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Soumen Roy is country head for Tata Consultancy Services Canada and JP Gladu is president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.

Indigenous business owners and employees have made impressive gains over the past two decades. Today, there are more than 50,000 Indigenous-owned businesses in Canada that contribute more than $12-billion annually to the Canadian economy.

The digital age, with its fast-changing technologies and demands for talent, presents both challenges and opportunities for the economic prosperity of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous communities are faced with sizable educational and infrastructure deficits that limit their opportunity, exposure and growth. According to recent data, only 4.13 per cent of the Indigenous population has a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) background.

Yet, Indigenous peoples comprise the fastest-growing and youngest population in Canada – an expanding pool of potential talent in an economy that would do well to realize it.

There are a number of success stories. They include ventures underpinned by tech, such as Big River Analytics (BRA), an interdisciplinary consulting firm based in Terrace, B.C. Despite operating from a remote region, most of BRA’s clients are in urban centres such as Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Ottawa and Toronto. High-speed fibre-optic internet recently installed in northern British Columbia has permitted the business to grow. The company also leverages open-source software to deliver products and services to small Indigenous communities historically only available to big national organizations.

Many Indigenous-owned businesses have emerged out of necessity to address existential challenges in communities. Bruce Hardy, a Métis business owner from Manitoba, became increasingly aware of the health challenges facing many Indigenous people in rural and fly-in communities owing to limited access to affordable nutritious food. In 2011, he founded Myera Group Inc., an innovative fish-farming company. Myera Group leverages sensor technology and artificial intelligence to monitor farmed fish in real time. Its system calculates optimal variables including the temperature of the tank, the rate of fish feed entering the system and the water velocity needed to flush out waste. The venture is creating exponential value in that nothing is wasted. Even the fish wastewater is used to grow flowers for medical honey.

Lyle Fabian, president of KatloTech Communication Ltd. (KTC) in Yellowknife, is passionate about bringing broadband internet to First Nations. Mr. Fabian knows how important internet connectivity is for rural communities – its impact on health care, education, economic development and preservation of culture. KTC delivers high-quality broadband connectivity solutions to residential, commercial and First Nations government customers throughout the North.

Due to the remoteness of many First Nations, transportation of basic supplies can be a challenge. For example, two communities in Ontario, Moose Cree First Nation and MoCreebec, are located on Moose Factory Island, which is separated from nearby Moosonee by the Moose River. Infrastructure and logistical challenges contribute to increased living expenses, especially in the spring and fall when transportation by boat or helicopter is uncertain. However, drone technology could revolutionize how residents receive their goods. Real-world testing of the depot-to-depot drone delivery system between Moosonee and Moose Factory was completed in early 2019, and heavy-lift models with higher weight-carrying capacity are already in the works.

When it comes to education and training, we are once again seeing how astutely some Indigenous businesses are using tech. Students and workers typically have no choice but to travel to urban areas, far from reserves, to build their skills. Melissa Hardy-Giles and Paul Giles founded Origin Inc., a company that creates safe and culturally secure training delivered through simulators trailered right into communities and through mobile apps. Samson Cree Nation developed the Maskosis Goes to School app to appeal to a new generation of tech-savvy Cree speakers. The app teaches basic Cree language skills and can be downloaded from the iTunes store.

These and other promising examples of successful initiatives are encouraging. But how can we scale such success stories and ensure inclusion of more Indigenous businesses and peoples in the digital revolution?

As an initial step, the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) partnered with Tata Consultancy Services to release Digital Directions: Towards skills development and inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in the new economy. The first in a series of reports, it includes recommendations to support skills development and help Indigenous businesses continue to adapt and succeed in an evolving digital economy.

A sustained, collaborative effort by industry, community leaders, government and academia will help ensure Indigenous businesses and communities can plan for the extraordinary opportunities and challenges ahead.

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