Jean Paul Gladu is CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.
We cannot reverse hundreds of years of unequal relationships overnight. A history of broken treaties, territorial dispossession, reserves and residential schools will take time to overcome. This sad legacy is reflected in contemporary indigenous culture, education, health and wellness – and in the economic marginalization of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada.
This disempowerment lies at the root of many of the broader social challenges faced by aboriginal peoples today, compounded by the trauma of history. While fixing this economic disparity won't be enough on its own to bring about reconciliation, it can be a vital part of a sustainable solution. Leaving economic equality out of any conversation on reconciliation risks wallpapering over deeper realities.
The fur trade was a healthy economic force that worked in an equitable manner. Through the fur trade, aboriginal peoples had "the first successful business enterprise after contact," Paul-Emile McNab wrote in the first issue of Aboriginal Business Report magazine, published by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.
Métis historian Dr. David T. McNab told him that aboriginal communities and economies were "highly diversified and unique," acting as a driving force of a new world economy. Commerce was a major component of this early relationship – and it should be again.
Section 92 (ii) of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's findings call for Canadian business to ensure that aboriginal peoples "have equitable access to jobs, training and education opportunities in the corporate sector, and that aboriginal communities gain long-term sustainable benefits from economic development projects."
In many indigenous communities, this goal is becoming reality. From the northern Inuit communities of Labrador to the Southern Coast Salish peoples of B.C., indigenous Canadians are re-establishing themselves as full-fledged partners in economic development. But this success is revolutionary, and far from uniform. It's up to all Canadians, as treaty peoples, to find innovative partnerships and ensure that negative stereotyping and a history of marginalization don't hold indigenous Canadians back from economic reconciliation.
The core of economic reconciliation is supporting indigenous communities, no matter how small, so that they have access to resources and opportunities to succeed. This is key to the "free and prior informed consent" language on development projects to which Canada is committed under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As well, it would ensure that indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses have business-friendly environments in which to succeed.
The needs of indigenous communities are as unique as their histories, cultures and geographies. Business people on reserves face unique challenges, different from those in urban centres. However, there are a number of overarching obstacles to economic growth that, if addressed, would unlock the potential of the fastest-growing segment of Canada's population.
The lack of adequate resources allocated to schools on reserves has caused a human capacity shortage. Support for training and education programs, targeting the skills necessary to start small businesses and manage finances, would make a significant impact.
As reserve property is technically held in trust by the federal government, it cannot be leveraged as collateral or used to guarantee large equity loans. This prevents aboriginal peoples from coming to the business table as equals. Finally, there needs to be business supports, particularly for the complex on-reserve legal and regulatory environments that bog down even simple infrastructure development.
First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities must have the resources to drive their own business endeavours and choose their own path toward economic growth, without prejudice.
The need to foster economic reconciliation does not exist in a vacuum. As our population grows, it's critical that we prepare today for the entrepreneurs and business leaders of tomorrow. This next generation must have access to the right technology for tomorrow. We need to connect indigenous young people, especially in the North, where access is often limited. Like any other young people, they need to be ready to work in the digital world.
Why is this necessary? Aboriginal communities are going through a demographic boom, often in areas that face labour shortages and lack suppliers for local development projects. Canada cannot afford to lose the next generation of aboriginal business talent. The cost of inaction will be heavy, and not just for aboriginal peoples.
With economic equality, indigenous peoples have the potential to unlock hundreds of billions of dollars for the Canadian economy. Without economic reconciliation, our unequal trade relationship will continue. We face a unique opportunity to remake the once-vibrant relationship between aboriginal peoples and businesses in the rest of Canada.
I write this based on experience. My organization is a business council made up of more than 500 companies, more than 70 per cent of which are aboriginal-owned and -operated. In the course of our research, we interview more aboriginal companies and aboriginal economic development corporations than any other organization in Canada.
While many Canadian companies are proactively seeking to engage aboriginal peoples, we must continue to encourage Corporate Canada not to ignore the importance of economic reconciliation. In a connected world, new truths and realities need to be respected. Aboriginal peoples want the same prosperity that most Canadians take for granted. All Canadians need to know that aboriginal business is a new force, while respecting our traditions, culture and responsibility to our children.