Path Forward: Indigenous Partnerships

Building partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses is an important step in reconciliation and economic growth. It’s an opportunity not only for cultural and knowledge exchange, but it serves as path forward to a more equitable society.

According to Statistics Canada, 2020 there are more than 50,000 Indigenous-owned companies that contributes $48.9 billion annually to Canada’s economy. This significant economic impact underscores the importance of deliberate collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses as they strive to establish meaningful and partnerships, that are mutually beneficial.

Rhonda Forgues, general manager of the Indigenous Chamber of Commerce (ICC) says the ICC works with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses and organizations, as well as individuals to help facilitate these types of joint partnerships.

“We’re a firm believer in trying to bring folks together to create, not only an awareness of what that looks like … I don’t think it’s really that complicated. It’s really around getting to know people, building those relationships, understanding the needs of each of the parties who are wanting to get into the partnership. It’s really just a matter of being open to understanding that everybody has different needs. Everybody has different gifts, and strengths, and benefits to contribute to this joint partnership.”

Since the beginning of this year, the ICC has been working to relaunch and rebrand itself by bolstering communication and social media strategies; offering several learning and networking events; and launching a membership recruitment and retention strategy.

Last April, they hosted a conference where several speakers were invited to share their experiences of joint partnerships with non-Indigenous organizations. In a series of breakout session speakers shared examples and strategies of things that worked and didn’t work in their partnerships.

“One of the first things we did was identify how we could create opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses to work together,” Forgues explains.

Forgues points out that, historically there has been a mindset or way of thinking that there is one standard way to be successful in business, and it’s typically the western, non-Indigenous model. Policies, processes, and even the workplace culture are designed in very rigid operations. That type of economy relies on speed, and often doesn’t account for the time it takes to create meaningful and lasting relationships with potential business partners.

“I think that it’s important that folks are open and understand that there is more than one way to do anything and for folks to be open to doing things differently, making changes, understanding that people’s goals, outcomes, and objectives aren’t same,” says Forgues.

“It’s not always, for example, just about making money, like what is the most money we could make—the goal could be about larger community benefits, or it could be around creating an opportunity for a partner to get experience around a larger based project, or it could be around employment.”

Michelle Cameron, CEO and owner of Dreamcatcher Promotions, emphasizes that partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses should be grounded in principles of reconciliation and reciprocity. She adopts a comprehensive approach managing her business lines, which consist of Dreamcatcher Promotions, the largest nationally owned Indigenous promotions company in Canada; the Indigenous Nations Apparel Company (INAC) store; and the newly developed venture Dreamcatcher Executive Offices: First Nations Coworker space, which provides on-reserve office space to businesses and entrepreneurs.

“It starts with a business wanting to make real, actionable change. The first question a non-Indigenous business may want to ask ‘is what are we doing to support an Indigenous company’ . . . don’t just do something as a gesture, follow through with action, how are you participating in reconciliation?” Cameron explains.

Cameron, an Indigenous woman from Peguis First Nation, says her journey was fraught with barriers and hardships in the early years, because she was the only Indigenous owned promotional company breaking into a market with other companies with decades of experience.

“You don’t have the same buying power as some of these other businesses, so it was hard to be competitive, and I wasn’t, and that’s why I probably didn’t get a lot of business in the beginning because I couldn’t compete, so I lost a lot of opportunity,” she elaborates.

“When I tell people the importance of supporting an Indigenous business, I tell them ‘you’re actually contributing to that business growth, because you are helping them build better buying power’… It’s really crucial in helping us grow as people.”

Cameron says that businesses need to do more than just hiring Indigenous employees. They need to commit to make change within the organization. There must be a willingness to be open to learning new ways of operating a business.

“When it comes to reconciliation, you can’t have reconciliation without truth. Let’s talk about truth—the truth of Canadian history first,” she says.

“That’s where a large piece of the orange shirt comes in—every time I see a person wearing an orange shirt it’s because they’ve been educated, or because they’ve heard the story. We can only grow from there.”


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