Indigenbiz Highlighting Indigenous People & Communities Engaged in Meaningful Business & Economic Development
KEVIN ESHKAWKOGAN SAYS REGIONS THAT FIGURE OUT HOW TO WORK WITH FIRST NATIONS WILL BE THE MOST PROSPEROUS IN THE WORLD
by Steven McCoy
Jan 30, 2023
Kevin Eshkawkogan is quick to credit his family’s entrepreneurial spirit when asked about his earliest memories of being involved in business. You can hear the nostalgia in Kevin’s voices as he fondly recalled early memories of slinging Indian Tacos and selling birchbark crafts alongside his grandmother and family while listening to stories of past generations who traversed the Great Lakes region in the USA and Canada as harvesters in the fruit and timber industry.
“They wanted to provide for themselves, to create something for themselves and take care of themselves and their family.” said Eshkawkogan when recalling early memories of his family’s business motivation.
From a young age, Eshkawkogan used his keen observational powers to learn from others and the environment around him. One of his philosophy’s is to ‘go to school on others’, a term simply meaning to learn from other people.
Kevin secured his first job at a grocery store in Chapleau, Ontario at the young age of 13. As he stocked shelves and sweep floors, Kevin quietly studied the shop owner’s day to day routine, absorbing the business mindset of the owner and operator, Roger Perreault. He described the shop owner as a very successful businessperson who was old school in his ways and was ‘firm but always fair’ when dealing with himself and other employees.
“I watch how other groups and other people became successful in the business world…it’s that philosophy of learning from others, it’s been with me from a young age and it’s still there today.” said Eshkawkogan.
Eshkawkogan credits his accounting teacher, Mr. Maclean for nurturing his talent for numbers when he was an adolescent attending high school in Chapleau. As a young adult, Kevin continued his educational journey studying in the fields of business, accounting and political science at various post-secondary institutions such as Lakehead University, Canadore College and York University.
When Eshkawkogan returned to Manitoulin Island to work at Waubetek Business Development Corporation as an intern, he did not intend on sticking around for long but once he started his internship, he felt compelled to stay.
“The work was so rewarding! To help people start their own businesses. I thought, this is amazing, we’re helping people create opportunities for themselves and for others.” said Eshkawkogan when talking about his experience working as an intern at Waubetek.
Drawing on his own life experience of being forced to move away from his home in M’Chigeeng First Nation at an early age so his family could find year-round work opportunities elsewhere, Eshkawkogan came to the realization that First Nation entrepreneurship can help stem the outmigration of people from their home communities.
20 years ago, Eshkawkogan returned home to Manitoulin Island and is happy he chose to stay to help bring entrepreneurship opportunities to his fellow First Nation people and communities locally and now provincially. During this time, Kevin helped bring major development projects to the Manitoulin Island area from revenue-generating wind turbines in M’Chigeeng First Nation to the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre in Little Current. The driving motivation behind his efforts is a strong belief that entrepreneurship and economic development are vital tools to help First Nations to break the dependency trap that’s been systematically forced upon them through colonization.
Now, as President & CEO of Indigenous Tourism Ontario, one of the many organizations he helped create over his career, Eshkawkogan sees the population boom amongst Indigenous people as an opportunity to address the many labour shortages across the country.
“We’re the original hosts of these lands so there’s nobody better than us to be in the tourism industry.” said Eshkawkogan. With his involvement in over 50 different corporations over the years, he has seen a lot and in the tourism industry and looks upon his fellow Indigenous people as the experts in the field.
Eshkawkogan believes that true wealth generation in Indigenous communities boils down to ownership of land which does not align with Indigenous core values. Nonetheless, Kevin knows that First Nation communities and people need access to land to generate wealth in today’s marketplace. In addition, he wants to see Indigenous people expand their rights beyond the imposed boundaries of the reserve lands dictated by the Indian Act.
“If your Status Indian, under the current terms of the Indian Act, you lose benefits because of where you live! This is an antiquated and systemically racist policy.” exclaims Eshkawkogan. “As much as I love being close to the family, the grass roots and an office in Aundeck Omni Kaning, I shouldn’t have to! When I need to be in the epicentre of where business happens, I should be able to work there and not get penalized because I am First Nation.”
According to Eshkawkogan, he sees Indigenous people and businesses continuing to evolve as collaborators who bring together different types of people from different nationalities to work towards prosperity for all stakeholders. He believes Indigenous people will continue to become prevalent participants at the economic table and the new normal will be Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs being equity owners and partners in major business development projects.
When speaking about the future of Indigenous people and their role in the marketplace, Eshkawkogan says Indigenous people work from a place of communal good which creates conflict with some capitalism philosophies because capitalism places a disproportional amount of value on individual effort while concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. In contrast, the Indigenous definition of wealth is based on communal connections, sharing and giving.
“The region that can figure out how to work alongside First Nations in a truly mutually beneficial manner will find themselves in the most prosperous region in the world. Financially, socially, culturally, and whatever other metric we want to measure.” elaborated Eshkawkogan.
As more First Nation individuals become active market participants, combining their own values while adopting to the current market structures, Eshkawkogan envisions social enterprises as the leading force in driving change in how future markets function with First Nation communities and entrepreneurs leading the charge for change. seek something better in life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steven McCoy is an Ojibwe from Garden River First Nation in Northern Ontario and life-long resident of Sault Ste. Marie in the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850 territory. He is the founder of Indigenbiz where he publishes his journalistic work highlighting Indigenous people in business. He is also a successful businessman who specializes in communications, marketing, public relations and Indigenous liaison through another company he founded called Gencity Consulting. In addition, Steven is a skilled public and motivational speaker with a unique ability to capture the audience's attention through descriptive story telling and draws upon his life experiences growing up off-reserve while overcoming poverty, abandonment and racism to achieve success.