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

By: The Hon. Marty Klyne

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Hon. Marty Klyne rose pursuant to notice of March 28, 2023:

That he will call the attention of the Senate to the ongoing business and economic contributions made by Indigenous businesses to Canada’s economy.

He said: Honourable senators, I am pleased to commence this inquiry recognizing Indigenous-owned and controlled businesses in Canada. Indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses are essential to Indigenous independence, wealth creation and self-determination. Stories shared through this inquiry will illustrate the tremendous successes of Indigenous businesses and, importantly, the valued contributions made to our nation’s economy, not to mention the engagement of untapped productivity, innovation and idle resources.

In addition, I submit for your consideration that it is of vital importance that we also consider what we can do to knock down barriers and clear a pathway to access continued education, training, capital and therefore further our nation’s economy.

I’m proud to stand in this chamber and begin sharing these stories, and look forward to other senators’ contributions to this conversation in the weeks and months ahead.

Colleagues, we speak a lot about reconciliation, particularly about upholding rights and addressing injustices. Economic reconciliation is a related topic that requires our full attention. We can move forward as a country faster and further if all people in Canada can access equitable opportunities to prosper and contribute to our shared wealth.

This was a theme of the Senate Prosperity Action Group’s 2021 report. With that in mind, let’s acknowledge and celebrate the excellent Indigenous businesses and economic development organizations in Canada that are creating wealth, independence, self-determination and, most of all, hope.

For decades, a narrative has existed around Indigenous businesses that suggests such businesses are few and far between, largely dependent on government support and making an insignificant contribution to our GDP and the social fabric and well-being of Canada. The truth is, well, quite the opposite. According to the National Indigenous Economic Development Board, there are more than 50,000 Indigenous-owned businesses in Canada that together contribute $31 billion to Canada’s gross domestic product annually.

In addition, in the aforementioned Prosperity Action Group’s 2021 report, Indigenous economic development leaders cited Indigenous-owned businesses in Canada contributing $100 billion to the GDP in the next few years.

There are over 50 Aboriginal Financial Institutions, or AFIs, in this country from coast to coast to coast providing financing for the start-up, expansion and acquisition of Indigenous-owned and controlled businesses. Many of these developmental lenders, which were initially capitalized with $5 million, lent that capital out to start businesses. They got the money back with interest and lent it out again and again, leveraging it multiple times and creating thousands of jobs. As developmental lenders, these AFIs would lend money and subordinate their positions to mainstream banks and credit unions to bring that mainstream financing to the table. In essence, they would lend $1 to leverage $3 to $4.

They also provided business planning and business advisory services. At the end of the day, the cost of creating a job was far below any government programs — by far — not to mention the building of capacity and creating of wealth at the same time. I add that the loan loss provisions of these AFIs were extremely favourable largely because there is peer and community oversight in an informal manner.

I’ll share an example of an organization from my home province of Saskatchewan that will demonstrate what modern Indigenous organizations look like in Canada. I begin with the story of Whitecap Dakota First Nation and the inspiring economic success they have achieved over the past three decades. Whitecap Dakota’s origins date back to time immemorial. Their history is rich, colourful and serves as a narrative of finding success through innovation and hard work, despite the odds being stacked against them.

For generations, the Dakota maintained friendship and partnership with the British Crown, and they later settled in an area known as Moose Woods, located not far from Saskatoon. As the years went by and Canada became a country, many non-Indigenous people prospered. Sadly and unjustly, generations of the Dakota could not access and share in that same level of wealth creation and prosperity. Colonial policies, including rights violations and the traumas inflicted by the residential school system, didn’t just have a negative social and cultural impact on the Dakota. It also tragically affected their economic capacity, resulting in years of high unemployment and extremely limited opportunities. Those missed opportunities didn’t just cost the Whitecap Dakota, they cost everyone — Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

For the Whitecap, it became clear that the need to create and drive the conditions for prosperity would have to come from within. In the 1990s, under the leadership of band council — and, notably, under the leadership of Chief Darcy Bear — Whitecap Dakota First Nation decided to take control of their own destiny. As a nation with courage and conviction, they leaped into action to pursue development opportunities and to provide a better future for their people. With perseverance, they methodically sought investment and they delivered results. To date, Whitecap Dakota has attracted over $160 million in capital investment in economic development and tourism, and they’re just getting started.

Some of Whitecap’s most notable successes have come through the Whitecap Development Corporation. Economic development organizations can play a huge role in attracting investment and opportunities, and Whitecap is a prime example. They boast some incredible businesses, such as the Dakota Dunes Golf Links — a renowned golf course. The course features sand dunes, wild roses and tremendous natural beauty. It is ranked the number one public golf course in Saskatchewan — and we have a great number of highly rated golf courses in my province.

Whitecap has other ventures too, including the Dakota Dunes Resort and Dakota Dunes Casino, which create a high-end resort that not only features incredible amenities but also ties in the rich history and culture of the Dakota in a true and authentic manner. The golf course, hotel and casino aren’t just luxury accommodations — they are important economic drivers that have helped boost employment and given young people opportunities that did not exist a generation or two ago.

Today, Whitecap offers health care services and a child care centre that are available to both band members and non-band members.

Were there bumps along the way? You bet. In fact, one of the lessons learned for many Indigenous economic development corporations came through the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought to light that the majority of investments were in the tourism industry — which, as we know, was negatively impacted by COVID-19 — and highlighted the importance of diversifying business portfolios to help manage uncertainty.

Like many entrepreneurial Indigenous communities across Canada, Whitecap found opportunity in a place where few might have thought that opportunity would exist. This perspective changed lives. What began as an economically isolated reserve is now an important economic driver for our province. Their story is one that inspires.

Whitecap has flipped the script, and they now serve as a model to Canada of what can happen when Indigenous peoples empower themselves to take charge of their own destiny. That journey — that unwavering faith in their own potential — is what has driven Dakota Whitecap, and it is what drives so many other Indigenous businesses in Canada.

When I spoke with Chief Bear a few months ago about Whitecap’s success, he spoke about the importance of bringing employment to the reserve and what that has meant to their people. He told me that unemployment has dropped significantly and that young people have more role models and better opportunities. Most importantly, their young people have hope. If you ever wonder why there is a high incidence of suicide on some reserves, it is largely due to desperation and a bleak future ahead.

Chief Bear’s accomplishments speak for themselves. He has received both the Order of Canada and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit. In 2012, he received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

His business credentials are also evident. He is chairperson of SaskPower, he was listed as one of the “Ten Most Influential People” by Saskatchewan Business Magazine, and he received CANDO’s “Economic Developer of the Year” title in 2006. More recently, in 2016, he received the Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.

I’m also happy to share that Whitecap Dakota is making history as they are set to become the first self-governing First Nation in Saskatchewan following a historic vote of its membership this past October. It is an important milestone and one that helps solidify their efforts to achieve even greater financial autonomy and self-determination in our nation of nations.

Historically, Indigenous peoples were the first business leaders on this land, with continental trade thriving before European settlement. When settlers arrived, our people shared what they had, including essential local knowledge and resources, forming the early basis for our country’s commerce system. The fur trade is one example. However, as we all know, that early spirit of mutual respect and partnership went another way.

With acceptance of the truth of history, reconciliation aims to rekindle the spirit of equal respect and mutual benefit, including in economic ventures on these shared lands and waters. This includes resource development, such as critical minerals, and in all the areas of business growth that accompany successful projects.

Indigenous business surrounds us. These businesses are active everywhere across Canada — from urban cores to rural towns, in markets from coast to coast to coast — and, yes, both on-reserve and off-reserve. Indigenous companies often operate in areas where non-Indigenous companies don’t see the market opportunities. Indigenous businesses take the lead to ensure those underserved communities have access to non-discretionary goods and services. After all, you aren’t likely to find a Shoppers Drug Mart or Walmart on a reserve that can only be reached by an airplane.

A 2016 study by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business found that Indigenous businesses tend to focus on serving local markets, but many are now expanding their customer base beyond their traditional areas of support. It is in these areas that Indigenous businesses are filling gaps, serving customers and creating jobs and prosperity.

This topic is personal for me. Prior to becoming a senator, I worked in mainstream business heading up large, medium and small businesses — including an Aboriginal capital corporation that funded the start-up of hundreds of Indigenous-owned and Indigenous-controlled businesses which employed thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people living in remote, rural and urban communities throughout Saskatchewan.

For decades, I have been an advocate for the education of Indigenous youth and young adults, and for creating wealth and hope through Indigenous business ownership. Through this inquiry, I hope that we can change the narrative and stereotypes, and help encourage even more young Indigenous peoples to explore commerce. I hope we can shine a light on the amazing stories happening across the country, thereby enriching our knowledge through exploring the unique challenges and features associated with starting and running Indigenous businesses, as well as through witnessing the building of capacity — creating wealth and independence for generations to come.

As senators, we are in a strong position to tell those stories using our national platform. This is a topic that does not run along partisan or ideological lines. Every person in this chamber should want Indigenous businesses and peoples to succeed and prosper to the benefit of our entire society.

Indeed, enhanced economic prosperity for Indigenous peoples means greater prosperity for everyone. A recent report from RBC noted that if Indigenous workers were empowered to participate in our economy at the same level as non-Indigenous workers, Canada would see an additional $67 billion in GDP. That is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss. I’m thrilled to see growing Indigenous representation at economic conferences and summits, including at the recent North American Leaders’ Summit.

While much work remains, progress is being made. Another example of innovation from Saskatchewan can be found in the Treaty Land Sharing Network. Founded in the wake of the death of Colten Boushie, the network was created as a means of connecting farmers and rural landowners with First Nations and Métis peoples.

Participating members in the network place signs on their land informing traditional land users that they can gather, hunt, hold ceremonies and exercise their treaty rights in a safe space. Not only has this network helped to create a safe space, but it has also led to new friendships, helped to promote knowledge transfer and fostered a renewed commitment to community. It is an important initiative and one that illustrates the shared prosperity that is found when we work together.

Colleagues, economic reconciliation sometimes gets lost in the broader discussion of recognizing rights and addressing past injustices. That is something we need to change. Empowering Indigenous peoples to take full ownership of their economic potential is something Canada must do if we are to progress towards a more equitable future. We need to do more to encourage Indigenous-owned and Indigenous-controlled businesses in Canada and to support economic capacity as an aspect of self-determination. The results are clear — just look at what is happening at Whitecap Dakota or in places like Osoyoos Indian Band or Membertou First Nation. I know that Senator Busson will have more to say about Osoyoos.

Honourable senators, it is my hope that this inquiry can shine a light on some of the greatest economic success stories of Indigenous peoples. We can provide a platform and give a voice to Indigenous business leaders and the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. Everyone stands to benefit from economic reconciliation. For too long, this country has been divided across social and economic lines that should never have come to exist. Everyone deserves a fair chance to participate in wealth creation and to build prosperity for their community.

I hope you’ll join me in this effort, and I hope that everyone in this chamber will consider lending their support — and their voice — to this inquiry.

If you are interested in profiling Indigenous business success in your region, call my office; we’d be happy to assist.

Thank you. Hiy kitatamîhin.

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