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5 ways Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations approach business differently

By ATB Financial 25 February 2021 7 min read

Financial sustainability and owning sources of revenue are ways for Indigenous Peoples and communities to enhance their quality of life, be empowered and to realize their right to self-determination, says Alicia Dubois, chief executive officer of the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation and co-chair of the board of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal business.

At a recent Calgary Chamber of Commerce webinar about opportunities in economic reconciliation, Dubois outlined how meaningful partnerships between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous organizations must start with recognizing the different paradigms these two groups have when approaching business. 

What is economic reconciliation?

In 2015 when Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) presented its final report, it included a series of Calls to Action to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.” 

Call to Action #92 encourages corporate Canada to engage with Indigenous people and communities in a meaningful way to identify—and advance—sustainable opportunities for economic development. The TRC wrote that this element of reconciliation should:

“Build respectful relationships and obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples before proceeding with economic development projects.” 

“Ensure that [Indigenous Peoples] have equitable access to jobs, training, and education opportunities in the corporate sector, and that [Indigenous] communities gain long-term sustainable benefits from economic development projects.”

“Provide education for management and staff on the history of [Indigenous] Peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.”

Seeing different paradigms in business

For organizations starting their journey of engaging with Indigenous communities in economic reconciliation, Dubois says it is important to pause and recognize that non-Indigenous and Indigenous organizations and partners approach business relationships and activities from different paradigms. 

“We often don’t think about it because it just is what it is. It’s not until you try to fit a different culture within an existing paradigm that you start to really realize how disconnected [the paradigm] is,” she says. 

“When [non-Indigenous groups] are looking to create partnerships that are meaningful or figuring out how to engage in a relevant way with potential Indigenous partners, what's very important for people to keep in mind is that these two groups tend to be incentivized by very different things. Different paradigms and value structures are guiding them as they begin to enter into these partnerships together.”

5 ways Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations approach business differently

Dubois offered five of these broad differences for people to reflect on as they begin their journey of economic reconciliation. These are not blanket statements for all Indigenous Peoples or non-Indigenous businesses, but rather generalized perspectives meant as a starting point for understanding. “These are often the barriers to understanding one another. Partnerships are only fruitful when there’s an understanding of each other,” she says. 

1 Individual versus community

Corporate structures tend to be very individualistic, says Dubois. “There are individual workers, owners and shareholders and there is a hierarchy built-in within that. Whereas when Indigenous partners engage, they tend to come from a paradigm that is focused on communal success or wellness as opposed to individual success,” she says. 

Dubois adds that for Indigenous communities there is a motivation to look beyond their own benefit to the common good. Indigenous leaders tend to ask what their participation in a business opportunity means for those beyond themselves or their immediate family. They are community-focused and interested in opportunities that can have a positive impact for a much larger group, including the generations to follow.

2 Transactional versus relational

Non-Indigenous businesses are usually very transactional, says Dubois. From finance to deal making to sales and marketing, there is a focus on transactions as the measure of value and success for organizations. For Indigenous Peoples, the focus is relational and includes knowledge sharing, relationship building and creating space for people in both organizations to share value beyond the transaction, she says. 

3 Decision making

“In corporations, executives are tasked with making decisions and generally speaking, that can be done swiftly and efficiently,” Dubois says. “Generally, people go to an office or operate on a platform where they are in constant touch with one another. Their job is to work toward driving the business objectives forward.”

For Indigenous Peoples, any decision that impacts the community becomes a community decision that goes beyond Chief and Council. Decision making as a community requires more coordination and time. For example, decisions often require multiple community meetings and, if the decision requires the Nation to enter into any legal agreement or contract, this can only be formalized in law by way of a Band Council Resolution (BCR). Any time that a BCR is executed, it requires an in-person meeting of where a quorum of Chief and Council are gathered to sign and finalize the BCR. These processes are dictated by the Indian Act and can be time consuming. 

To add to the legal requirements, Chief and Council are not simply decision makers or political leaders in their communities,” says Dubois.

“Most Chief and Council are highly engaged in their communities and have many competing priorities. By virtue of the characteristics and nature of Indigenous communities, these challenges tend to also be much more personal or “closer to home” for Indigenous leaders than is the case for most elected leaders, and so decision making and crisis management becomes an exercise in prioritizing demands with very limited resources.”

Naturally, there are times when competing priorities and demands within the community create delays in the decision-making process.

4 Timeframes

Both the idea of time and timelines are quite different between Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous organizations. 

“The concept of time in the business context is a colonial Western concept,” says Dubois. For example, consider quarterly reports, annual reports, and financial statements, or the concept of one-, three-, or five-year corporate strategies. While Indigenous communities have come to operate within these constructs as a result of colonization and the requirements imposed by the Indian Act and/or the First Nation Financial Transparency Act, these concepts are not relevant in the traditional Indigenous world view. Frankly, they are short-sighted and arbitrary from a traditional Indigneous perspective.  

“From a strategic perspective, Indigenous Peoples take into account a multitude of influences and actions that may impact the natural rhythms of plant life, wildlife, watersheds, etcetera, and in taking these rhythms into account, the focus is not on what will sustain just the current generation but what actions will be felt by the generations to come,” Dubois says. “Most people have heard about Seven Generation thinking and this is not a trite concept. It’s a value that is embedded in the way Indigenous Peoples conceptualize what sustainability means and what the echo effect of a decision is likely to be.”

“So now we see these values are speaking to a one hundred-and-fifty year strategy instead of a one-year or five-year strategy.  Interestingly, if you look at Indigenous cultures around the world, there are some whose “strategies” go beyond five hundred-year thinking.  When you compare that to the lifespan of a business, a business exists for just a brief moment in comparison.” 

5 Economic growth versus sustainability

“Then there's economic growth versus sustainability. These are often viewed as competing value systems,” says Dubois, in how non-Indigenous organizations frame these two concepts.

In some instances, sustainability can be viewed as a barrier to economic growth. Interestingly, most Indigenous communities I have worked with have a sincere desire to engage in the economy. They have witnessed development in their traditional territory and for the most part have been shut out from the economy and in comparison to the businesses involved, have benefited little from the impact on their land and traditional ways of life.

For most Indigenous communities, sustainable approaches to development are a priority—so much so, it often trumps the value of pure financial gain. Non-indigenous organizations looking to engage in business partnerships with Indigenous communities will be best informed if they listen and learn about the specific values, experiences and priorities of their potential business partner, and are prepared to align with the community’s particular values on the environment. 

When non-Indigenous organizations are thinking about entering into partnerships with Indigenous communities, Dubois says taking time to understand their partners is very important.

It is only in developing this understanding that meaningful, shared outcomes can be identified and achieved. To foster successful business partnerships, the aim should be to create active, engaged partnerships that drive prosperity for all involved, and the foundation of doing so involves understanding what motives the parties to come to the table and what paradigm they are working in, she adds.

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