The Indigenous economy has come a long way in a generation but there is still much work to be done by both governments and corporate Canada before it reaches anything close to its full potential.
Much has been promised in economic reconciliation but Indigenous business leaders in Manitoba say the time has come to turn all the talk into action.
“Business is an upward, steady, hard climb,” says Heather Berthelette, president and CEO of Winnipeg-based Tribal Councils Investment Group. “We’re having a hard time getting delivery on the promise of economic reconciliation. Nobody said it would be easy. We continue to push away but the path hasn’t been constructed yet for any of that to happen. We’re the ones who have to pave that path.”
Berthelette is putting the call out to governments at all levels to do their part to create a more level playing field for Indigenous businesses. After all, it’s in their best interests as the more revenue they earn, the more they’ll contribute to tax coffers.
“Releasing statements and making promises aren’t enough. They need to be delivered on and not enough of that is happening,” she says.
Berthelette is quick to note that the situation has improved in recent years—there are “definitely” more allies and awareness than there used to be—and despite more than a century of obstacles, she’s optimistic of reaching the promised land one day.
“There is enough determination, talent, and skill among Indigenous Canadians to make it happen,” she says.
Jerry Daniels, grand chief of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, agrees. He’s optimistic the just-opened Wyndham Garden Winnipeg Airport hotel in St. James is another small step in the right direction.
The $35 million-project, which has 180 units, a restaurant and a bar is owned by the Long Plain First Nation. Hiring Indigenous and Métis workers will be the hotel’s priority but non-indigenous employees will be on the payroll, too.
“We’re looking for the best people we can find,” he says. “Long Plain has been very successful with its hotel in Portage la Prairie and they thought it made economic sense to open one in Winnipeg on land they already owned.”
This project wouldn’t have come out of the ground without access to financing and that’s why two bank-like institutions, the First Nations Financial Management Board and First Nations Financial Authority, play such a vital role in moving the Indigenous economy forward.
“They’ve created the means for First Nations communities to be able to borrow money,” he says. The SCO represents 34 First Nations in the province, encompassing 90,000 people, or about 10 per cent of all Indigenous people in Canada.
While Indigenous businesses and households spend $9.3 billion annually and contribute $2.3 billion to GDP, they have always paled in comparison to their mainstream counterparts.
“It’s economic apartheid,” Daniels says. “Despite the barriers, both historic and current, First Nations battle against all odds to change this.”
The redevelopment of the Hudson’s Bay Company building on the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard will play a crucial role in changing those odds. The multi-million-dollar project will include affordable housing, assisted living for elders, a health and wellness centre, two restaurants (including a rebooted Paddlewheel, the long-time staple on the top floor at The Bay), a museum and space to honour both the survivors and victims of residential schools.
“It’s the largest act of corporate reconciliation in Canada. It will house and launch many businesses and lead to good job opportunities for our people,” he says.
For starters, the construction phase is scheduled to require more than one million person-hours.
Another focal point for Indigenous commerce will be the former Kapyong Barracks on Kenaston Boulevard. When the renamed Naawi-Oodena site is finished, it will be the largest urban reserve in Canada and feature up to 3,000 homes, 1.2 million square feet of commercial space, educational institutions, hotels and a gas bar.
In order for the growth of Indigenous businesses to be sustainable, Daniels says First Nations must work with post-secondary institutions to ensure their young people are not only getting the proper training but also have the financial wherewithal to go to school.
“Our First Nations are the youngest and fastest-growing demographic in Canada and they’re key to Manitoba’s success,” he says.
Companies in the economic mainstream need to step up their game with their Indigenous counterparts, too, says Berthelette.
“Corporate Canada, you don’t need the government to tell you the steps to economic reconciliation, what should and shouldn’t happen, what procurement and partnerships should look like. You can tell the government how you’d like to see things work in this country. That’s a very important element,” she says.
TCIG employs about 140 people across its divisions, including Spirit Healthcare Group, First Canadian Health Management, Indigeno Travel and First Nations Bank of Canada, and Berthelette is confident the company will continue on its current trajectory.
“We’re growing at a steady but conservative pace. We’re establishing ourselves as a well-structured company with a well-balanced plan for the future for all Indigenous companies,” she says.
If there was an Indigenous entrepreneur around whom to build an advertising campaign, it would be Corey Mini. He left his job at a national accounting firm and branched out on his own last year, launching CM Indigenous Consulting.
He says there was sufficient work among a cross-section of Indigenous clients for his offering of business advisory services, including on land claims.
“With my values as a First Nations person, trying to fit into mainstream corporate Canada was difficult for me. It wasn’t an environment that was going to work for what I wanted in life. When the opportunity presented itself to start my own firm, I jumped at it,” he says.
He’s got 12 employees, half of whom are Indigenous, and they work on files for an entirely Indigenous client base.
“Business is great. We’re making money and my staff all like a challenge. They’re all highly motivated and very professional. That provides a lot of reassurance for our clients. Every client is unique and every situation has a different answer,” he says.
“Indigenous communities are really good at supporting one another now.”
Mini says Manitoba’s Indigenous economy ultimately needs to expand beyond just its own communities. But in the meantime, the next step is to take control over their on-reserve economies so they can have a say on the prices they pay. He is currently working with a Manitoba-based grocery store and gas bar provider to evaluate opportunities on First Nations around the province. He says while the North West Company does a very good job of providing retail services, the more competition the better.
Mini is also doing his part to help train the next generation of business professionals by bringing in people from various communities to his office and showing them the ropes. “The rest of corporate Canada won’t do that with Indigenous clients,” he says.
Daniels says the full economic potential of Indigenous people in Manitoba can’t be reached without strategic partnerships and meaningful reconciliation with treaty partners.
For example, he says First Nations have not been invited to the negotiation table for many high-profile projects, such as the Roquette pea processing plant in Portage la Prairie.
“Governments need to be very mindful that they don’t miss out on the economic opportunity that we see in front of ourselves. There is potential in the film industry and the green economy. We can be a part of this. It’s all about finding places to invest. There’s lots of funding capital out there. First Nations need to be at the table,” he says.
“Indigenous people need to be included on the development side. We need to have our own investment dollars and be able to give confidence to those who do invest. The more you create stability in your community, the more you’ll start to see there are a lot of opportunities out there and you have to build relationships. It takes work but it’s not insurmountable,” he says.