For Milton Tootoosis, talk of reconciliation only goes so far. He wants to see results.
As a chief economic reconciliation officer (CERO) with a city economic development agency, Mr. Tootoosis sees his role as a platform to make those results happen.
“I want to elevate the urgency for corporate Canada, including small business, to really get serious about actively engaging with the Indigenous community – as employees, as business partners,” Mr. Tootoosis said in a recent interview.
“We need more companies to do their active part,” he said.
A member of the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Mr. Tootoosis was named CERO of the Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority when the position was created in February.
He’d been hired a few months earlier, in September, 2021, as director of Indigenous economic development, but moved into the new role when it was created. SREDA is now recruiting for his former position.
The concept of economic reconciliation has been on the corporate radar since at least 2015, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued a final report that included 94 calls to action related to issues including child welfare, health and education.
Call to action No. 92 is directed at corporate Canada and, among other things, calls on the business sector to ensure Indigenous people have equal access to jobs, training and education opportunities.
Those calls to action were top of mind when SREDA created the CERO role, said chief executive officer Alex Fallon.
“In order to make economic reconciliation a focus of the business, to drive results, to incorporate it into everything we do, [economic reconciliation] needs to have an executive role,” Mr. Fallon said.
The Saskatoon census metropolitan area has a population of 317,480 people, of whom about 11 per cent, identified as Indigenous, according to 2021 census results from Statistics Canada. That compares with about 5 per cent of Canada’s total population.
There are gaps in employment, income and education between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
Average Indigenous income and educational attainment remain below the national average, the report found, and where improvements in employment and participation rates have occurred, they have been “marginal at best” and have not been shared equally across the country.
Mr. Tootoosis wants to tackle those disparities head on.
“For me, it’s not enough to have a treaty or a land acknowledgment. It’s not enough to have walks on Orange Shirt Day. We need CEOs to step up,” he said.
Since joining SREDA, he’s been involved in helping two nearby communities, Martensville and Warman, develop Indigenous procurement strategies, as well as bolstering Indigenous participation rates in a SREDA-sponsored entrepreneurship contest.
Both of Mr. Tootoosis’s parents and some of his siblings attended residential schools, but he did not. After attending local public schools, he enrolled in the First Nations University of Canada, based in Regina and formerly known as the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College.
There, he met Indigenous teachers, researchers and a circle of like-minded students, experiencing a welcoming atmosphere he still marvels at nearly 40 years later.
“It was a safe place and we felt like we belonged. It was a small campus, we had elders there, we had pipe ceremonies, we could hang out in the cafeteria with native students – we’d never had that in high school,” he said.
He went on to work with organizations including the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, a group founded in 1989 as a liaison between the Government of Canada and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 treaty First Nations in Saskatchewan.
A former headman, or councillor, with the Poundmaker Cree Nation, Mr. Tootoosis was also involved in a campaign to secure exoneration for Chief Poundmaker, who in 1885 was wrongfully convicted of treason after trying to negotiate a peace agreement with the federal government. The chief was formally exonerated in 2019.
In his current role, he’s optimistic about the potential for net-zero initiatives to drive investment in and partnerships with Indigenous communities. He cites the rare earth sector – the Saskatchewan government in September held a rare earth summit and is trying to position the province as a critical minerals hub – as one area for potential growth
And he hopes other institutions make reconciliation a priority, perhaps even by putting a reconciliation officer in the corner suite, saying well-chronicled social problems – including the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the child welfare and criminal justice system – have poverty as an underlying cause.
“If we can improve and close that economic [gap], we can address those social problems – and that’s only going to happen when more CEOs come to the table.”