From airline companies and construction firms to wineries and technology consulting outfits, aboriginal entrepreneurship is thriving like never before, paralleling rapid population growth and rising educational levels. However, native leaders say the renaissance on reserves is hampered by an array of socioeconomic barriers and a lack of outside assistance.
"The last 20 years have seen a lot of growth," said Roberta Jamieson, CEO of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (NAAF). "But the challenges remain pretty staggering, and a lot of that has to do with lack of education and training that we're able to offer to aboriginal people." For example, she says, only 15 aboriginal people earned MBAs in Canada last year.
Ms. Jamieson is a former chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River and Ontario ombudsman, and the first aboriginal woman in Canada to earn a law degree. Like many first nations leaders, she says she is frustrated by misconceptions surrounding aboriginal people, particularly that they get a "free ride" in education as well as health and other social services. "It's simply not true," she said. "There are some financial resources for first nations students, but there isn't nearly enough."
Clint Davis, an Inuk business leader originally from Nunatsiavut, Labrador, and the current CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, says Canada's aboriginal people are "innately entrepreneurial." Mr. Davis, a Harvard graduate in public administration and a former government adviser in the field of aboriginal banking, says he sees a new spirit developing among native youth that bodes well for the future. "There's a need for effective mentorship, and organizations like us and the NAAF are making a concerted effort," he said.
Ms. Jamieson also says native people are natural entrepreneurs, noting that the economy of Canada was built primarily on aboriginal trade routes and business acumen. "There's a myth that our people are anti-development," she said. "That's simply not true."
While the emergence of maverick first nations entrepreneurs such as Jim Boucher and Dave Tuccaro in Alberta, Chief Clarence Louie in British Columbia, and Michael Low in Ontario, point to a promising future for aboriginal business, Ms. Jamieson and Mr. Davis are cautious in their optimism. Ms. Jamieson notes that insufficient access to education for aboriginal youth remains a serious problem.
Aboriginal people continue to trail the rest of the country in high school completion and university enrolment by a significant margin, and this gap is growing. "I think we have a recipe for a pretty bleak future unless we can get a hold of some of those primary issues," Ms. Jamieson said, "and education is the number one issue."
Special to The Globe and Mail