Business and Economic Contributions Made by Indigenous Businesses to Canada’s Economy—Inquiry

By: The Hon. Peter Harder

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Hon. Peter Harder: Thank you, Your Honour, and let me add my congratulations to you on your post. You mentioned earlier that you had big shoes to fill, but your predecessor never wore high heels.

Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge that we are holding our deliberations on the unceded territory of the Anishinaabeg Algonquin First Nation. This acknowledgement is particularly appropriate, as I rise today to speak on the inquiry recently launched by our colleague the honourable Senator Klyne from Saskatchewan, or, as he’s known by his Twitter handle, @Mister_Regina.

The objective of this inquiry is to provide a focus on the great success stories being experienced but not adequately spoken of regarding Indigenous-led businesses across Canada. I am delighted to have so many colleagues, including Senator Tannas who just finished, speak on this issue from the perspective of your region.

As senators who occupy what I believe to be the most privileged think tank in the country, we can do a lot to inspire Indigenous Canadians looking to start their own business or wanting to take part as employees, researchers, staffers or in other roles. In my home province of Ontario alone, the Indigenous Business Directory of Canada counts 526 businesses of all shapes and sizes.

As many of us know, entrepreneurs operating an Indigenous-led business often come up against challenges that businesses led by others don’t encounter. Given that reality, one can be sure that a large number of those 526 businesses have overcome long odds to get to where they are. It would be easy to cherry-pick one or two upon which to shine a bit of light. But, rather than simply convey examples of such successes to you, I thought I would spend a bit of time discussing the challenges Indigenous-led companies face in ensuring that the number of 526 continues to grow here in this province.

By the way, overall there are, as Senator Tannas already referenced, about 50,000 Indigenous businesses in Canada.

I’d like to talk a bit about the potential Indigenous labour pool in this country which, as we all know, too often goes untapped and underutilized. Much of Indigenous Canada is young, vibrant and creative, and we’re not making the most of it. Success in much of the business world, of course, starts with education. Let me hasten to add that a good education is not by any means a prerequisite for running a successful business. Indeed, my own view is that we should be esteeming the trades more than we do in this country. But that’s for another day.

The fact of the matter is that the number of Indigenous post-secondary degrees continues to significantly lag behind those attained by non-Indigenous Canadians. For example, in 2016, 52% of Indigenous women had a post-secondary qualification, including the 14% of Indigenous women with a bachelor’s degree or higher. By contrast, 46% of Indigenous men obtained post-secondary qualifications, including 8% who graduated with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Compare this to the rest of Canada, where 67% of women earn a post-secondary qualification, and 32% graduate with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Non-Indigenous men are only slightly behind, at 64% and 27%, respectively. These are huge gaps, and, as a country, we are missing out.

While the unemployment rate for Indigenous Canadians in 2022 was lower than the year before, the gap between Indigenous Canada and the rest of the country is still too wide. In 2022, for example, 8% of Indigenous Canadians were unemployed, compared to 5.2% of non-Indigenous Canadians. That’s a gap of almost three points.

Finally, I’d like to address the issue of Indigenous Canadians in the tech and STEM fields, where much of the job growth in our country continues to take place.

First, with respect to STEM, about 4% of Canadian adults are Indigenous, but Indigenous Canadian adults make up less than 2% of people working in science, technology, engineering and math.

In tech, the gap is similar. Among enumerated Indigenous peoples in Canada, participation in tech occupations in 2016 was measured at 2.2%, or about 13,000 people in total, well below Indigenous Canada’s proportional share of the Canadian population.

These low numbers make life difficult for Indigenous companies, even those with the best of intentions to hire Indigenous workers. Take, for example, the experience of David Yeo, president and founder of Dalian Enterprises Inc., an Indigenous-owned cybersecurity firm based here in Ottawa. The firm is constantly on the lookout for Indigenous tech grads and has a strong relationship with schools like Algonquin College in Ottawa’s West End. But hiring from these pools is not an easy task.

Too often, David will have an eye on an Indigenous grad, only to watch that individual get snapped up by a larger firm. In other cases, potential Indigenous hires head back to their home reserve after graduation. This stumbling block has become a little easier to overcome recently given the new emphasis on working from home. Mr. Yeo also suggests that Indigenous kids wanting to get hired self-identify. That is an issue that we find in the workforce as well.

Mr. Yeo, a descendant of Chief Robert Franklin of the Alderville First Nation, who was an original signatory to the Ontario Williams Treaty of 1923, started Dalian in 2001. As a veteran of Afghanistan and other conflicts, Mr. Yeo now specializes in cybersecurity infrastructure and data centre projects within the federal government. Twenty-two years after the start-up, Dalian has over 200 subject-matter experts embedded in various government departments. The firm has been operating as a trusted government partner over that same period of time and holds a top secret facility security clearance, with most of the staff being cleared “secret” or above.

Mr. Yeo’s own interest in tech stems from the fact that his high school in Port Hope, Ontario, was one of the first to receive computers and large mainframes for inclusion in the school curriculum. This forged his love for the sector, triggering his decision to go to college for computer science. Again, there’s the importance of education.

Before summing up, I’d like to take a moment to also mention the importance of various on-reserve development agencies whose role in fostering business development cannot be underestimated or underappreciated. These include vibrant and progressive organizations like Whitecap Development Corporation located south of Saskatoon; the Osoyoos Indian Band of Osoyoos, B.C.; and Membertou Development Corporation of Nova Scotia. The latter has helped to create one of the most prosperous First Nations in the country, boasting several divisions which range from social services and housing to educational programs, including studies in entrepreneurship. Once again, there’s the focus on education.

Membertou also numbers as one of its advisers our recently retired colleague senator Dan Christmas, whose wise counsel on Indigenous business issues can only strengthen Membertou’s ongoing contribution in this area. We need more like him so we can encourage Indigenous Canadians to enter business.

To sum up, the priorities and objectives of Indigenous Canada change with the era. For a time, the agenda promoting rights held sway. At other times, treaty negotiations and self-government appeared to be at the top of the agenda. Today, it seems to me, a focus on business development and entrepreneurship is higher on the list, and that is a good thing. As senators, we should do all we can to foster that spirit.

In that spirit, I would thank Senator Klyne for this inquiry and invite others to participate in this important debate.

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