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Karen Restoule: Empowering Indigenous entrepreneurs offers new way forward

Commentary

The Hub launched with a core mission of getting Canadians thinking about the future. We’ve been stuck in the doldrums, pessimistic and polarized, for too long. To lay out a roadmap for the next 30 years of Canadian life, we asked our contributors to pinpoint the most consequential issue, idea or technology for the country in 2050. This series of essays by leading thinkers will illuminate Canada’s next frontier.

The Indigenous economy is expected to triple in size over the next five years. With over 60,000 Indigenous businesses across Canada, Indigenous entrepreneurs are growing businesses at a rate of five times the national average, and many — if not most — Indigenous communities are engaged in resource development either by way of equity partnership or other types of agreements.

Indigenous peoples contribute $32 billion annually to the Canadian economy, and by 2025 this is expected to reach $100 billion.

I come from a long line of entrepreneurs from Dokis First Nation, a small yet very mighty Ojibwe community located in northeastern Ontario. (In the late 1800s, our fur traders almost put The Hudson’s Bay Company out of business!)

Like so many other Indigenous communities, Dokis leadership has long pushed through and worked around the Indian Act to prioritize our economy. That resilient, focused, entrepreneurial spirit — passed down from generation to generation — has allowed so many of us to plow through adversity and earn many academic, professional, and personal achievements. And, a strong social fabric.

Indigenous peoples are by definition resilient and persevering. Long before the point of contact, Indigenous entrepreneurs worked through the harsh and long winter seasons and maintained trade networks across the vast terrain of these lands, shaping the economic foundation of what is now known as Canada. Following contact, Indigenous peoples resisted the pervasive implementation of various policies and later, the Indian Act, that worked to cancel Indigenous cultures, traditions, languages, laws, governance systems, economies, and to “get rid of the Indian problem” through its residential school policy.

Recently, Canada once again came face-to-face with itself. The awful discovery by the Tk’emlups te Secwempec First Nation of the remains of 215 children at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School pushed to the forefront of Canadian discourse the lethal impacts of the Indian Act, reminding us again of the intergenerational damage of the residential school system.

And while Indigenous peoples continue the work to heal, we continue to trust that the path forward is one that moves us towards prosperity through full economic participation and self-determination.

Beyond cutting to the core of Indigenous identity and families, the Indian Act choked Indigenous economies. This “legislative straight jacket” required citizens to obtain a “permit to sell” in order to engage in business and trade; it removed the right of First Nations to govern their own citizens, lands, resources; it limited their mobility by instituting a pass system that required citizens to obtain a permission slip from the federal Indian Agent to leave the boundaries of the reserve, even in order to conduct what would be considered to be regular day-to-day activities like purchasing goods and personal supplies, conducting business and visiting their children at residential schools.

Although so often strangled by red tape, resilience and perseverance have been guiding forces throughout the last 150-plus years. Fuelled by a strong sense of identity rooted in tradition, culture, language and industriousness, Indigenous peoples continued to press forward toward prosperity in the face of these limitations — each generation building on the strength of those that came before.

Through it all, and in spite of these challenges, Indigenous peoples have succeeded in creating opportunities with private-sector players who were willing to partner respectfully, resulting in that $32 billion annual contribution to the Canadian economy. Impressive as it is, that amount does not account for the sheer determination needed to overcome nearly insurmountable barriers — restrictive legislation, disease, poverty and racism — on the way to that level of achievement.

Imagine what could have been achieved if the federal policy framework was premised on empowering Indigenous peoples.

The entrepreneurship of Indigenous peoples is perhaps our country’s biggest untapped economic opportunity. Consider, for example, the Mi’kmaq acquisition of Clearwater Seafoods.

Over the course of weeks in the fall of 2020, Canadians watched events unfold in the lobster trade on the shores of the Atlantic, bracing themselves for yet another Indigenous-Crown relations quagmire that had been downloaded by the feds onto frontline police services for management and resolution. Tensions escalated to the point where Mi’kmaq traps were destroyed and their fishery facility was set on fire. The situation was reminiscent of what is now known as the Marshall fisheries case, and many were mentally preparing for months of ground-level tensions and years in court.

All of that came to an end on November 9, 2020, when Chief Terry Paul of Membertou First Nation announced that a coalition of seven Mi’kmaq communities had entered into a deal with Premium Brands Holdings Corporation to acquire a half-ownership stake in Clearwater Seafoods and 100 percent of all Canadian Clearwater licences.

Canadians across the country were surprised. Critics covered the story with a mix of shock and respect that an Indigenous rights–based point of tension had been resolved by a precedent-setting business move.

I believe Canadians were surprised because they weren’t paying attention.

The entrepreneurship of Indigenous peoples is perhaps our country’s biggest untapped economic opportunity.

Many Canadians hold assumptions about Indigenous entrepreneurship that are not now and have never been accurate. As noted above, the vast majority of Indigenous communities are already engaged in resource development. In fact, Indigenous-owned businesses are 40 times more likely to be involved in the mining and oil and gas sectors than the average Canadian business. Indigenous communities and businesses are open for business, as long as that business is handled respectfully and equitably.

Understanding that — and understanding the unique definition of “success” held in Indigenous communities — is vital for a country looking to build back better in the wake of the pandemic. Success for Indigenous communities is centred on collective assets, not individual profit. Communities enter the broader economy in a significant way — a way that is anchored in and informed by their own laws, governance systems, cultures, traditions and people.

Since time immemorial, we have seen Indigenous leaders rise to the occasion again and again. They have been driving the best deal, every step of the way, in pursuit of business dealings that respect our seat at the boardroom table. And they continue to do so today.

Ecosystems evolve over generations. Indigenous leaders are invested for the long term in creating opportunities for their citizens to learn, grow and develop. They recognize that investments need to be made in education and training so that the next generations are poised to compete for employment and other business opportunities. There is also, however, a recognition that these investments will not bear fruit overnight and that the stages of readiness will vary across communities.

Chief Terry Paul and leadership from neighbouring Mi’kmaq communities have spent the past 30-plus years focused on community growth through economic development and education. Like him, Indigenous leaders across the country have been pursuing partnerships and making dedicated investments of time and resources into building their own economic ecosystems, even knowing that the impacts may not be seen in the immediate future.

Business alone will not get us through. When approaching Indigenous communities as potential partners, paying lip service and having polite yet empty conversations won’t get you very far.

As we seek to enter the next frontier, Canada will only succeed if it seeks to incorporate human-centric elements into its ambitious economic plan. Pandemic restrictions have not only created financial deficits, they have also created emotional, mental, physical and spiritual deficits. Putting people first and investing in building authentic relationships has never been more important.

Canada can learn from and draw on the proven strength, resilience, and persistence of Indigenous peoples to inform its economic path forward. As the country looks for new approaches to determining “value” in light of climate change, Canadian leaders should consider the Indigenous business approach — an approach linked to community, social and environmental interests that are grounded in Indigenous knowledge and informed by perspectives of interconnectedness that already illustrate this wisdom and potential of this path. There exists now an opportunity for mutually beneficial economic recovery and growth.

As the country recognizes another anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s release of its Calls to Action, Canadian leaders should consider engaging with Indigenous entrepreneurs as one way to demonstrate their commitment to reconciliation. The opportunity is theirs for the taking.

Rudyard Griffiths: Instead of reconciliation, we are busy with pointless acts of retribution

Commentary

As national angst over the latest horrors of the residential school system morphs into a physical war on public symbols associated with this ignoble chapter in our history, we are fast approaching a moment of national reckoning.

Do we, in the name of racial justice and reconciliation, strip our public spaces and public observances of the entirety of Canada’s “colonial” past? What would this mean for our national identity and how we imagine our society in the context of a “shared” past?

Answering these types of fraught questions requires getting at essence of history’s role in society. One of the best all time answers to this existential problem must be L.T. Hartley’s famous quote “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This brief, seemly flippant phrase, encapsulates beautifully what history is and isn’t and reminds all of us of the enduring utility of the past to the present, now and for all time.

For starters, Hartley’s assertion that the past is a “foreign country” illustrates the objective reality that history is removed from “us,” forever separate from the present and future.

To the point, history is over. It no longer exists. All the millions of Canadians who came before us are dead. Anything we do today to our memory of the past has no effect on previous generations’ perception of their successes and failures or how individual people were lauded or condemned in their own time.

This reality should be comforting in the current context. The current obsession with relitigating the lives of long dead political, military and civic leaders is, at best, a thought exercise. It is about “us” not “them” and the tearing down of statues does nothing to honour or dishonor the actual lives these people lived.

To react to the vandalism of statuary with outrage is pointless. No one is being harmed. This is a victimless crime. It is theatre of the mind (or the street). What matters, if anything, is what these acts of public anger says about who we are as a people today. And, here, serious self-criticism is warranted.

Relitigating the lives of long dead leaders is, at best, a thought exercise.

The subjugation and abuse of generations of First Nations peoples in residential schools is an undeniable and urgent national issue. It demands our attention and more importantly our ongoing, collective commitment to meaningfully make amends. Our response needs to be everything but symbolic. Yet this is largely what has happened in terms of public interpretation of the legacy of residential schools, the appropriating of blame and the righting of past wrongs.

Instead of focusing on the complicated task of reconciliation we are engaged in pointless acts of historical retribution that means nothing to its bronze encased victims and does little for the communities who are still living with the legacy of residential schools.

By attempting to defenestrate from our collective memory everyone from John A. Macdonald to Egerton Ryerson to Henry Dundas we are indulging in selfish, armchair acts of empty contrition. Acts that will ultimately obscure the very historical record that should be uncovered, debated, examined to inform our present-day responsibility and response to our fellow citizens who have been harmed.

This is the culture of narcissism that defines our time. We behave as if the past cares about the present. We invest in purely symbolic, individual acts of vandalism and destruction a public significance that belies their utter pointlessness. We embrace historical amnesia as the foundation of our future collective identity. And it all feels so good, so right, so just.

This narcissism is also at the heart of the current rejection of the truth contained in the second part of Harley’s quote “they do things differently [in the past].” This is not a statement condoning the past and everything contained within it. It is instead an acknowledgement that each historical period, the individual motives and particular events in any one moment of history, is unique.

To assume that any of us today would behave differently in the past, unaware of our future selves, is bizarre, magical thinking. In effect we are judging people in the past as if they are time travelers from our future aware of the full sweep of human history and their place in it relative to ours. This is wonderful science fiction but as a way of capturing the value of history to the present, it is as useful as bag of hammers.

The utility of history is precisely the context it provides or the very thing that we are destroying by purging in the present the visible symbols and observances of a shared past. It is precisely because of the juxtaposition of our present to our past that we know once-condoned social practices like slavery, public executions, and denying women equal rights are immoral.

History informs the present. It fills it with context and resonance anchoring our values to a chain of causality imbued with meaning. Its erasure does the opposite. Its erasure creates a collective amnesia in which the arbiters of the norms and mores of the present are our momentary impulses and desires, a rootless narcissism devoid of context, driven by the mob.

Let’s have a historically rich debate about the origins and consequences of residential schools. Unearth the motivations, beliefs and assumptions of its architects and its critics in the past. Use the tensions within and between historical periods to inform and enrich our own response to this tragedy.

To have any hope of doing this we need to stop the destruction of the public symbols and observances of our history. This is madness. It’s against our most basic interests now and into the future. It runs counter to the reconciliation we need to move forward. Let’s put down the hammers and pick up a history book before we lose our way back to who we are as a people.