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Indigenous leaders share how non-Indigenous businesses can advance sustainable opportunities for economic reconciliation

By ATB Financial 26 February 2021 7 min read

When Alicia Dubois was working as a crown prosecutor and later at Native Child and Family Services of Toronto on child protection issues, she realized the critical importance of economic reconciliation with Indigenous communities in Canada.

“I understand that most social challenges are a result of poverty, marginalization and lack of access to the economy and financial infrastructure,” she says.

Now Dubois is the CEO of the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation (AIOC) and co-chair of the board of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal business (CCAB) and she brings this insight to her work.

“I view financial sustainability and pride in owned-source wealth and revenue generation as a means for Indigenous Peoples and communities to enhance their quality of life and be empowered to realize their right to self-determination,” she said at a recent Calgary Chamber of Commerce webinar about ways to identify and advance sustainable opportunities for economic reconciliation.

The hour-long discussion with Indigenous business leaders covered what economic reconciliation means, how it starts with investing in relationships and shared their tips for what organizations can start doing right now.

What is economic reconciliation?

In 2015 Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) included in its final report 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.

There is no single path to achieving this.

Lisa Mooney is the global lead for sustainability and strategic inclusion at Nutrien, where she directs a comprehensive and integrated equity, diversity and inclusion strategy. She says economic reconciliation includes recognizing the structural paradigms shaping our business and economic systems.

“When I think about economic reconciliation, it is twofold,” she says. “It’s about ensuring opportunities are available and impact families and in communities as well as in our companies. Then it’s also engaging with the dominant culture and helping them understand all of these systems we have in place that we think of as ‘best practices’ were formed generations ago by white men. Today, we know those companies that are diverse outperform those that are not. So ensuring that there's space for Indigenous worldview only adds value.”

Sheila Innes, general manager Indigenous and community relations at Suncor says that economic reconciliation is only one part of the journey and it is something that is always evolving.

Economic reconciliation can take many forms, such as procurement efforts, equity partnerships, or creating new businesses to meet emerging societal demands, Inees says.

“We are very mindful that reconciliation needs to be based on the priorities of the individual communities you are engaging with. Each community has unique needs and aspirations and we need to be aware of that,” says Innes.

Build relationships through shared values

When starting on economic reconciliation efforts, companies should look to connect with Indigenous communities authentically through shared values.

Mooney says that involves engaging communities early and spending time building relationships through attending events, getting to know members of the communities, sharing meals and having conversations.

Innes agrees that engaging and building relationships with Indigenous communities is an important early step. This is one element of a company-wide goal Suncor established in 2015 focused on building greater mutual trust and respect with Indigenous peoples in Canada. She encourages business leaders to do their homework to learn about truth and reconciliation as well as local experiences in any communities you want to engage.

Then have conversations with community members and seek to understand their needs and issues. This can reveal common ground that can lead to economic opportunities. She also recommends exploring existing connections and processes for economic reconciliation, including linking up with already-established businesses to deepen your organization's learning.

To help other organizations develop relationships in Indigenous communities and increase supply chain participation of Indigeous businesses, Nutrien developed and launched a free Aboriginal Content Playbook for its suppliers. The step-by-step guide was launched in 2017 after the company told its suppliers that diversity would be a requirement to win contracts.

“Part of our message is we won't tell you what you should do because you should do what makes sense for your company and your values. But if you want to know what we do, here's what we do, who we partner with and where we access talent,” says Mooney.

What economic reconciliation looks like

The AIOC’s Dubois says its goal is to usher in a new era of meaningful partnerships for economic reconciliation. It has up to $1 billion in loan guarantees to enhance Indigenous access to capital and help reduce the cost of borrowing so that Indigenous groups are positioned to actively invest and partner in natural resource projects.

“Moving away from passive partnerships with Indigenous groups to active partnerships with shared value and opportunities is really the aim,” she says. “Strong partnerships create an impactful echo effect because communities are positioned to make the most of their investment through employment, skills development and procurement opportunities. This is evidenced in communities that are part of industry supply chains in that their community members experience less unemployment and have a higher quality of living than other Indigenous communities that don’t have the benefit of that type of relationship. The more dollars exchanging hands, the stronger and more stable a regional economic centre becomes,” she says.

The CCAB has developed the Aboriginal Procurement Strategy, which aims to increase opportunities for Indigenous businesses to participate in supply chains of governments and businesses across Canada. As the CCAB says, “procurement is an important driver of economic reconciliation and development for Aboriginal communities due to the revenue it generates for Aboriginal businesses as well as the relationships formed through agreements.”

Suncor has led the way in Canada with an economic reconciliation project in the energy industry where The Fort McKay First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation acquired a 49 per cent ownership stake of the East Tank Farm Development, a bitumen and diluent storage, blending and cooling facility.

“The project really did show others how you can go forward when you truly understand each other’s interests and needs and you look to partner and find an opportunity,” says Innes.

What can non-Indigenous businesses and organizations do to advance economic reconciliation?

For non-Indigenous businesses looking to support reconciliation with Indigenous communities through economic means, the panel had the following advice:

Lean into the work. “I challenge everyone to learn more,” says Mooney. “And understand that [reconciliation] is owned by all of us. We all have a role to play.” Innes adds, “When the TRC came out, one thing people often overlook is the truth part. We step right into the reconciliation part. Non-Indigenous businesses and Canadians need to take it on ourselves to build some understanding on what the truth means. Use that understanding as the basis for moving forward in partnerships.”

Take the GBA+ from the Government of Canada. “It informs you of unconscious bias and getting tools to address that—that is quite magical,” says Dean Bittner, founder and CTO of AI intelligence firm RUNWITHIT Synthetics, and one of the panelists on the Calgary Chamber of Commerce webinar.

Be more conscientious about procurement choices. “When you’re making these decisions or looking for companies to add to your supplier or talent pool, you will have to go that extra effort to find companies. Keep an open mind about how they approach their work or who they are and what they’re doing if you actually want to engage them,” says Myrna Bittner, founder and CEO of RUNWITHIT Synthetics, who was also on the panel.

Hire and value Indigenous employees. “If you’re looking to create partnerships, one of the best ways you can do that is by having Indigenous people as part of your team — and not in the token role,” says Dubois. “One thing lots of business people don’t realize is that no matter the level or role you’re looking to fill, there are qualified Indigenous people capable of doing fantastic things in that role. Additionally, Indigenous employees who feel valued can be your champion in moving the dial internally and they can also be your external champion who brings to life partnerships that will further drive success for your business.”

Determine how your core business can provide value for Indigenous communities. “When you look at what your core business does, reflect on how it might be a benefit to Indigenous communities,” says Innes. “How can your business advance reconciliation? Identify where you can have the greatest impact,” says Innes.

When engaging in the work of truth and reconciliation, says Mooney, oftentimes the truth part is very difficult. But it’s more than that too.

“The truth part is really hard for people to hear,” she says. “It's hard to communicate and come to a shared understanding. The process is really hard work but it shouldn't just be hard work. Reconciliation should be fun as well. It should bring joy to all of us. It's in reconciliation where we see those opportunities.”


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