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In the seven years since JP Gladu took charge at the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, the country has collectively cracked an eyelid and become conscious of the needs and interests of its Indigenous peoples. For that, Gladu gives credit to the Trudeau government’s stated commitment to Indigenous communities, to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and even to the late Gord Downie, who used a few of his last spotlit moments to press Canadians to do more. But Gladu deserves credit of his own, for relentlessly making the case that more time and money should be spent on helping Indigenous communities carve their own path to prosperity through business. Of the TRC’s 94 calls to action, he notes, the subject of business, jobs and economic development comes in at No. 92, after media, sports and museums. The CCAB (1) promotes the cause through programs, events and research, while Gladu spends more time travelling than he does at home—he recently hit a million miles with Air Canada—engaging with business leaders, attending board meetings and searching for champions who will not just cheer Indigenous businesses but hire them. We met at Pure Spirits in Toronto’s Distillery District, where Gladu dines often because he has no time to stock his fridge.

I’m leaning to seafood.

I will never order walleye on a menu. I’ve never done it.

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Because I catch it all the time.

Where do you do that?

My reserve is up in northern Ontario. I just got back last night. I caught a bunch of pickerel. I’ve never bought it, ever.

It couldn’t compare to what you’ve experienced.

I don’t look like it, but I’m a prolific outdoors person. I can still go into the bush, harvest a moose, field-dress it, quarter it, pack it out, and cook it for myself and my friends. I’ve been dropped off by float planes in the northeast Rockies. My reserve is on Lake Nipigon, north of Thunder Bay. You can still drink the water out of the lake. Fishing is no problem, although there is some mercury buildup because of inundation from previous dam flooding. We talk about acts of reconciliation—Ontario Hydro dammed our reserve in the early 1900s, flooded our lands, some of our burial grounds. And now I sit on the board of the company that did that. Ontario Hydro split into Hydro One and Ontario Power Generation, and I sit on OPG’s board.

How often do you remind them of that?

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I’ve only reminded them a couple of times. [Laughs] They know. And I’m pleased to be on that board.

Was it your father who taught you how to hunt and dress a moose?

Yes, and moose call. I’m a good moose caller.

Can you do it here?

A bull sounds like this… [He cups his hands around his mouth and nose, and emits short, nasal grunts] And then the cow is… [The sound is higher pitched and drawn out]

Wow. So what got you into business?

I’m actually a recovering entrepreneur. I’ve had a few businesses. When I was working for my First Nation for a few years, I was negotiating deals—forestry, wind, mining, hydro agreements with other communities—and I figured, I’m kind of earning an informal MBA, but I could be smarter, sharper. So I did the Queen’s executive MBA, while I was working. Shortly after I got my MBA, I decided I’d had enough. First Nations politics are quite tough sometimes. And then this job came up.

How are First Nations politics tough?

A chief’s job has got to be one of the toughest jobs. One day they are negotiating multimillion-dollar deals, the next day they are dealing with community members who need home repairs. Because of the way the Indian Act is structured, we can’t own the land on reserve. If you don’t own your own home, then you are reliant on the government, so if something breaks—

That’s why people on reserves can’t get proper loans.

I earn a good living, and I can’t get a loan from a bank without the support of my community backing me to own a home. So, they will take on the risk of the mortgage. If I default on it, then the band has to cover it. The Indian Act is incredibly debilitating.

Could the Indian Act be changed or—

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Disassembled? [Laughs] We’ve been talking about that as leaders for a very long time. But some communities are still very dependent on the Indian Act. There’s such a range of circumstance. Some First Nations are in total disrepair, others are building million-dollar malls. Some communities are in the middle of the boreal forest with no mine or oil and gas activity, or too far north for forestry. How do you build an economy out of that? There’s only so much tourism that can go around.

It must be hard to come up with a strategy that covers all these different circumstances.

It’s really difficult. Education and economy are two fundamentals that are going to elevate our communities. We need to be self-sustaining with our own economy. The challenge is that those who are lucky enough to get educated become doctors, engineers, lawyers, technicians. But they want to earn a living. If there’s no economy to draw them back home, it’s very difficult. A lot of our communities are suffering because a lot of our talent exits reserves to the cities.

What’s your main role in regards to Aboriginal business? Are you promoting the cause or facilitating deals?

Both. We build a space for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal businesses to come together to create opportunity for both. Front and centre for us right now is our Procurement Champions work. Mark Little, the CEO of Suncor, was my first co-chair. Mark and I called on corporations in Canada to do better when it comes to procurement from Aboriginal businesses. Suncor last year spent $700 million-plus on Aboriginal businesses.

An example would be what?

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Bouchier—they are a road-construction civil engineering company in Alberta. (2) They started with $250,000 in the hole and one piece of equipment. Last year, they did about $155 million. A staff of 900, and 37% are Indigenous. You look at the socioeconomic effect that has on a community. Like Fort McKay First Nation, their average salary is about $73,500. (3) You compare that to the $50,000 of the average Albertan. What do you think that community output is? Higher education. Their youth have great programs. They’ve got beautiful homes. Paved roads. A hockey rink that attracts partners. All as a result of business success.

Does spending on Indigenous business have a greater impact on a community than spending in a non-Indigenous community?

You’ve got to look at the starting point. Many of our communities have been managing poverty for 150 years. Economic reconciliation comes when our communities are managing wealth. In order to manage wealth, you’ve got to generate it. Communities that have been embracing economic development are proliferating. You can see the impact that has on the community. The challenge is that the federal government could be doing way more to influence their supply chains. They spend less than 1%, some years only 0.3%, of their total spend (4) on Aboriginal businesses. So we are advocating for 5%—1% per year to get to 5%—which is commensurate with our population. That would increase their spend from an average of $65 million to $1 billion a year. (5)

In your view, how has the Trudeau government handled Indigenous issues?

I’m generally positive. There has been a lot more investment in communities. They’re taking a much broader approach to Indigenous relations. Often in the past it would just be, “That’s Indian stuff; Indian Affairs will do that.” Now we are engaging with six or seven departments. It’s an opportunity for us to actually build relationships, which is fundamental. If you don’t understand each other, how the hell are you going to work together?

Are you one of those who doubts Trudeau’s personal commitment to the issue?

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No. I think he’s really committed. I know both sides get frustrated. I’ve talked to a lot of Indigenous leaders, and many are frustrated with the speed of progress. But I’ve seen changes. You see the boil-water advisories coming down. You see the investment in education and health.

Were the caucus ejections of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott a setback for relations?

I think it was a setback for our country. And the Liberal party.

Have you talked to Trudeau about it?

You know what? I have not met the Prime Minister since he has been prime minister.

That seems significant.

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I’m a little disappointed. A lot of the policy and funding is very reactionary. There are so many tough issues. Suicides, our young people, clean drinking water, a $30- to $40-billion deficit of infrastructure in our communities, education rates. But we would get at those pressing issues more if we had empowerment in the Indigenous economy, and I wish we would spend more time talking about it.

So let’s talk about the Trans Mountain Extension.

Is that an issue? [Chuckles]

There are at least two Indigenous groups vying for an equity piece of TMX. (6) Do you have a philosophical preference for equity participation or revenue-sharing?

When you’ve got skin in the game, when you’ve got equity, you’re forced to learn quickly and develop your business acumen. Then you can transfer that skill set to all sorts of issues. It’s great to have revenue. I’m not knocking communities that do it. But if the economic model makes sense for your community to do equity, philosophically that’s what I believe in.

Do you ever encounter a community that doesn’t want to embrace the modern economy?

Yeah. You know, for a long time, treaty rights weren’t recognized or respected. Now we win over 90% of the court decisions. A good, long-term-thinking Indigenous leader, in my opinion, knows how hard to pull on that treaty lever. Sometimes when I’m sitting with Indigenous leaders, particularly ones with treaty rights, my advice to them is, once you get to the table, release the treaty lever and start pulling like hell on the business lever. I think we get into challenges when leaders keep pulling on the treaty lever until the economic model doesn’t make sense and you can’t do business because you’re asking for too much. In negotiations, there is always a breaking point. Some communities are very treaty focused, and I don’t fault them. But playing both tracks is where the opportunity is for our communities.

1. The CCAB was formed in 1983. Since Gladu became CEO, its staff has grown from seven to 30, and its corporate membership has grown from 180 to nearly 800.

2. In 2015-16, Alberta companies spent $3.3 billion on Aboriginal businesses.

3. According to a 2018 report by the Montreal Economic Institute, First Nations people employed on gas pipelines earned more than $200,000 per year.

4. According to Ottawa, procurement spending for 81 departments of the federal government totalled $20 billion in 2015.

5. In 2017, according to the CCAB, those businesses could have met a 5% federal procurement demand in 84 of 92 North American Industry Code categories.

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6. Project Re-conciliation, a formation of Indigenous groups from across Western Canada, wants to buy 51% of TMX. A group of First Nations and Métis in Alberta, called Iron Coalition, is organizing a competing bid.

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