A new year can inspire us to adopt fresh perspectives. With successive governments having dragged their feet for decades on investment in First Nations communities, it may be time for Canada’s private sector to seize the initiative in achieving reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous peoples. We Canadians love good social causes and we also love a good investment. Best of all we love a two-for-one — which is what engaging with businesses owned by Indigenous Canadians can be. Investments and partnerships with such businesses can also rectify historic injustices in ways apologies cannot. For all of these reasons, it is time to call in (as in “summon”) Canadian firms and not just call them out (as in “accuse”), regarding their anti-Indigenous investing policies.
My company has delivered consistent value to Canadian banks, funds and angel investors for years but, when we propose partnerships with profitable Indigenous-owned businesses, a common reaction is still hesitancy. That’s misplaced but understandable. Business and media alike continue to emphasize racially-tinged stereotypes of Indigenous-owned businesses being structurally and administratively anarchic. More generally, much of the public discussion about First Nations starts and ends with the reality of First Nation communities’ uneven access to drinking water, housing, reliable electricity and gas and other benchmarks of modern life. In many cases, privation makes the First Nation community’s unattractiveness for investment and development self-perpetuating.
Although the federal government has provided funding envelopes for Indigenous businesses, accessing such money is still challenging for many. In sectors such as IT, construction and mining many Indigenous-owned businesses have little difficulty finding business opportunities, but in other areas easy capital can remain elusive. Although Indigenous peoples make up 4.9 per cent of Canada’s population only 0.3 per cent of the federal government’s procurement dollars go to Indigenous businesses, according to Max Skudra of Creative Fire.
At a ceremony last summer marking first steps toward the Curve Lake (Ontario) Water Treatment Plant, Chief Emily Whetung of Curve Lake said: “Our community cannot grow, build houses, become self-sufficient or develop our business community in any substantial way, without access to clean and reliable water.” While acknowledging this void, Chief Whetung also emphasized her community’s eagerness to step up. Their appetite for development is an opportunity for investors and lenders looking for solid returns, if only First Nations communities are afforded the tools. To realize their economic aspirations, the people of Curve Lake and other First Nation communities must have consistent access to the necessities that off-reservation businesses take for granted.
This promise of returns for investing in FN-owned businesses is not speculative. Current success stories can be interpreted as a down payment. For example, Canada’s mining industry has made great progress since groups such as the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) led the way in adopting voluntary guidelines for partnering with Indigenous peoples — guidelines that could be applied to other industries. Meeting big companies halfway, many Indigenous-owned companies now institute strong internal corporate governance systems and employ consultants to help drive investment and partnership opportunities.
A strong plus for reservations is that their autonomy frees them from much red tape, making them relatively shovel- and investment-ready. This, plus the federal government’s current readiness to finally live up to its commitment for broad infrastructure development, may herald a new dawn for this underdeveloped sector, eventually opening the floodgates for job and profit opportunities.
Our firm has committed to filling half our staffing positions with visible minority candidates and another 10 per cent with Indigenous students we will train and employ. This is on top of our existing mandate to bring economic opportunities to BIPOC communities. Our goal is, not just to redress historic injustices, but also to do well for ourselves: we believe the evidence that suggests companies whose employees are more diverse in their backgrounds and experiences outperform their peers. It is at their own risk that businesses turn a blind eye to the potential waiting to be unlocked in these storehouses of human capital.