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'By increasing Indigenous procurement to 5 per cent, we estimate that $5-billion would be added to the Indigenous economy,' Tabatha Bull says, 'which will in turn improve employment rates, housing and health of Indigenous people – and that’s what economic reconciliation looks like.'

Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Tabatha Bull, a member of the Nipissing First Nation, is the president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, based in Toronto. The council supports the development of Indigenous businesses as a means of empowering Indigenous peoples through partnerships with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses. Ms. Bull came to her role at CCAB after a career in the electrical engineering sector. Her motivation in both engineering and business has always been to bolster collaborative approaches to reconciliation.

What sets Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership apart?

I always think about the Seven Grandfather Teachings in all that I do. With them in mind, I accept every employee as a whole person. That includes a real respect and understanding of the importance of family and community, which is so important in Indigenous communities and in Indigenous leadership. My team is a second family, so I’m very honest and transparent with them. I know that I am a better leader if my family is well and I lead knowing that my employees feel the same way. I always strive to prioritize and make space for family and wellness.

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What are some of the primary challenges and opportunities that you see for Indigenous communities in the current economic landscape?

I took on the role of CEO the day we shifted to remote work in Ontario as a result of the pandemic, which has really shone a light on the importance of a business association to support and advocate for Indigenous businesses and the unique barriers they face. In the spring, the government rolled out essential programs for businesses, but Indigenous businesses were ineligible for a number of them. This highlighted the need for our continued advocacy for Indigenous businesses to have more input in government policies and programs that impact Indigenous prosperity.

Recently, we’ve seen a significant Indigenous resurgence in the economy. Indigenous people are creating businesses at nine times the rate of non-Indigenous Canadians. What CCAB is trying to do is ensure that we can sustain that growth through the pandemic and to ensure that we continue on the same growth trajectory moving forward. We must make Indigenous business a priority through recovery and beyond. If we’re buying Canadian, let’s ensure that we’re buying from Indigenous businesses. If we’re investing in new infrastructure to stimulate the economy, let’s make certain that those projects are in communities or that they have an Indigenous business or community as a partner. We need to guarantee that Indigenous business and peoples are considered, not just in the departments of Indigenous Services Canada, but also across all ministries and at the time that policies and programs are developed, not as an afterthought.

What is the link between the prosperity and the well-being of Indigenous communities and peoples?

In all communities, we know that economic development improves quality of life. For First Nations, Inuit and Métis who have been systematically excluded from the Canadian economy for hundreds of years, the social benefits of economically prosperous communities are massive.

The majority of Indigenous businesses are built on sustainability and ensuring that there is well-being and support in and for the community. So, in many Indigenous businesses, the value of holistic well-being is inherently connected to economic prosperity. We also see Indigenous businesses employ more Indigenous people than non-Indigenous businesses, which has a direct effect on families. They’re also very focused on diversity, which is providing an example for Indigenous youth of successful Indigenous entrepreneurs whose footsteps they can follow in or who might be able to mentor them.

What struck me when COVID hit is the collaboration between Indigenous businesses and national organizations like CCAB designed to support our communities. As a collective, everyone stood together and shouldered each other’s burdens. Teara Fraser, who owns an Indigenous airline and who has also established a new program called Lift Collective, is an incredible example of that support. At the start of the pandemic, she started these Sunday afternoon calls for Indigenous women entrepreneurs that were about finding ways in which we could help one another out. That sense of community wellness through business is so important for our collective well-being.

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Why is it important that Canada and Canadians support Indigenous businesses?

It’s all about connecting with and supporting Indigenous peoples. If we are successful in doing that, we will ensure a better future for all.

It is not an increase to your personal pocketbook, your company or government budget. It is about making an effort to buy your goods and services from Indigenous businesses in order to help to close the socio-economic gap.

If we look at government [spending], there doesn’t have to be an increase in taxes for the government of Canada to support Indigenous businesses. Last year, our research demonstrated that Indigenous businesses have the capacity to supply 24 per cent of federal procurement. As a result of those findings, the government mandated procurement from Indigenous business to at least 5 per cent. That’s not new tax dollars, it’s money that they’re already spending every year. By increasing Indigenous procurement to 5 per cent, we estimate that $5-billion would be added to the Indigenous economy, which will in turn improve employment rates, housing and health of Indigenous people – and that’s what economic reconciliation looks like.

Where do you hope to see Indigenous businesses in the next few years?

I’d like to see Indigenous businesses treated equally and equitably in the economy. I’d like for them not to be seen as higher risk when they go into a bank for financing. I’d like for them to be able to scale up and still be Indigenous-owned. I’d like to see easier access to professional and financial networks, too. People who grew up and live in the city have the networks and access to financing they need to start a successful business. We want to make sure Indigenous entrepreneurs have access to the same networks and opportunities.

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Ultimately, I would like to see Indigenous businesses as such an integral part of the Canadian economy that we don’t have to have a discussion any more on Indigenous economy versus Canadian economy.

What is your advice to Indigenous youth?

Set a goal. It doesn’t have to be a 20-year goal, it can be a five-year goal. In setting that goal, love yourself enough to be flexible as you learn and grow along the way. I never thought that I would be the CEO of CCAB. Originally, I went to engineering school to help communities through engineering and I’m happy to say that I did that, but I reached this place where I thought, ‘I’ve done that, what next?’ Thankfully, I was encouraged to get involved with CCAB and become their COO [chief operating officer]. I would never have thought to do that for myself without believing in myself and being flexible about my goals.

It’s also important to grow your network. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and discuss your career aspirations and business ideas. Your own goals, aspirations and ideas are important.

Read more from our Indigenous business leaders series:

For APTN chief executive Monika Ille, leadership means honouring her Nation’s history

Pause, think, listen: National Bank Financial’s Sean St. John on using Indigenous approaches to leadership

About the series

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Canada has a long history of dispossession, oppression and discrimination of Indigenous peoples. The future, however, is filled with hope. The Indigenous population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada; its youth are catalyzing change from coast to coast to coast. Indigenous knowledge and teachings are guiding innovative approaches to environmental protection and holistic wellness worldwide. Indigenous scholars are among those leading the way in exciting new research in science, business and beyond. There is no better or more urgent time to understand and celebrate the importance of Indigenous insight, culture and perspective.

Optimism is rare in media. And coverage of Indigenous peoples often fails to capture their brilliance, diversity and strength. In this weekly interview series, we will engage Indigenous leaders in thoughtful conversation and showcase their stories, strategies, challenges and achievements.

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