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

By: The Hon. Wanda Thomas Bernard

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Hon. Wanda Thomas Bernard: Honourable senators, I rise today — grateful to be on the Algonquin Anishinaabe territory — to discuss a topic of immense importance for the economic landscape and social fabric of our country: It is the vibrant, robust and growing Indigenous business sector in Canada. I invite you to join me in looking specifically at Atlantic Canada. Senator Klyne’s inquiry has unearthed a compelling narrative of entrepreneurship and self-determination — one that deserves not just our attention, but also our admiration and our support.

Nova Scotia is home to a rich tapestry of cultures, but none as deeply rooted as the Mi’kmaw people. Today, the Mi’kmaq continue to enrich Nova Scotia with their vibrant culture, significant contributions and unyielding spirit, reminding us of the profound importance of acknowledging and respecting the First Peoples of my home province.

Reconciliation often revolves around historical injustices, land rights and cultural preservation. However, economic reconciliation is a key component to any conversation about reconciliation. In this speech, I will highlight the achievements of three Mi’kmaw businesses in Nova Scotia, starting off with Clearwater Seafoods, a major Indigenous-owned company; then I will discuss Muin Clothing Co., a thriving medium-sized Indigenous business; and I will conclude with Mi’kma’ki Craft Supplies, a smaller yet resilient Indigenous business led by a Mi’kmaw woman.

Let’s start with Clearwater Seafoods. The Mi’kmaw people have long been leaders in various sectors of this economy. From sustainable fishing to artisan craftsmanship, their contributions go far beyond what is typically portrayed in mainstream narratives. It is crucial to acknowledge that Indigenous businesses are not mere subsidiaries of a broader Canadian economy; they are embedded into the fabric of our nation’s financial framework. According to new research by Gareth Hampshire, in Atlantic Canada, Indigenous businesses “. . . generate billions of dollars in goods and services . . . .” — equating to 5% of the region’s gross domestic product. An admirable example of this, of course, is Clearwater Seafoods, whose success during the past few years has been outstanding.

In 2021, Clearwater Seafoods, a Nova Scotia-based company, marked a groundbreaking moment in Canadian fisheries by becoming 50% owned by the Mi’kmaq Coalition, a collective formed by seven Mi’kmaw communities in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. This acquisition wasn’t just a business transaction; it was a historic milestone, representing the largest investment in the seafood industry by any Indigenous group in Canada. According to Withers, Clearwater boasted a staggering $71-million increase in sales compared to the previous year. More importantly, this investment stands as a transformative change, placing First Nations at the forefront of the global seafood industry. The impact goes beyond financial metrics. The acquisition aims to foster greater opportunity and prosperity for Indigenous communities in Atlantic Canada, exemplifying a new era of economic partnership and shared wealth. In addition to this, it is also an example of economic reconciliation and collective empowerment.

We can learn much from this business example, and I think about them every time I walk through the Halifax Stanfield airport with much pride, and I’m sure my Nova Scotia colleagues do as well.

Now let’s turn our attention to a medium-sized company, the Muin Clothing Co. Indigenous economic engagement centres on community and culture, distinguishing itself from conventional definitions and practices of entrepreneurship that primarily emphasize individual economic gain and wealth accumulation. In the Indigenous context, entrepreneurship is geared toward fostering broader positive outcomes, such as the preservation and enhancement of cultural heritage and the overall development of community.

Derek Lewis, a member of Millbrook First Nation near Truro, Nova Scotia, transitioned from being the first Indigenous cellphone game developer in Canada — Red Arrow Digital College — to immersing himself in cultural consulting and eventually returning to his passion for art, following starting a master’s degree.

In 2018, he founded Muin Clothing Co., blending his artistic talent with his entrepreneurial drive and passion. This Indigenous company stands out for manufacturing the first made-in-Canada orange T-shirt — in partnership with Stanfield’s — a significant marker for Indigenous recognition.

Derek Lewis’s Muin Clothing Co. made a monumental step with the initiative — not merely being a business move, but stemming from Lewis’s desire for authenticity. In the lead-up to the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in 2021, the scarcity of the orange T-shirts, often sourced from abroad, was noticeable. Lewis saw the disconnection between the purpose of the orange shirt to raise awareness about the legacy of residential schools and the fact that they were being imported — imagine.

He’s a man of action: Partnering with Stanfield’s, Derek Lewis of Muin Clothing Co. ensured that the T-shirts were both produced domestically and produced by an Indigenous company, thereby emphasizing the deeper significance and authenticity of the message to be carried.

Derek’s collaboration with Stanfield’s also reflects a commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Call to Action No. 92.

This Call to Action urges the corporate sector in Canada to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework. It emphasizes meaningful consultation with Indigenous peoples, ensuring equitable access to jobs and training, educating staff on Indigenous history and rights and supporting Indigenous-led initiatives. At the heart of Muin Clothing Co. is the drive to narrate the nation’s story through apparel, ensuring Indigenous involvement at every production level. Derek Lewis’s philosophy resonates with a simple truth: Genuine art carries a piece of the creator’s soul.

My final example is a thriving small business: Mi’kma’ki Craft Supplies. While we often direct our attention toward larger business investments, it’s crucial not to overlook the profound impact of smaller enterprises, particularly those owned by Indigenous women. Despite women making up 51% of the Indigenous population in Canada, they make up only 41% of the self-employed Indigenous population, according to a National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association, or NACCA, report on Indigenous women entrepreneurs.

According to NACCA, Indigenous women face unique challenges when starting and owning their own businesses. Some of these challenges include lack of access to financing due to ineligibility for certain programs and resources; Indigenous women being faced with the responsibility of taking care of their family, parents and often grandparents; a lack of support from their communities, chiefs and councils; and lastly, a lack of knowledge and education about financial literacy, business planning, regulations and management.

Despite these setbacks, Indigenous women are motivated, strive for personal autonomy and continue to pursue their passions and dreams of starting their own businesses. These businesses do more than just contribute to the economy; they serve as vibrant hubs of culture.

Here’s an example: In March of 2020, Theresa Meuse, a dedicated Indigenous student support worker, noticed a major gap in resources reflective of Mi’kmaq culture for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Recognizing that need and fuelled by the positive reception to homemade educational tools she had developed during her tenure with the school board, she embarked on a journey to launch her own online business, Mi’kma’ki Craft Supplies. Partnering with a Mi’kmaq publishing company, she turned her grassroots tools into professionally developed resources that not only fostered cultural education for non-Indigenous individuals but also strengthened cultural ties in the Indigenous community.

However, the journey wasn’t without its hurdles. Being off-reserve, Theresa grappled with a distinct lack of resources and guidance, from the absence of Indigenous economic development officers to the intricacies in tax reporting for Indigenous off-reserve businesses. Encounters with programs like Nova Scotia Indigenous Tourism Enterprise Network hinted at opportunities, but they often didn’t align with the unique needs of her business. Despite these challenges, Theresa Meuse remains committed to her mission, offering a platform that educates and immerses individuals in Mi’kmaq culture.

Traditional crafts handmade with techniques passed down through generations not only find a marketplace but also offer a unique educational experience. Consumers of these products get a tangible insight into Indigenous culture, a form of storytelling that goes beyond the written or spoken word. For Indigenous entrepreneurs, these businesses serve a dual role as both a source of financial independence and a method of preserving cultural traditions.

To conclude, honourable senators, from the pioneering steps of Clearwater joining with the Mi’kmaq Coalition to lead transformational change in the seafood industry, to the heartfelt endeavours of Theresa Meuse with Mi’kma’ki Craft Supplies, and on to Derek Lewis — whose T-shirts have become more than just apparel — these are markers for Indigenous recognition. Each tells a unique tale of Indigenous resilience, innovation and tradition. There are many examples across Nova Scotia — and indeed Atlantic Canada and this country.

I want to thank you, Senator Klyne, for introducing this inquiry and allowing me the creative space to talk about some of the Indigenous businesses that thrive in my home province of Nova Scotia. We wish them continued success. Thank you. Asante.

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