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‘Iskwew’ – a Cree word for ‘woman’ – is part of the name of the first airline in Canada owned by an Indigenous woman, as Iskwew Air was founded by Vancouver-based Métis commercial pilot Teara Fraser.JOSH NEUFELD/Supplied

Entrepreneurship drives economic development and job creation, and nowhere is this more evident than in Indigenous communities. An example is Teara Fraser, who became the first Indigenous woman in Canada to start her own airline when she launched Iskwew Air on International Women’s Day 2019.

A recent survey by the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business (CCAB) for the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) revealed that women-led Indigenous businesses were more likely to be smaller and less well financed than those led by Indigenous men. Women-owned Indigenous businesses – like those owned by other Canadian women – skew towards service industries (62 per cent) but are more diversified, with a growing proportion operating in the primary or resource sector (12 per cent) and secondary or manufacturing sector (22 per cent). Of those surveyed, 9 per cent of women-owned and 18 per cent of men-owned Indigenous businesses had annual revenues of $1-million or more.

“Working with WEKH, we are looking at the unique needs, attributes and priorities as well as the barriers faced by Indigenous women entrepreneurs,” says Tabatha Bull, who is Anishinaabe and a member of Nipissing First Nation near North Bay and CCAB’s president and CEO.

While entrepreneurs in rural and remote areas generally face systemic disadvantages, such as limited access to services, financing, information and basic infrastructure, including broadband, these barriers are exponentially higher for Indigenous women entrepreneurs, says Ms. Bull, who adds that “the pandemic has compounded the effects of a multitude of factors that impact Indigenous women entrepreneurs, since these businesses tend to be smaller, newer and less well financed through a bank, with funding often coming from personal savings or friends.”

COVID-19 has also exacerbated the burden experienced by primary caregivers, says Ashley Richard, who is Métis and the National Indigenous Outreach and Partnership Development lead for WEKH. “In addition to looking after their business, many of these women run the household and take care of children and elders. They may also have community leadership roles.”

We believe young people need to see themselves in role models; that’s why we must showcase successful women entrepreneurs, including Indigenous women.

Ashley Richard, National Indigenous Outreach and Partnership Development lead for the Women Entrepreneurship, Knowledge Hub

Research that advances our understanding of the socio-economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada needs to inform strategies for improving outcomes for Indigenous women entrepreneurs, suggests Ms. Richard. “There is an additional layer of complexity due to the legal and regulatory environment Indigenous women entrepreneurs have to navigate on a day-to-day basis.”

The top structural inequalities for Indigenous women entrepreneurs can be found in overall economic conditions (35 per cent), access to equity or capital (32 per cent) and government policies, rules and regulations (31 per cent). An additional barrier for business owners on reserves is Section 87 of the Indian Act, whereby corporations are ineligible for tax exemptions, leading to only 14 per cent of businesses on reserves being incorporated.

“There is also a lack of accessibility to basic banking services on reserves, making even the simple acts of opening a bank account or cashing cheques challenging,” says Ms. Richard, who spent years consulting and building partnerships with groups serving Indigenous women across the country to understand their challenges and aspirations.

In addition to enhancing economic resilience and creating employment, “women-owned businesses support many others,” notes Ms. Bull. “Which means supporting them can help to strengthen the social fabric and economic position of communities.”

Although often overlooked in the mainstream discourse, innovation is deeply embedded in Indigenous communities. The CCAB survey found, for example, that three-quarters of women-owned Indigenous businesses say they use traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions in their businesses but are not likely to have intellectual property protection. More than 10 per cent report that they have experienced unauthorized use of their ideas or products.

More nuanced understanding and targeted programs are critical to challenging assumptions and supporting Indigenous women entrepreneurs, says Ms. Richard. In addition to partnering with CCAB, Ms. Richard is working with the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association, Futurpreneur, Indigenous LIFT Circle, Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council and Grand Challenges Canada Indigenous Innovation Initiative, in order to develop training, supports and a tool kit by Indigenous women for Indigenous women entrepreneurs.

In a traditional pipe ceremony in Manitoba, WEKH has been recognized as Mikwam Makwa Ikwe, which is Anishinaabe for Ice Bear Woman, a symbol of courage, strength and protection. “Beyond creating support systems today, Indigenous women entrepreneurs can serve as shining examples for future generations,” says Ms. Richard, who draws her inspiration from her late grandmother, Mary Richard, who was known as “the mayor of Main Street” for her engagement in the Indigenous community in Winnipeg’s North End.

“I always had her as my North Star, my guiding light. That’s how I knew I would make something of myself no matter how challenging my path would be. We believe young people need to see themselves in role models; that’s why we must showcase successful women entrepreneurs, including Indigenous women.”

Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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