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

By: The Hon. Brian Francis

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Hon. Brian Francis: Honourable senators, I rise today to address Senator Klyne’s important inquiry into the invaluable contributions of Indigenous businesses to Canada’s economy.

Within this chamber, we have explored the economic successes and challenges faced by Indigenous people and communities across Turtle Island. I would like to use this opportunity to shine a spotlight on a few Mi’kmaq entrepreneurs and businesses who are making important contributions across Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq, which includes present-day Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Gaspé region in Quebec.

In order to understand where the Mi’kmaq are today, we need to look at where we have come from.

For thousands of years, the Mi’kmaq thrived along the eastern coast of Turtle Island, cultivating a profound connection to the land and all of our relations. In particular, the bounty of the waters has been central to our way of life.

Through customs and traditions passed down through generations, we have managed these resources sustainably since time immemorial. However, after centuries of colonization, dispossession and marginalization, our ability to control our traditional territories and resources has been eroded. Despite these challenges, the Mi’kmaq have continued to assert our sovereignty, including in the fisheries which are central to the economic development and prosperity of our communities.

As explained in the recent report of the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans titled Peace on the Water, in Canada there are distinct categories of fisheries. There are privilege-based fisheries, which are utilized for both commercial and recreational purposes; and rights-based fisheries, which are based on Aboriginal and treaty rights.

The right to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes and the right to fish in pursuit of a moderate livelihood are examples of rights-based fisheries. I want to focus now on the rights-based fisheries.

In 1999, in what is now known as the Marshall decision, the Supreme Court of Canada reversed the conviction of Donald Marshall Jr. for catching and intending to sell eels when the season was closed and recognized and affirmed that the Mi’kmaq, along with the Wolastoqiyik and Peskotomuhkati, have a right to hunt, fish and gather to earn a moderate livelihood arising from the Peace and Friendship Treaties of 1760-61 signed by our ancestors with the Crown.

Almost 25 years later, Canada remains resistant to this ruling and has not moved forward with the full implementation of the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Peskotomuhkati rights-based fisheries. Instead, consecutive federal governments have made the exercise of these rights contingent on their ability to buy back commercial licences to provide access. As a result, First Nations who attempt to exercise rights protected under section 35 of the Constitution Act risk seizures, arrest and charges at the hands of federal fisheries officers.

The criminalization of our subsistence activities has not only contributed to poverty in our communities but also fuelled the intimidation, harassment and even violence that our members face on and off the water. Nevertheless, the Mi’kmaq continue to assert our right to fish on our traditional territories, but also call on Canada to honour the promises made in the treaties.

I hope that within my lifetime Canada will move forward with the full implementation of the rights-based fisheries and empower the Mi’kmaq to achieve greater self-determination and improve our socio-economic outcomes.

In contrast to the situation of the rights-based fisheries, the Mi’kmaq, like other people in Canada, also participate in the privilege-based commercial fisheries and have made significant strides in recent years.

A notable example is Clearwater Seafoods, which was acquired in 2021 by a partnership between Premium Brands and the Mi’kmaq Coalition, which is comprised of the Membertou, Miawpukek, Sipekne’katik, We’koqma’q, Potlotek, Pictou Landing and Paqtnkek communities.

A lesser-known but impactful example from New Brunswick is McGraw Seafoods, which was purchased in 2008 by Elsipogtog First Nation and provides employment for the community members and revenue to support a variety of programs and initiatives that benefit the First Nation. McGraw Seafoods directly employs 200 people in positions held primarily by Acadians from around Tracadie-Sheila. The company also employs 150 Indigenous fishermen who sell products directly to the plant. In 2022, I visited the multi-species processing plant with Chief Arren Sock and enjoyed some of the delicious snow crab harvested from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and processed on-site.

Clearwater Seafoods and McGraw Seafood show what is possible for Indigenous communities with access to capital and other tools that enable them to fully participate in the economy and build opportunities for current and future generations, as well as contribute to the prosperity of all in Canada.

As a proud Epekwitkewaq Mi’kmaw, I next want to draw your attention to Abegweit and Lennox Island First Nations. After years of advocacy led by Epekwitkewaq Mi’kmaq, in the recent budget, the federal government announced funding for the creation and operation of the Pituamkek National Park Reserve. Located along the northwestern shores of Prince Edward Island, this island chain is home to one of the most ecologically significant coastal dune ecosystems in the country. Pituamkek is also home to multiple archaeological sites considered sacred to the Mi’kmaq, which will now be protected and preserved for generations to come.

As Canada’s eleventh national park reserve, once Pituamkek opens to the public, it will have a significant impact not only for the Mi’kmaq but to Prince Edward Island and all of Canada, including by playing an important role in environmental stewardship and economic development. I look forward to when Pituamkek officially opens to the public and will encourage everyone to come visit.

To meet growing demand for authentic cultural experiences, Lennox Island First Nation already operates a cultural centre, which provides visitors with an opportunity to immerse themselves in the history and traditions of the Mi’kmaq. This includes listening to stories, creating their own decorative birchbark circle or weaving together their own moosehide drum. If you find yourself on the island, I invite you to make the drive to the nearby Lennox Island Mi’kmaq Culture Centre.

In Abegweit First Nation, the recently opened Abegweit Connects building is providing a wealth of development opportunities in the tourism sector and beyond. The 7,000-square-foot two-story building supports community events and was the catalyst in the creation of Abegweit Hospitality, an events and hospitality company which now employs five community members who assist with venue rentals and hosting a range of meetings, events and tourism experiences. In addition, various commercial leases support revenue generation and bring new business to the area, including the Indigenous Tourism Association of PEI.

Abegweit Connects is also home to Abegweit Development Inc. This corporation is a new venture, recently established to spearhead economic development opportunities within the private sector. It aims to improve the socio-economic outcomes of the community through greater financial autonomy and independence, and exists separately from band leadership to ensure continuity of economic investments across administrations.

Another business that is contributing to local economic development on the island is the Indigenous PEI Store, which opened its physical storefront in Charlottetown in July 2023, and is accompanied by an online store where Mi’kmaq artists from Epekwitk can display and sell their work. Featured in the storefront is Mi’kmaq artist Melissa Peter-Paul, who made the medallion that I am proudly wearing today. She is known for her quillwork pieces, which are created by inserting porcupine quills, either dyed or kept natural, into birchbark. Now considered a rare form of art, Melissa and a few others use quillwork to showcase and preserve a long-standing cultural tradition. Artisans like Melissa play an important role in revitalizing and preserving our culture and traditions, and in strengthening individual, family and community well-being.

However, we must empower Indigenous entrepreneurs to start and grow thriving and sustainable businesses by, for example, increasing their access to capital, financial services and supports. Indigenous women entrepreneurs face additional challenges due to their gender roles within family and community, including cumbersome eligibility requirements for financing. As a result, targeted support is required to close the gap between Indigenous men and women entrepreneurs.

In closing, colleagues, the Mi’kmaq continue to enrich the economy of Mi’kma’ki in many ways. In fact, according to the Atlantic Policy Congress’s study undertaken by the Atlantic Economic Council from 2023, entitled The Significant Economic Contributions of Atlantic Indigenous Businesses and Communities, Epekwitk Indigenous communities and businesses contributed $60 million in GDP to Atlantic Canada’s total GDP of $3.6 billion. The council is currently working on the release of its final report, where more data on the economic contributions of Indigenous peoples in Atlantic Canada will be released. I look forward to sharing that information when it becomes available.

Honourable colleagues, let us recognize, celebrate and support the invaluable economic contributions made by Indigenous businesses and communities in Mi’kma’ki and beyond. In the spirit of reconciliation, let’s work together to amplify their voices, uplift their initiatives and cultivate partnerships built on mutual respect, equity and prosperity. Wela’lin. Thank you.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

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