The Call to Action: Facilitating the Development of an Employee Value Proposition at the Cree School Board

Retaining and attracting top talent is critical for senior leaders and HR professionals everywhere, but add to that the challenge of enticing experienced professionals to relocate to remote locations such as northern Quebec, and the challenge becomes even greater.

Faced with this ongoing issue, the Cree School Board (CSB) decided to “get creative” in its quest to improve recruitment, keep employees engaged, and consequently retain staff.

The CSB is a unique school board.  It is one of the few school boards in Canada that has independent jurisdiction over education in its own First Nation territory.  The CSB provides education to students across nine communities in English, French and Cree and, with the defined purpose of instilling the Cree identity, provides lessons on Cree culture.

“Honouring the language and traditions within our school system is what makes us unique, and that’s where I believe we are a contributor to Cree Nation.” 

- Kimberly Quinn, Director of School Operations

Attracting high-calibre teachers who will stay, is key to ensuring the quality and consistency of the student experience, and fulfilling the vision of a successful and well-educated Cree Nation.  

“We have a sense of responsibility to build capacity for our youth to ensure that they receive the necessary education and learning that will carry them through life, so that they can come back and be responsible contributors to our Cree Nation and so that we can build capacity for our people.”

– Caroline Mark, Deputy Director General, Operations

The CSB offers some of the most innovative school programming in Canada. It has smaller classroom sizes that allow greater access for teachers to offer customized courses. This holds great potential as a fulfilling opportunity for education professionals.

Yet despite these many advantages, the CSB remains challenged with teacher turnover.  Attracting qualified teachers to take up positions in remote locations is consistently difficult. Then add to that the complexity of instructing in three different languages. Traditional strategies, such as newspaper ads and career fairs, were not delivering the desired results.

In 2017, the CSB Director of Human Resources, Natalie Petawabano, approached Boreala Management (a firm specializing in customized Human Resource solutions), to partner with them in the development of a strategy that would boost recruitment efforts.  During the initial review phase, it became clear that the strategy should incorporate not just a professional’s skills and passion for education, but also the overall experience – from the desire to impact Cree education, to the intrigue of living in the rugged north. This, it was felt, would be the best way to improve engagement and retention.

“Knowing that turnover was such a challenge, we realised that we would have to use some out-of-the-box thinking to come up with a new way of approaching how we attracted and retained our staff.”

– Natalie Petawabano, Director Human Resources

Building the CSB Employer Brand

In facilitated discussions with key stakeholders across the organization, it was clear that the CSB had some work to do to clearly define what drew people to work with them, and what compelled them to stay. 


With the aim of becoming an Employer of Choice, the selected approach was the development of a fully comprehensive Employee Value Proposition (EVP).


An EVP provides a truthful, compelling, and branded message that communicates why employees choose to work for and stay with an organization.A well-integrated Employee Value Proposition is a highly powerful recruitment, retention, and employee engagement tool that will help retain and motivate staff.


The CSB recognised that taking the time to properly define and communicate their EVP and the employee experiencecould dramatically increase employee engagement and motivation, bring up overall retention rates, and powerfully impact recruitment strategies and efforts.

Defining an Employee Value Proposition

Fundamentally, an EVP is made up of 2 parts, the first part being simply the Employee Value Proposition – what is an employee getting in the ‘deal’.  The second part is the EVP statement, which is a short and compelling statement that encompasses key messages.  This statement must be a true representation of the organizational culture, it must resonate with employees and reflect the reality of what it means to be part of the organization.  In contrast to a vision statement that defines a desired state, the EVP statement does not define where an organization is going, but rather describes where they are.

When considering the development of the Employee Value Proposition statement and accompanying materials, there are several elements to consider: 

The CSB Approach

Defining an Employee Value Proposition that truly reflects the culture of an organization requires consultation with a cross-section of employees from multiple demographics.


The CSB wanted to get to the core of what it means to be part of their organization, and the community as a whole.  As an organization that values collaboration and welcomes input from team members at all levels, focus groups were conducted with employees from: 

  • Senior Management

  • Support Staff

  • Teachers

  • Managers

A set of key questions was created to identify the motivators, attractors and specific challenges faced by the CSB and focus groups were conducted with stakeholders representing French, English and Cree-speaking employees. The groups were facilitated to ensure that representation could be achieved from all communities, as well as its staff in Montreal and Gatineau.  In communities where focus groups were not possible, paper/online surveys were provided.

“Consultation is an important part of our organizational and traditional culture, so it was key to include voices from all levels of the organization.  People were very open and participative, and really appreciated being part of the process 

-Natalie Petawabano, Director Human Resources.

What the Feedback Uncovered

Based on the results of the respondents, a quantitative and qualitative analysis was conducted.  The subsequent assessment of the data indicated that four main themes emerged as key factors for joining, staying with, and motivating employees at the Cree School Board.

Job Opportunity:  This emerged as the number one aspect that attracted people to the CSB. Working at the CSB means working with students of all ages in an environment where every position supports the community’s education. It means small class sizes and innovative school programs. It means having training opportunities to grow and develop skills. It means access to resources and new technologies.


Vision: The dedication to capacity building through education while maintaining and embracing the Cree culture and language were recognised a fundamental driver of an employee’s choice to join the CSB, and to stay despite challenges faced.  

“We are constantly trying to work towards a better future, so we do what it takes to get there.”

- Kimberly Quinn, Director of School Operations Cree School Board 

Environment: Community was a particularly strong topic that emerged across groups and all employment levels. For individuals originating from the community, many indicated that working in their community and being near their families were particularly important in their decision to join the organization. Also, for many non-local individuals, the community element was also extremely important. 

“You live a set of values here that are really reflected in the community; they are not just organizational values, they’re community values, so you step outside the office into the community and there’s a natural flow there.  You feel integrated into community life, so what you do in your day-to-day work is really contributing to the community.”

– Caroline Mark, Deputy Director General, Operations

Working Conditions: The pay and other financial benefits, such as the northern allowance, were often referenced by all demographics. The hours and overall work-life balance afforded by the CSB were identified as motivating factors for employees.

Additional Considerations 

Naturally, the inspirational part of the uncovering an EVP is identifying the most motivating factors underlying the employee experience.

However, a true evaluation must also review those factors which reveal the entire employee experience, including the things which are more mundane, or those which are less attractive.  The more realistic a picture about the actual employee experience identified, the better able the employer will be to attract employees who will fit with the culture and are most likely adapt and stay. Recognising the more challenging aspects to the employee experience also allows organizations to develop strategies to continue to build internal engagement.

The EVP assessment identified some challenges faced by the CSB, including:

  • Complex organizational structure, heavy in administration

  • Challenges in internal communications

  • Environment – although also seen a motivating element, some employees identified difficulties adapting to the environment

Defining a statement truly reflective of the CSB

After a thorough analysis of the organization’s employee experience, the CSB undertook an effort to develop a short, punchy statement that could encompass all that had been revealed through the analysis.

In order to develop the EVP, several working sessions were conducted with management with the objective of finding the most appropriate language and to develop a compelling statement that would entice people to join the organization.

Critical was settling on a statement that would resonate with all employees including Cree, French, and English, from support staff to teachers and professionals, to management.

Several versions of the EVP were developed and tested with a cross section of employees to ensure that CSB culture and values were accurately reflected.


Once a statement was finalized, significant effort was put into branding to create a look and feel for the EVP that would blend traditional with modern.  Again, focus groups were used to test options and involve stakeholders throughout the process.   

What resulted was an EVP that the CSB  is proud of:

Walk with Us: The Journey to Advance the Cree Nation 

Making an Impact

The EVP was launched internally at the CSB annual Leadership Forum in the fall of 2017. Along with branded materials, an accompanying video, when shown at the Forum, brought some employees to tears.

All managers received training on how to integrate the EVP into the workplace and how it could be used to bring employees together and reinforce employee engagement. 

The EVP is now a fundamental part of all talent attraction strategies, providing a foundation and a way of clearly articulating what it means to be part of the CSB team.  Materials and tools were designed specifically for recruitment events; these included targeted interview questionnaires to help better identify candidates that will be a fit to the culture.

Outside of recruitment efforts, the EVP statement and branded materials have been woven into many employee initiatives, helping to create CSB ambassadors, reinforcing how their role as part of the organization is helping in the vision of the school board and Cree Nation as a whole.

The feedback on challenges and desired improvements identified by employees during the research phase of the project have been included in the CSB’s 2016-2021 Strategic Action plan and steps are being taken for improvements.  New employee initiatives are being designed to continue to motivate employees and bring the board closer to its objective of being an Employer of Choice.

“Internally, employees have seen a shift in the HR strategy and feel more confident in the CSB recruitment branding and in the HR department as a whole”

- Natalie Petawabano, Director Human Resources

Initial Results

The EVP is a long-term strategy for the CSB, and a full assessment of the results has not yet been undertaken.  However, initial feedback suggests that the recruitment strategies are bearing fruit; targeted recruitment events that specify the EVP’s main purpose have delivered results - the candidates that visit the events are of higher caliber and are more interested in the CSB vision.

“Although it’s still early days, we are really excited about the momentum that is building around the initiative and are confident we’ll see good results in terms of attracting the calibre of candidate we need.”

- Natalie Petawabano, Director Human Resources

We are all clear that the competition for talent is one that will continue to challenge even the most evolved organization. Fortunately, most now recognize the value of identifying their Employee Value Proposition, not just as a means to entice new candidates, but also as a way of reinforcing engagement with their employees and creating commitment to the vision of the organization.

Embarking on the EVP initiative was a brand-new concept at the CSB and the process was not always easy.  What resulted was a project that not only highlighted exactly what it means to become part of the team, but also brought employees together from across the organization in their journey to advance the Cree Nation.

For more information on the Cree School Board and the Walk with Us campaign, visit:


What inspires potential candidates to apply?


What aspects of the position are important but not necessarily reasons to join?


What aspects of the job cause frustration, but are not deal-breakers?

Tanya Nietzert


Lyndsy Evenden