responds with hostility. Negative stereotypes for both sides may be confirmed.

Discrimination can be a serious impediment to Indigenous employment. The factors that contribute to discrimination include:

  • Overt racial intolerance
  • Ignorance of Indigenous customs
  • Prejudice as a result of stereotyping
  • Misinterpretation of Indigenous shyness and lack of assertiveness

To help Indigenous clients deal with discrimination, become familiar with provisions set out by the following legislation:

To help clients overcome racism and stereotyping, encourage clients to:

  • Find or foster a strong sense of community among other Indigenous and non-Indigenous people
  • Educate others about racism by dispelling myths and false images
  • Focus on accurate facts and details
  • Practise assertive communication to deal with concerns as soon as they arise
  • Rehearse situations by role-playing
  • Record specific events in a diary to relieve stress and to maintain records
  • Work through negative feelings with family, friends, and Elders or Knowledge Keepers
  • Contact an appropriate authority, including the Human Rights Commission (federal or provincial)

Talking about Indigenous heritage with potential employers

Indigenous clients may need some support in thinking ahead about how to present their heritage to potential employers. Encourage them to plan in advance whether or not they will talk about their Indigenous heritage. Be sure they understand that it may be of benefit to acknowledge Indigenous heritage. Many employers may be seeking Indigenous employees.

Providing employment supports

Indigenous workers usually can be placed into 1 of 2 groups: those who are relatively familiar with the work ethic and social customs of the dominant society and those who are not. Both groups commonly experience racial prejudice and discrimination.

Family values—“Aboriginal values that place families and children before competitive advantage and financial gain may be in conflict with some work environments.”

Typical workforce culture and the traditional culture of an Indigenous job seeker or employee are often strikingly different. Many Indigenous people are used to a co-operative work style. An environment that involves a more competitive work style may be less satisfying to Indigenous workers.

Conflicts between family and workplace values can be a source of confusion, stress, and isolation. Many Indigenous people are accustomed to the support of a close network of family and friends. This fact, coupled with the relocation that they often experience in order to take work, can magnify their feelings that the workplace is unfriendly, cold, and unsupportive.

2 key retention strategies to help Indigenous employees are job orientations and mentoring relationships.

Job orientations

You can help new employees by making them aware of the importance and benefits of orientations. Orientations offer valuable information on workplace safety. They also clarify policies, such as how to report absences due to illness or family events. Some smaller organizations may not have formal orientations to the job. In these cases, let clients know what questions they can ask to find out about the organization in their first few weeks on the job.

You can help clients anticipate challenges they might encounter in the workplace and identify strategies to address them. For example, a client may have obligations to a large extended family. Attendance at family events may conflict with attendance at work. Through orientation, clients can become aware of organization policies on absences and overtime. This will help them understand expectations, have confidence asking questions about the policies, and make conscious decisions about work-life balance and responsibilities.

Introducing clients to mentorship

Mentorships can help new employees become successful by providing social support and useful information, such as where to go for coffee and lunch breaks. Otherwise, new employees might not ask for social information at work and may end up feeling isolated and lonely.

Finding an experienced employee in the workplace to act as a mentor can be both an encouragement and a vital form of support for your client. You can facilitate this process with employers, especially when there is no formal mentorship program. It is important for mentors who volunteer to be committed to the mentoring relationship and familiar with the informal side of the organization.

When orientation and mentoring are in place, new employees are more likely to stay and succeed in the workplace. Orientations, provided by the employer, address the more formal side of employment. Mentoring relationships take care of the informal side and establish a more inclusive environment.

Supporting growth

The success of Indigenous people continues to grow as they achieve higher levels of education and employment. You can support this growth by:

  • Continuing to take time to get to know your clients
  • Becoming aware of Indigenous culture
  • Not assuming that every Indigenous person subscribes to any or all traditional cultural practices
  • Maintaining a list of community resources and opportunities to help clients develop their careers
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