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Santana Wooden, spa director of T'Sala Salon Spa, is photographed at her spa in North Vancouver, on Oct. 7, 2019.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

When Santana Wooden opened T’Sala Salon Spa, a storefront on the Squamish Nation’s reserve in North Vancouver, the only thing it offered was manicures and pedicures. After hearing about the Squamish Nation Trust (SNT), a fund to help entrepreneurs who are members of the First Nation, Ms. Wooden applied and got a grant of around $6,000. The money helped her buy equipment to allow her to expand her offerings to include waxing, massages and facial services. Now, her growing business has moved off reserve to Lower Lonsdale, a vibrant North Vancouver waterfront neighbourhood with more foot traffic and tourism.

“Being at that time a young mom and trying to provide for my kids, that was a really difficult time for me,” Ms. Wooden said. She says the grant may not seem like a lot of money, but it was the little bit she needed to expand her shop, which she wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

The practice of creating trust funds has become popular among First Nation communities that receive money in agreements with government or corporations. This money is usually put toward community initiatives such as health benefits and investments for future generations. However, a few First Nations, such as the Squamish, have set aside a portion of money to finance the growth of small businesses run by local entrepreneurs. This money, coupled with mentorship for entrepreneurs, is helping new Indigenous businesses get off the ground.

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Indigenous businesses often face challenges in getting financing. Many entrepreneurs lack the necessary collateral and capital, and entrepreneurs living on reserve may lack the titles to their homes, which can make it difficult to secure loans.

Now retired, Lisa Ethans was the partner and founding leader of Deloitte’s wealth management and aboriginal client services and has worked with First Nations for 30 years. She says that one of the other major gaps that trust funds fill is mentorship.

“If you have a First Nation way up north and somebody wants to start a restaurant because there really isn’t any within 50 kilometres to eat, where do they get the training or the assistance or the ongoing coaching to be able to?” she said. “The biggest change is that people are getting more educated, so they know more what to expect and the challenges of being an entrepreneur. That is going to make them more successful.”

Since opening her salon eight years ago, Ms. Wooden’s revenue has tripled from her first year and she now has three other employees. To apply for her grant, she went through a two-stage process in which she had to create a business plan with financial projections and cash flow – all with the help and mentorship of the SNT. Continuing advice and mentorship is provided outside regular business hours to help ensure applicants get the necessary support.

Brad Baker, a member of the Squamish Nation, is one of four appointed trustees for the SNT. He and his team work with an investment adviser to make sure the $92.5-million from a settlement agreement back in 2000 is being spent properly for the members.

He says they allocate anywhere between $250,000 and $350,000 a year to small businesses. If a business does not continue after three years of the initial funding, they may be required to pay the funds back to the Trust.

“A trust with any First Nation is going to support the local members to become strong entrepreneurs and at the end, help the economy of the First Nation, so we see the trust as a valuable asset to the Squamish Nation,” he said.

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The Nisga’a Lisims Government was one of the earlier modern settlements to set up a trust fund. With limited employment opportunities nearby, the nation turned to entrepreneurship to create jobs and to profit from tourism. The First Nation sits close to the coastline of Northern B.C. by the Nass Valley, and has beautiful scenery, lava beds, hot springs, fishing and wildlife.

Steve Johnson is the owner and operator of Nass Valley Tours. He previously worked a desk job and, growing up, never knew of any First Nation businesses other than the local corner stores.

He received a grant of $6,000 and started his business in 2010, giving tours of the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park. With the money, he was able to buy machinery to help with maintenance of the park and the routes for his tours.

“Without their help, I would still be in government jobs waiting for opportunities," Mr. Johnson says. "This allowed me not only to grow my own company, but I also employ other people, so I use the money as best I can.” He says the mentorship was also valuable in helping him deal with GST obligations and payroll tax.

Nisga’a economic development manager Bertram Mercer says the Nisga’a Lisims Government puts approximately $400,000 each year into the Nisga’a business development fund to be given away under a contribution agreement. If a business is still operational after two years, its loan is written off as a grant.

Some of the ventures these trusts support are not traditional small businesses.

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Orene Askew, better known to some as DJ O Show, got a grant of $4,000 from the Squamish Nation Trust to further her career as a DJ. After working for an event company, she decided she wanted to cut out the middleman and become a mentor for Indigenous youth who want to get involved in the music scene. She used her grant to buy turntables and a laptop.

Ms. Askew says the grant was a stepping-stone to booking her own gigs, and has expanded into acting and motivational speaking. This year she played at SXSW Music Festival and was the grand marshal at the Vancouver Pride parade. Without that initial funding, she imagines her life could have gone on a different path.

“I might still be working the three retail jobs and DJing when I could,” she said. “[The grant] is just such a pivotal platform and stepping-stone and that’s what I try to do in my community too is to try to help the people."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Santana Wooden as the owner of the T’Sala Salon Spa. She is the spa director.

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