Mother Earth Recycling
Can entrepreneurship help Indigenous people and the communities they live in? There are numerous Indigenous-led businesses across Canada — providing jobs and valuable services for their local communities — proving that the answer to this question is yes. But if becoming an entrepreneur is challenging for non-Indigenous Canadians, there are sometimes even more obstacles to success for First Nations, Métis, or Inuit people.
How can post-secondary institutions help in the journey to entrepreneurship? The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation's RECODE initiative asked this question when it convened a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous entrepreneurs, as well as post-secondary leaders, to contribute to the report, Insights & Observations at the Intersection of Higher Education.
Legacy of colonization
"While we were taking kids and putting them in residential schools, at the same time, back home on the First Nations, the Canadian government was doing its very best to make sure that there were no — or very few — options for Indigenous economic ventures," said Shaun Loney, one of those who contributed to RECODE's report, and agreed to be interviewed subsequently in late March 2017.
Loney is an Ashoka Fellow based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a serial entrepreneur. He has co-founded 11 social enterprises, is committed to helping promote Indigenous entrepreneurship, and is the author of the book, An Army of Problem Solvers. Loney's book shows how many of the problems faced today by Indigenous people are systemic, and come from years of colonization.
Historically, if Indigenous people wanted to sell their product off the reserve they had to get permission from an Indian agent (a government appointed administrator under the Indian Act). Among numerous examples Loney mentions, he talks about a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation who was sent to residential school because prospects for making a livelihood at home were limited. Lakes were overfished and prices paid to Indigenous fishers were low, causing them to lose money. Settlers cut down trees and took livestock from the Cree.
"There were a lot of ways the Canadian government either allowed the activities that adversely impacted First Nations businesses, or actively suppressed First Nations from competing with non-Aboriginal companies," said Loney in a recent interview.
Changes in post-secondary institutions
Fortunately, things are starting to change. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada issued 94 Calls to Action to advance the process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Several calls to action relate to education, and ensuring Indigenous people have equitable access to jobs and more.
According to the Insights & Observations report, many of the programs offered in post-secondary institutions are related to Indigenous studies or "areas such as public policy, education and economic development from a social perspective (social work)," while a small number of programs focus on building business skills.
Take the Aboriginal Business and Leadership Executive MBA, at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. According to the program director, Mark Selman, the program took nearly eight years to launch.
"I started realizing how many talented, experienced Indigenous leaders there were who never had their fair shake at education and didn't have access to some of the basic fundamentals people learn in business programs," said Selman.
"I got this idea that if we can design a program that will meet the needs of executives in the mining industry we ought to be able to design programs that met the needs of Indigenous leaders."
Selman explained how the Aboriginal Business and Leadership Executive MBA runs as a business program with a few specialized courses, including Indigenous law and Indigenous values and ways of understanding the world. He also says the faculty members try to bring in Aboriginal examples and cases. Aside from the content, the atmosphere is different as well.
"There's a kind of spirit in the group that is quite strong and very welcoming to others. People go out of their way to welcome non-Indigenous people to the program," said Selman.
But while post-secondary institutions are important avenues for building Indigenous entrepreneurship in Canada, Selman believes they are only one of many.
"Yes post-secondary institutions do have a role and they could do more," he said. "Certainly in our program we have a major focus on entrepreneurship, and it is in an Indigenous sense…but that's not going to make a big difference to the quality of entrepreneurial enterprises that take place in remote Indigenous communities," said Selman.
Selman says post-secondary institutions aren't well equipped to help people because "they don't understand the reality Indigenous Canadians are living in," but it is something that is changing rapidly.
"Post-secondary institutions have to work very closely with First Nations and find the way to work together that's successful, and that allows people in communities to feel that they're expressing their own culture through their business enterprises," he said.
What Selman and Loney both agree is crucial for Indigenous entrepreneurs is having a support system while starting their businesses, no matter where the business is.
A thriving Indigenous enterprise in Winnipeg
Mother Earth Recycling is an Indigenous-owned and operated social enterprise operating out of Winnipeg that specializes in e-waste and mattress recycling for the city, the only one of its kind in Manitoba, and focuses on giving back to the Indigenous community in Winnipeg.
Mother Earth Recycling
"We hire primarily people who have no education or little education, who come from up north on reserve, that don't have an opportunity to have a first job up there," said Jessica Florseco, general manager of Mother Earth Recycling. "We try to act as that first job that doesn't require you to know-someone-to-know-someone to get a job."
Floresco says Mother Earth works closely with the Centre for Aboriginal Resource development, which provides funding for staffing, and is a training centre that offers courses and councilors to help people find work and further education. She says people work in their facilities for about six months at a time until they find full time employment or go to school.
"It's had a really positive impact, showing that the Indigenous community can run a business and provide services to the city as a professional business," she said.
Jasmine Kabatay is an Ojibway freelance journalist and photographer. She is based in Toronto, Ontario.