Stories that Inspire a Nation
THE INDIGENOUS ECONOMY:
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
by Steven McCoy
Feb 18, 2023
For an Indigenous person around 30 to 40 years ago, it was considered a huge step towards becoming a self-sufficient and active participant in the mainstream economy if they opened something small like a single gas station or a corner store on their home reserve.
Since then, First Nation communities and individuals have quickly progressed from owning a single gas station, to owning a chain of gas stations to being completely vertically integrated in the gasoline business, owning the suppliers, distributors and retailers.
More and more Indigenous people and communities are coming together and negotiating multi-billion-dollar business deals while making international headlines in the process. But things did not always look like for us here in Canada.
For over 150 years, our people have purposely been exploited and excluded from participating in the mainstream economy through imposed systematic processes such as the Indian Act and willful misconduct of governments such as violation of treaty agreements. Only since the late 70’s or so have we been reclaiming our right to engage in the free market.
The ‘divide and conquer’ tactic is an old tactic that still happens to work, which is why the government created so many separate First Nation reserves through the Indian Act. Because of this separation, as we re-engaged in business development and entrepreneurship, it was done as separate minor players on a local level.
But today, many of our communities and entrepreneurs have joined forces and are quickly becoming powerhouse partners on a nationally level. The economic landscape across Canada has quickly shifted for Indigenous people in a matter of a few decades since we started reclaiming our economic trading rights.
In 2021, Carol Anne Hilton published a book entitled ‘Indigenomics: Taking a Seat at the Economic Table’. Through Hilton’s book and think-tank created to influence government policy, she has increased the visibility of the modern Indigenous economy and provided a foundation for economic reconciliation. She estimates Indigenous participation in the economy to be worth ‘$100 billion’ dollars, which, despite being a sensational headline, may be a modest estimate.
In 2021, the Mi’kmaq Coalition, which is comprised of 13 Frist Nations from the east coast, made headlines around the globe when they became majority owners of Clearwater Seafood, representing the largest single seafood industry investment by any Indigenous group in the country, a deal worth approximately $1 billion dollars.
In 2022, Athabasca Indigenous Investments, a limited partnership of 23 Treaty 6 and Treaty 8 First Nation and Metis communities, also made international headlines when they signed a $1.12 billion dollar deal with Enbridge Inc. to be become minority stakeholders in seven pipelines in what Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called “the single largest Indigenous transaction in the natural resource sector in the history of North America.”
First Nation communities and business owners are realizing the benefits of pooling their resources and leveraging their buying power and sway in the economic markets instead of trying to go at it alone. Let us look at the First Nations Major Projects Coalition for example.
FNMPC is a membership organization composed of over 130 First Nations across Canada designed to provide support to major economic development projects. According to their website, the FNMPC’s portfolio has a combined total capital cost exceeding $17 billion dollars.
Yet as many business progressive nations come together and make billion dollar moves in the markets, there are many more First Nation communities and individuals who are still struggling to become active participants in the free markets due to various reasons, whether it be access to capital, capacity issues, lack of business knowledge, proximity to a major city market, lack of resources or inadequate infrastructure, there are still many barriers that exist preventing First Nation communities and individuals from flourishing.
Let us not forget all the internal dysfunctional issues within First Nation communities that arise from the legacy of imposed poverty and trauma inflicted upon us which has resulted in negative human reactional behaviours against each other such as nepotism, corruption, and lateral violence which further prevents us from living up to our true economic potential.
Despite the many unique and restrictive barriers placed before us, our people continue to be the largest growing demographic in not only population growth but in business development growth as well. During the pandemic, Indigenous businesses not only survived, but thrived and expanded their operations, particularly women entrepreneurs.
Indigenous women entrepreneurs are growing at a fast rate and you see many of their businesses with social aspects ingrained into their operations, whether it is hiring marginalized people as employees, or donating a certain percentage back of profits into their home community or ensuring they are purchasing from eco-friendly suppliers or spending profits at other Indigenous businesses, or all the above, Indigenous women are injecting Indigenous values into the economic fabric of the business world.
And what does this all mean for the future of the Indigenous economy?
Today, we are starting to see the seeds of economic opportunity that were planted 30 to 40 years ago grow into personal wealth that is being inherently passed down to the next generation. This wealth generation has become an example for other Indigenous individuals and communities of the self-sufficient benefits of participating in the free markets through business development and entrepreneurship.
The attitudes towards business and the markets among Indigenous people are also quickly changing as well from negative, almost taboo-like distain to being embraced as a tool for escaping government-inflicted poverty and reliance.
These partnerships and coalitions among First Nation communities will continue to grow and become major business influencers on the economic world stage and be shining examples of what can be achieved when Indigenous nations come together while Indigenous entrepreneurs will provide the backbone to the economic fabric by bringing Indigenous values to the forefront of business operations across Canada and around the world.
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.