"Reconciliation and the Future of Work"
I had the privilege of joining an incredible panel of community leaders at Urban Workers' Vancouver Skillshare Event, which provided a day of learning and dialogue for freelancers, contract workers and solopreneurs. Here is a copy of my prepared remarks:
While the glossy brochures for my graduate program had promised many things, this reality wasn’t one of them. It was a Friday night, and having just donned my green apron, I was puzzling over the number of pumps of sugary syrup that made up the latest concoction produced by a corporate caffeine chain that shall remain nameless. By night I was part of the espresso assembly line, by day a recent graduate who had unexpectedly become a freelancer.
When I used to envision consultants I pictured someone far further in their careers, having just completed a stretch in government or atop the corporate ladder. But it wasn’t the ability to meet the demands for project deliverables that was the primary source of my anxiety - it was the ability to make sense of an employment structure markedly different from that which we were conditioned to expect throughout our schooling. Being outside of this norm presented unanticipated challenges not covered in textbooks: How do I bill for my work, and what is a reasonable rate? Where do I go for medical and dental coverage? It was the style of work, not the work itself, that posed the most questions to me during this time.
I’ve come to grasp some of these intricacies, but larger questions persist. We exist in a society whose systems have been crafted around outdated perceptions of the workforce and the economy more broadly - there are far fewer farmers in the fields and far fewer faces along the assembly line than there once were, trends only exacerbated by the rise of automation and increasingly, AI. If the age of corporate-branded windbreaks and holiday turkeys is on the decline and contract-based work is becoming the new norm, this represents a societal shift that will demand more than increasing the seating capacity of local coffeeshops and co-working spaces.
These debates around the future of work, like all debates around the rapidly changing dynamics of the world around us, disproportionately impact Indigenous peoples in this country. Indigenous peoples are the fastest growing demographic in Canada, with close to half of Indigenous peoples under the age of 25. According to the interim report of the Expert Panel on Youth Employment organized by the federal government last year:
“Indigenous youth had poorer employment rates than their non-Indigenous peers (43.6% versus 60.5%) and were much less likely to participate in the labour market. Indigenous youth living on-reserve fared even worse, with an employment rate of 21.7%, compared to a rate of 50.3% for Indigenous youth living off-reserve.”
The time has come to disrupt these trajectories. University degree attainment of Indigenous students has doubled over the last decade, with a generation of smart, strong Indigenous women (twice as likely as Indigenous men to earn a university degree) leading the way. Grounded in and proud of their teachings and cultures, Indigenous youth are overcoming considerable barriers (including the intergenerational impacts of the residential school system and persistent funding gaps in services for Indigenous and non Indigenous youth) to make incredible contributions to their communities and to this country. Indigenous youth will soon come to represent one of the largest entrants into our workforce, and many of the conversations we are having here today are critical to ensuring that the workplace of the future is one that provides space for these bright minds to recognize their bold visions for an inclusive, innovative and just future for all Canadians.
In this way, reimagining the future of work in this country can be a meaningful step in our collective reconciliation journey. In building the necessary supports to make the freelance model a more viable option for all Canadians, it will provide a strong alternative for those who seek to craft a career rooted in values-aligned projects within a schedule that aligns with other priorities within their lives. For Indigenous youth, this may translate into the freedom to choose whether to relocate to an urban centre or maintain roots within their home communities, pursue entrepreneurial opportunities that address the specific needs within their communities, or have the ability to return to home communities for times of spiritual and cultural significance. Seeing these changes become a reality will require us to address unacceptable gaps in education funding for Indigenous youth (a gap which former TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond places as high as 30%) and provide increased support for Indigenous entrepreneurship.
In envisioning a strong freelancer future as a form of reconciliation, we will in turn create a work environment that is more responsive, adaptive and resilient for all Canadians. It will create a society in which 9 to 5 becomes 8 hours built around sunny afternoons and family dinners, in which meaningful time with aging loved ones is possible, and in which connections to community are strengthened. And who wouldn’t want to live in a world like that?