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Kyle Scott/The Globe and Mail

In the early 1990s, a treaty land entitlement in Saskatchewan gave 25 First Nations access to about $400 million to buy land that had been promised to them but never given. All of a sudden, those First Nations became an economic entity, buying farmland, buying land in the cities. And that was different—historically, First Nations weren’t in business in a way that included capital. Also, people figured out that the non-Indigenous population was aging, and the Indigenous population was young. Those two things led to the creation of First Nations Bank of Canada—because we had some leverage both in the economy and in the labour market, and we needed a financial institution that operated for us, not for the landowner or the government or corporations.

We first went to the regulator in the mid-1990s and said, “We have a great idea, and we’ve got all this opportunity.” To help us get started, we partnered with TD Bank, which allowed us to use their expertise but which would, over time, be out of the picture. Still, nobody really took us seriously. So we started slow. We got our charter in 1996. By 2009, we only had about $150-million in assets, but we began to control the bank share-wise. In 2012, we still only had $180-million, but we came off TD’s back-office system and started our own. Today, we have $1.2-billion in assets, plus a trust company that manages another $1-billion, and we’ve had 10% compound annual growth in our loans for the past 18 years.

Part of the reason I’m retiring now is that we’ve got a solid base, and it’s a great opportunity for somebody to drive this even higher. Today, First Nations, Inuit and Métis are involved in very large developments—and there are more Indigenous people running those businesses, which I’m really excited about. And many of their employees are Indigenous, too. That involvement from ownership to front line is a significant change that’s going to continue to have an impact on Indigenous economic development going forward.

There are a lot of people unserved by financial services because of the lack of internet

Keith Martell

Back in 1996, electronic services were minimal at best. Today, they’re a core part of our bank. We’ve taken a significant interest in doing business in the Far North—there are a lot of people that are completely unserved by financial services because of the lack of internet. It’s a cash society. If you lived in Baker Lake and wanted to open a bank account, you had to buy an $800 plane ticket to fly to another community. That’s changing. The internet is going to far-flung parts of the country in a big way. And that brings an opportunity for us to create a modern economy in remote parts of the country, where a lot of the people are Indigenous. But we have to be involved in all types of financing, from structured finance for infrastructure and resource development deals, right down to loans to small businesses.

I’ve been on the board of Nutrien since 2007. At one point, I looked around and counted three Indigenous people on public-company boards in Canada. There are now probably dozens of Indigenous directors on public boards, and not just on the Indigenous committee—they’re on the audit committee, the HR committee. That’s where real change happens, and having an Indigenous voice at the table is so important. /Interview by Alex Mlynek

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