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Squamish First Nation member Sheryl Fisher signed up at Beedie because she liked the aboriginal focus and flexible schedule.Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail

It has taken a few detours, but Sheryl Fisher's 20-year-long dream to earn a master-level business degree is coming true.

A member of Squamish First Nation in British Columbia, the 44-year-old has worked since leaving high school and earned several college certificates, but none offered a path to a university degree.

That route opened last year when she was accepted into the first class of a new executive MBA in aboriginal business and leadership, unique in Canada for conferring a degree, at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

With Canada's aboriginal population the fastest-growing segment of society – and with treaty rights, land claims and native cultural issues inextricably linked to Canada's future resource development – some business schools are beginning to pursue new initiatives on recruitment, curriculum and specialty programs.

"The game has changed and we are dealing with an unbelievable opportunity," says Mark Selman, a Beedie professor who has worked closely with First Nations communities and is the driving force behind his school's EMBA. "We will not succeed if the legitimate concerns of First Nations are not dealt with."

The Beedie program blends the fundamentals of MBA learning with traditional aboriginal knowledge for working professionals of aboriginal and non-aboriginal descent. As with Beedie's long-standing executive education program, students in the specialty program have years of work experience but may lack a formal degree.

"Like many aboriginal people, they have been through the system and they have been treated badly and held back by all sorts of obstacles," Prof. Selman says.

As a result, he adds, many aboriginal students "have lots of certificates and diplomas and letters of completion for programs, none of which add up to a recognizable degree."

Before setting her sights on a business degree, Ms. Fisher initially planned to become a lawyer to honour her late grandfather, Andrew Paull. He trained to become a lawyer in 1907 but never practised because, at the time, he would have had to renounce his Indian status.

In the late 1980s, right out of high school, Ms. Fisher took a detour from her business education ambitions when she was hired by the federal government. Later, she worked as a life skills coach and earned college certificates in marketing and business. In 2010, she received additional training through the Ch'nook Initiative, developed by the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver to promote aboriginal success in postsecondary business education at any institution.

She worked for her home community of Eslha7an in North Vancouver, B.C., for five years and, for the 2010 Winter Olympics, was hired to manage the Four Host First Nations gallery in the Athlete's Village in Whistler, B.C.

In 2012, initially considering an application to Harvard Business School, she spotted an ad for the Beedie program. Its aboriginal focus and its flexible format – intensive classroom studies of a week or two in Vancouver followed by online learning for readings and group work on her own time – fit her circumstances.

"I really liked how it adapted to what I have been involved in," says Ms. Fisher, who lives on her reserve, works from home and makes a 20-minute commute on the SeaBus to class in downtown Vancouver. "I feel there has been a bit of a void in business and industry with the aboriginal community."

The Beedie degree takes 21/2 years to complete, with tuition of $51,000. The inaugural class took in 25 students, mostly but not all aboriginal, in keeping with the program focus. Prof. Selman expects 35 students for the next intake in September, 2014.

The Beedie EMBA is one of only a handful of programs worldwide (including those in New Zealand for Maori students) that offer degrees in aboriginal business leadership.

"These institutions are in the vanguard," says Stephen Cornell, a co-founder of the Harvard University Project on Indian Economic Development in the late 1980s and a faculty associate with the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona. He has taught in New Zealand and in the new Beedie program.

As aboriginal communities globally regain decision-making power over land and resource development, their leaders are keen to develop home-grown business expertise.

"It has taken a little while but some higher education institutions are responding to that demand," says Prof. Cornell., with an emphasis on innovative programs designed for the target audience.

Even before graduation in 2015, and in response to industry demand, Ms. Fisher is making use of her business studies to accelerate plans to establish herself as cultural business consultant. Taicheng Development Corp., a Chinese firm that purchased land on traditional Squamish territory, has hired her to carry out research on the site and assist in community engagement. Her work will also provide a case study for one of her EMBA projects at Beedie.

She hopes other schools will expand their aboriginal-oriented business studies. "If we want to have a more cohesive Canada," she says, "it is really important to offer programs like this."

Other programs

A growing number of Canadian business schools offer specialty programs with an aboriginal focus. For example:

University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business recently joined the Ch'nook Scholars program that supports aboriginal postsecondary business students in pursuing their careers.

University of Saskatchewan's Edwards School of Business in Saskatoon offers a two-year certificate program for self-identified First Nations and Métis students and a four-year bachelor of commerce that includes aboriginal course content.

University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business in Winnipeg has introduced a new admissions category for its bachelor of commerce to boost participation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students. Selected students – six were admitted this year – receive academic support and personal counselling through the school's long-established aboriginal business education partners program.

University of Winnipeg offers a several aboriginal-focused programs at the undergraduate and graduate level, including a master in development practice in indigenous development established in 2011 in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation and a master of arts in indigenous governance.

Cape Breton University's Shannon School of Business in Sydney, N.S., offers an MBA in community economic development with an option in First Nations. Students can pursue the program full time on campus over 12 to 18 months or through part-time options over 26 months in short-stay residencies on campus or weekend sessions at a various locations across Canada.

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