Indigenous Perspectives on Health and Safety

Intro: CCOHS is situated upon the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. This land is covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabek to share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. We further acknowledge that this land is covered by the Between the Lakes Purchase, 1792, between the Crown and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.


Hello and welcome to Health and Safety To Go, a CCOHS podcast. We are joined in this episode by Jeff Robert, an HR practitioner based in Thunder Bay, Ontario with a background in Organizational Design Theory, to get some perspective on how health and safety is evolving in First Nations communities.

It's a nuanced topic, and in exploring what sets up health and safety initiatives for longevity, we want to be sure that we're asking the right questions about bandwidth, resources, ways of looking at health and safety, and measures of success.

Jeff, thanks for joining us today to share your expertise.

Jeff Robert: Thanks for having me, Ashley.

Ashley: So, tell us a little bit about the work that you do with independent First Nations and with your company, Workplace Ki. What does it mean to be an indigenous HR practitioner?

Jeff: Thanks, Ashley. My work with independent First Nations is as an HR advisor directly with independent First Nations. So that's a tribal council that's based over in Akwesasne. The other work that I do with organizational design deals with First Nation health and safety, human resources that starts from a First Nation perspective. Beginning with conversations with the community and the elders.

Ashley: What are some of the complexities and challenges that indigenous communities face when they're implementing health and safety initiatives?

Jeff: The biggest challenge communities face when implementing health and safety initiatives has to deal with the distinction of health and safety as a long-run project versus the money that's available.

First Nations experience a lot of challenges accessing continuous funding. Lots of the time, health and safety is a project-based funding, whereas communities see things not through the lens of just an individual project. Rather it's about the community first. It's really about taking care of community first and that's where the big challenge comes to implementing health and safety in community.

I was recently doing a forum regarding Bill C-65, workplace violence and harassment, with some indigenous communities, and this really shows the challenges that are faced in community. When we asked, “how do we start addressing violence and harassment in the community?” one response from one person was “we can't address violence and harassment in the community until we address housing”. Communities really see the interconnectedness of everything that that we do. However, the funding isn't sustainable or long-term. We try to fix one thing and then something else goes.

It's like maintaining your house. If you're so busy, maintaining your house trying to keep on the lights, the lawn never gets cut and health and safety's like that lawn. Everyone has a responsibility to deal with the care and maintenance the lawn, anyone can go out there and cut the lawn. And it's something that has to be done on a regular basis, but if you're so busy trying to keep on the lights or fixing a leaky pipe because you only have so much time for a particular project, those long run, and health and safety isn't very difficult, it's lots of just regular maintenance, that regular maintenance stuff falls to the wayside.

That would be the biggest challenge for indigenous communities. They can get that lawn cut once in a while, bring in a project, get it started, but to maintain it creates a larger and more complex issue.

Ashley: There has to be a bandwidth to continue to focus on the initiative if I'm understanding correctly.

And there are other issues that come up that just take precedence, is that fair to say?

Jeff: That's exactly it. Those other projects and those other priorities, sometimes you receive funding, and the project only gives you six months. So, you're taking resources from other projects, just to complete one initiative. And that creates extra pressures and sometimes those things that should be low-hanging fruit, like making sure that everyone's healthy and safe, doesn't become a priority, because everything is a priority on First Nation, in First Nation communities.

But when everything becomes priority, certain things do fall to the wayside and health and safety, and unfortunately in many communities, that's what falls to the wayside. And then we catch up again, but because other priorities take over again, it becomes more and more challenging.

Ashley: And, would you say, does that affect the community's feeling toward, you know, to see a project come in, start up, and then ultimately not be able to continue? Does it dampen enthusiasm for new projects?

Jeff: The enthusiasm never dampens for new projects. What does dampen is the people that are available to work.

Ashley: Right.

Jeff: Sometimes you'll bring in certain people that have that knowledge base in health and safety, or HR or economic development and then the funding ends. And those people have to step away from the community.

Ashley: Right.

Jeff: Or sometimes it's because of location. Certain individuals are just filling roles because they have the minimum knowledge, and they need time to get up to speed to get proficient at the project. So again, using health and safety...

Ashley: In order to help it succeed?

Jeff: Exactly! And that's the big difference between a large corporation. When you start stepping into the First Nation communities, many times, we're just struggling to keep the lights on and keep things up and running and get it to the point where we are finally feeling sustainable and somebody shifts a priority, pulls the rug out from under us, and things start falling a little further behind.

Ashley: So, when you think about some examples of successful indigenous-led health and safety initiatives, what are some of the factors that made them succeed? Or how did they overcome these challenges? Or were those challenges a factor in those cases?

Jeff: Many of the successful health and safety initiatives that are out there from a First Nation perspective is usually in partnership with a large corporation or they've reached this tipping point where they can really maintain outside programs and internal structures.

So, if you look at the First Nation community of Rama and Casino Rama and all the work that they do out there, it's not just a health and safety program. It's a health and safety program that starts from an indigenous perspective. Same with Glooscap First Nation, their health and safety program is a program that visits all of their different ventures and does great work.

And one of the longest running programs out there, with Peguis Construction, in Peguis First Nation out in Manitoba area. They've done great work. Again, focusing on the economic development and being able to maintain a health and safety program that is even COR® certified, which is absolutely phenomenal.

Ashley: What does that mean, COR® certified?

Jeff: COR® Certified is a certification within the construction industry that ensures the highest standard. So, these are predominantly provincially regulated and, this is starting to jump in another direction for health and safety from a First Nation perspective, it is the complexity of jurisdiction. Where First Nations have a federal jurisdiction and then also, operating on reserve, there's a high potential that there's a provincial jurisdiction component. So, COR® certification is a certification program out in the prairie areas that's coming towards Ontario, that deals with construction.

Ashley: Okay, thank you. So, is there anything else? What should our listeners know about in the Indigenous perspective on health and safety? Or are there any projects that you're working on that you'd like to draw some attention to?

Jeff: The big thing that I would like anyone to know when it comes to health and safety and Indigenous HR projects is that indigenous HR and health and safety, it's not a bolt-on.

It starts from community. It starts with the indigenous perspective and starts applying those health and safety principles. And that's the only way that it makes it truly effective and a great project for the community to build on. Because if we treat health and safety, HR, and other projects as just, the institutional current way of thinking and then bolt on indigenous world views, or First Nation world views, we're not giving the proper respect and starting from the right perspective of a First Nation community.

Ashley: That's helpful. Thank you, Jeff.

Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Jeff: They can take a look at to take a look at my personal work on organizational design from a traditional perspective. And for independent First Nations, you can go to and see more about how we're approaching First Nation Tribal Council.

Ashley: Thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your expertise.

Jeff: Thank you, Ashley. It's been a pleasure doing this with you.

Ashley: Thanks so much! And for more information on all things occupational health and safety you can visit our website at

Thanks for listening.