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In May 2021, the discovery of unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School affirmed what Indigenous researchers and intergenerational survivors have long reported. The stories of missing children who never returned home, the painful reactions from survivors, and the increased pressure on political leaders to address the legacy of residential schools all contributed to an overdue conversation on Canada’s colonial history.
It’s a conversation that has reached Canadian businesses. Today, corporate commemoration of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is commonplace, land recognitions are more frequent, and many organizations have diversity, equity and inclusion policies. Collectively, there is more discussion about reconciliation, but discussion is a starting point, not an end.
Corporate Canada has both a responsibility and an opportunity to contribute to a better, more equitable future by actively working with Indigenous partners towards economic reconciliation. We know that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls for the corporate sector to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and to apply its principles, norms and standards to core operational activities. We also know that stories have the ability to challenge long-standing beliefs and inspire meaningful action.
That’s why we looked to individual stories to educate us on the journey of economic reconciliation, speaking to Indigenous leaders — one investor, one labour representative and one entrepreneur — to understand what economic reconciliation means to them.
Jeff Cyr, Managing Partner,
Raven Indigenous Capital Partners
This past June, the National Indigenous Economic Strategy was released, outlining 107 calls to economic prosperity. The report, underpinned by the contributions of more than 25 Indigenous organizations across Canada, calls on Canadian businesses, investors and government bodies to facilitate economic reconciliation.
The report found that access to capital remains a challenge for Indigenous entrepreneurs. Jeff Cyr and Raven Capital are confronting this challenge head-on. An Indigenous-owned investment management firm, Raven Capital is also referred to as a financial intermediary that raises capital from private investors and invests it into Indigenous-owned-and-led enterprises with the explicit intent of positively impacting Indigenous people and communities.
Cyr, who is of mixed Métis and European heritage, believes that when it comes to economic reconciliation, corporate Canada needs to confront the biases and perceived risks that inform far too many approaches to investment in Indigenous business and entrepreneurs.
“Investing in Indigenous businesses and hiring Indigenous people represent a huge business opportunity,” he said. “Indigenous people are the fastest growing and youngest population in Canada. At Raven, we’ve seen a massive explosion of innovation coming out of Indigenous communities. While the market is doing all kinds of topsy-turvy things, the businesses we’ve invested in are on very steady growth and operating curves, and have been relatively resilient to the market.”
Cyr outlines a need for corporate Canada to recognize that the wealth of this country was generated from colonialism, and that companies can learn from Indigenous people’s relationship with the land and all beings that live upon it. “Reconciliation is not on the backs of Indigenous people. It’s actually on the backs of the rest of Canada, although it ends up being Indigenous people who do a lot of the lifting. Recognizing that is really important.”
Deb Tveit, Executive Assistant to the National President, Unifor
Whether it’s bargaining for time off work, helping dig wells or building housing, unions have advocated not only for the rights of Indigenous workers, but for employers to play a role in shaping and uplifting Indigenous communities.
Tveit is responsible for the education, hospitality, food and beverage manufacturing, general service, mining, minerals and fisheries sectors at Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union. When asked about how unions can contribute to economic reconciliation, she resists a one-size-fits-all solution.
“Every union is unique,” she explained. “Each has its own structure, leadership, membership and combination of personalities and political views. Indigenous groups, reserves and band councils will have many different positions on many different things, like the rest of the population. Everyone has their own ideas about how they want things to work. The union’s responsibility is to reach out to those groups and figure out what they can do.”
To contribute to economic reconciliation, Tveit says corporate Canada must first follow through on existing promises. “With the casinos being built on Indigenous reserves, the government mandated that a certain percentage of employees must be Indigenous people. The problem with that is that the casinos didn’t maintain that percentage. So, as people left, they weren’t replaced with other Indigenous people even though these casinos are on reserves that were built there to offer employment opportunities to Indigenous people.”
Tveit believes there are several ways for Canadian businesses to better support reconciliation, but none is more immediate than the need to hire more Indigenous workers. “I don’t think there’s ever been a strong attempt to hire Indigenous people. It’s not that Indigenous youth don’t want good jobs, they do. The fact is lots of times they don’t even know about those jobs, because nobody goes to the reserve and advertises or does a job fair or reaches out. These are all things that can be done quite simply.”
Curtis Avery, Owner, Kana Leaf
Curtis Avery is a prime example of what can happen when expertise and entrepreneurship collide. A former fisheries biologist of eight years who calls Nipissing First Nation home, Avery established Kana Leaf, the first legal cannabis dispensary on a First Nation, along with his uncle, mother and grandfather.
This was no easy feat. The governments of Canada and the provinces have been heavily criticized for not adequately consulting with First Nations during the cannabis legalization process. Lack of consultation posed several hurdles for Indigenous entrepreneurs to break into the legal cannabis market, including navigating a multi-jurisdictional hierarchy. “There were huge missed opportunities by not consulting with First Nations,” he said. “We were permitted by Ontario regulations to do certain things our own First Nation prevented us from doing. There was all sorts of confusion, fears and lack of information. Had consultations occurred, maybe many First Nations would have been better informed about why the regulations look the way they do.”
It was important for Avery to establish a cannabis store on a First Nation to demonstrate that a legal cannabis market could help combat the illegal market and improve safety within the community, while creating economic opportunities for Indigenous people.
“I hope that Kana Leaf shows to other First Nations that there is an opportunity here to participate in this market. Although it’s now reactive because First Nations weren’t consulted on the legislation, that doesn’t mean that there’s not still economic benefits to participating in this market.”
What can corporations do to facilitate economic reconciliation? For Avery, it starts with infrastructure. “Not having proper infrastructure really prevents industry or entrepreneurship from developing. Our telecommunications and our internet services are not at parity with our surrounding municipalities, even though fiber-optic cables run through our territory. We also don’t have proper water and sewage systems. If businesses and industry really want to help, they would support our infrastructure.”
These stories represent the eclectic mix of approaches that our participants bring to the job site every day. Those who choose to ignore the ingenuity, entrepreneurship and advocacy of Indigenous leaders do so to their own disadvantage.
As our demographics show us, economic reconciliation is not only a moral imperative but a business imperative. According to new census data, the Indigenous population in Canada has grown at a rate of 9.4 per cent since 2016, twice as fast as the rate for non-Indigenous Canadians. Canada’s dependency ratio, which measures the portion of individuals too young or too old to contribute to our workforce, is projected to grow as high as 59 per cent by 2028, with at least five million Canadians set to retire by the end of the decade. Put simply, we need more workforce participation. What better place to look?
Economic reconciliation, like all forms of reconciliation, requires Canadians to listen with humility and openness to change. If improved Indigenous engagement results in newer, more innovative approaches to doing business, then corporate Canada has all the more reason to invest the time and effort into this journey. We can’t shy away from the fact that this requires meaningful commitments: people, money and infrastructure, to name a few. It also requires acknowledgment of our past and present shortcomings. Those who are most successful will not see these commitments as obligations, but opportunities for a new chapter of smarter, kinder and more deeply rooted operations.