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How Canada's National Indigenous Economic Strategy paves the path to prosperity

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Dawn Madahbee Leach

What is the goal of Canada’s first-ever National Indigenous Economic Strategy?

This initiative began with the release of a 2020 OECD report that recommended that Canada needed an updated National Indigenous Economic Strategy (NIES). Rather than having the federal government develop the strategy, more than 25 National Indigenous Organizations felt it was important that we hold the pen on this initiative on developing this strategy. The National Indigenous Economic Strategy for Canada was released in June 2020 with this vision: socio-economic parity for Indigenous people in Canada. This strategy is a blueprint for achieving that.

Everything about this strategy — from translation services, to printing, academic review, writing, translation — was done by Indigenous people and businesses. The NIES is a great opportunity to transform Canada in a positive way by enabling Indigenous people to drive our own success. That point is very important. This is a strategy to help redress the inequities that have occurred from purposely being restricted from participating in this country’s economy. People must learn Canada’s true history to fully understand this reality.

What are the key elements of the economic strategy?

The strategy is intended to influence others in developing their own strategic plans or reconciliation action plans. This is a guide for every level of government, every institution, corporate Canada, SMEs, mainstream Canadians and our own people. The strategy covers four strategic pathways: People, Lands, Infrastructure and Finance. Each pathway includes a vision that describes a desired outcome, and I encourage readers to set some time aside to review and digest the complete document, which is available at Put simply, we looked ahead to envision what our communities could be like and included 107 "calls to prosperity" in the document. Many of the recommendations and calls are not new; many are derived from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People’s Report, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and even some court rulings.

The objective of all of this is to not only address our land claims and recognize our legal jurisdiction in our traditional territories, but to also work towards having Indigenous levels of education, employment and income equal to that of others in Canada.

It is also important to develop the Indigenous business leaders of tomorrow. It is critical for our young people to be able to see themselves running a business. So, under Indigenous entrepreneurship, we call for the government to establish a financial literacy and business curriculum for both our youth and adults; for business leaders to develop mentorship programs for our youth; and to ensure that Indigenous entrepreneurs have access to capital and enabling programs to fully participate in the economy.

Under the Infrastructure Pathway, our vision is that state-of-the-art physical and institutional infrastructure and services be put in place to ensure a prosperous Indigenous economy for future generations. And under the Finance Pathway, our vision is that Indigenous peoples and communities can access the financial capital to achieve economic and social prosperity on their own terms.

Under the Lands Pathway, we have the heading Environmental Stewardship, where we call for all levels of government to ensure that Indigenous representatives are included on every federal, provincial, territorial and municipal regulatory environmental body; that Indigenous environmental bodies and people are required as monitors of all energy and resource projects; and that Indigenous interests are paramount in all consultation processes on major resource and energy projects.

How do you define economic reconciliation?

To be clear, full reconciliation with Indigenous people cannot be achieved without economic reconciliation. It is not only the fair and right thing to do, there is also a compelling business case for every Canadian to support this. When Indigenous communities prosper, so do the regions around them. Economic impact studies prove this over and over again. The fact is, sustainable resource development will require our involvement; mitigating climate change will require our involvement; opening doors to international trade will require our involvement; addressing labour shortages will require our involvement; and improving Canada’s global standing on human rights issues will require our involvement.

One major call under the Lands Pathway in the NIES is for Indigenous land jurisdiction to be enshrined in the knowledge that the land was never ceded; it was intended to be shared and protected for future generations. For us, "Land" encompasses all elements including water, air and resources that lay above and beneath the land. Economic reconciliation will be attained only when all land-related claims and issues are resolved.

Achieving economic progress in Canada from an Indigenous perspective will require mechanisms to recognize Indigenous governments as formal decision-makers holding jurisdiction. This would include the establishment of co-management regimes and the development of national and regional Indigenous-led institutions. That’s a big part of the NIES. Achieving economic reconciliation will also require ending the marginalization of our people through more effective inclusion at all decision-making levels — including in this country’s boardrooms.

How will we know when economic reconciliation is close to being achieved?

For us, it will be very easy to spot progress. Whenever there is a Canadian Tire store or a Walmart near an Indigenous community and you see our people working there. When you see our people working in the community’s banks, in government offices and appointed to Board positions in the big companies. When you see our social licence properly valued in all major developments in our traditional territories and we receive our fair share of the benefits from these developments. And when our communities decide that no developments will take place after being properly educated and informed about the development and that decision is respected.

For leaders who want to get started on making this a reality, what actions do you recommend?

Three things that come to mind right away are procurement opportunities, enabling access to capital and capacity development. On access to capital, I have been managing an Indigenous Financial Institution for the past 35 years. To date, we’ve invested $125 million in Indigenous businesses, but only in small increments with a maximum cap of $250,000, as restricted by our limited capital. But today, it costs $500,000 to $1 million to buy or build a commercial facility or purchase a piece of specialized machinery for that amount, yet that is our limit. We need to expand supports in terms of access to capital.

The fact is, if Indigenous people had the same education, employment and income levels as the rest of Canadians, our country’s GDP would grow by about $32 billion a year. To achieve this, we need to create about 135,000 jobs for Indigenous people. That might sound daunting, but if you break it down by region and industry, it is not an insurmountable goal. In Ontario for example, we’re talking about just under 20,000 jobs. Surely, if all education, health or justice institutions, all levels of government, corporate Canada and our own communities took on part of this goal, we could create 20,000 jobs in this province.

Do you feel Canada’s business leaders are open to this strategy?

Already, many leaders have begun to understand that the lands they operate on lie within the traditional territories of Indigenous people from coast to coast to coast. And because of this, many of them recognize that building strong relationships with Indigenous people is simply good business. They know how important it is to employ Indigenous people and to engage us in decision making in the communities in which they operate. But this mindset needs to become the norm.

This is not about benevolence: Strong Indigenous businesses and economies attract foreign investment, and Indigenous businesses are twice as likely to export as non-Indigenous businesses. The fact is, when we are included, we help to shape and drive the direction businesses go in — particularly with respect to sustainability, the climate and the environment. Investors, shareholders and regulators are increasing their focus on environment, social and governance criteria, and Indigenous empowerment. Investment will flow where there is support for Indigenous participation.

For small and medium-size businesses (SMEs) in particular, the purchasing power of Indigenous peoples is significant. But if any business wants to have solid Indigenous patronage, it must reflect the community, both in its leadership and in its employee base.

You’ve been working with small businesses in your community on Manitoulin Island for a while now. Where do you see them in this picture?

Young people’s creativity and STEM programs are absolutely critical to the success of this strategy. And progress is underway: I am proud to say that a high school on Manitoulin Island on the Wikwemikong unceded reserve has produced talented teams of young people who have been competing in science competitions across Canada and the U.S. — and winning.

Like everywhere else in the world, innovation is key to our future. But it’s difficult to talk about innovation when there is still a significant telecommunications connectivity issue across Canada for most of our communities. This became really apparent during COVID-19, when many of the homes in my community were unable to access online classes for our kids. There were also plenty of problems with healthcare in remote communities throughout the pandemic. That’s why there’s a whole section on infrastructure in the NIES, along with recommendations.

A couple of nights ago, I was visiting with some teenage Indigenous girls who were in a bead working class, and they were expressing their frustration at not being able to connect to the Internet. Innovation in big city centres enables people to achieve amazing things. But in smaller communities, if we wanted to teach our people how to develop apps or platforms, for example, it is currently impossible. We need to address this urgently, and there needs to be a concerted effort.

Can you share some Indigenous business success stories?

There are institutions that are starting to help First Nations-owned businesses. For example, the First Nations Finance Authority, which raises capital through bonds, very similar to municipal loans. This was an impetus for the financing of the Clearwater Seafoods deal by the Mi’kmaq people. This is a huge initiative — the largest in Canada — where Indigenous communities became the owners of one of the largest Clearwater fisheries in Canada. This was an amazing deal for all parties involved — but if we didn’t have the First Nations Finance Authority in place, it wouldn’t have happened.

Recently I visited one of the urban reserves in Saskatoon. I remember going there 25 years ago when they first established it, and it only had two small buildings. When I visited recently, I was amazed: there are now several commercial buildings including an eight-story medical building with 41 doctors practising, and 12 of them are Indigenous. They have a wide variety of retail and commercial offices — and they’ve actually run out of space. This urban reserve is generating more than tens of million annually, which goes back into the community.

The City of Saskatoon is also benefiting greatly from its urban reserves. They are bringing prosperity to that city — and this can and should happen across the country. It should be happening right here in Ontario; I actually can’t believe it isn’t. Every major city in Ontario should have urban reserves.

What is the role of Indigenous peoples in achieving carbon neutrality by 2050?

On the educational side, it’s really important to have our community members learn the latest insights about critical minerals and how necessary they are for producing the world’s technology, for the vehicles we drive and for the medical equipment we use. It’s also important for companies involved in resource development to respect our decisions: If community leaders receive all the information they need about a particular mineral or resource project in their territory, and they still say No to it, that has to be respected as climate change will also need no-development green space. Going forward, education will enable better-informed decisions about resource development. The First Nations Major Projects Coalition has a saying that “All roads to net zero run through Indigenous communities.”

Are Canada’s big banks doing their part?

We are trying to work with the big banks, all of which have Indigenous units. But it’s difficult because First Nations loans still need to be double- or triple-secured and are regarded as high risk.

I think the banks need to start using a different framework for evaluating risk. The network of Indigenous Financial Institutions  across Canada experience a 92 to 94 per cent success rate on loan repayment. And our entrepreneurs stay in business longer than five years, which is a rate higher than the Canadian average. People still view us as risky, yet during COVID-19, not a single one of our businesses went under. Indigenous entrepreneurs are committed to paying their debt. I think it’s really important to understand that regular financing rules just don’t apply to our people. And there are definitely ways to mitigate risk without enacting triple security.

What is it that gets you most excited about the NIES?

There are two things. First, I am thrilled that so many people are reading it and starting to include it in their own strategic plans. When we released this report last June, more than 60 countries downloaded copies on the very first day.

Notably, we don’t get too much into the truth issues in the document because that work was ably documented in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. But I do believe it’s important for people on their own truth journey to learn about the NIES, because it will give them hope for the future. That’s the second thing that excites me the most about it. Hope is a very powerful thing.

‘Seventh generation’ is an Indigenous concept that is all about looking back and looking ahead. It teaches that our actions today will have their biggest impact seven generations from now. If you look ahead seven generations, what do you see?

I see prosperous Indigenous communities, right across Canada. I always have. Back in 1988, when we developed the Waubetek Business Development Corporation (WBDC), there were only five Indigenous-owned businesses on Manitoulin Island. Today there are hundreds. I am still proud to be the General Manager of WBDC. I’ve been there right from the start, working alongside our leaders.

I remember we started by sitting in a room together and doing a visioning exercise. We talked about simple things like getting paved streets for our community and more complex things like proper schools to teach our children and good infrastructure. We saw our people gainfully employed, with nice homes and yards. We saw a lot of stability and pride. We also saw our cultural practices coming back to life. And I can say today that I’ve lived long enough to see most of this happen.

I can only imagine what things will look like once our people start helping to guide how Canada moves forward with respect to saving this planet. I know we can do a lot of great work in that regard. One thing I would really like to see in my lifetime is more of our people educated at the highest levels, leading Canada’s largest institutions and sitting on boards. One thing is certain: we’re going to work really hard to make sure this happens.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Rotman Management magazine. Published in January, May and September, each issue features thought-provoking insights and problem-solving tools from leading global researchers and management practitioners. Subscribe Today.

Artwork by Kaya Joan 

Dawn Madahbee Leach is Chair of the National Indigenous Economic Development Board and General Manager of the Waubetek Business Development Corporation.