Summary: The Indigenous-led Economy (2022)

Take-aways from our 2022 Economic Reconciliation Summit

Action toward reconciliation is essential to the shared future of all inhabitants of this land. This can, and must, include closing the gap in investment, infrastructure, and ultimately, quality of life between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. The project of reconciliation has to include a deeper understanding of the economic inequality faced by Indigenous communities across Canada, the people and projects that are working toward closing the gap, and the opportunities this shift can foster for the Canadian economy.

On May 17, 2022, Canada 2020 hosted a day of conversation spotlighting the Indigenous-led Economy. Our first in-person gathering in over two years, this event brought Indigenous leaders and innovators together from across the country to take a close look at economic development in their communities, what’s working, and where we can all do better. You can find the full event agenda here, and hear the keynote conversation between Minister of Crown Indigenous Relations Marc Miller, Director of Economic Policy at the First Nations Major Projects Coalition Mark Podlasly, and Partner and National Leader of Indigenous Law at BLG Cherie Brant.

Minister of Crown Indigenous Relations Marc Miller delivering a keynote at the Economic Reconciliation Summit in Ottawa, May 2022.

There was lots to learn from this conversation. The headline? We are falling short on economic reconciliation if we’re only talking about money and profit. This is a conversation about being able to take pride in a quality of life. And in the words of Yukon MPP and Minister of Education Jeanie McLean: “Indigenous people are ready. We are ready. And Canada can only be stronger with Indigenous people taking their rightful place.”

So what does this mean for those looking to take action? Here’s what we heard:

  1. “Inclusion is not just the right thing, it’s the only thing,” Mark Podlasly reminds us. And as we heard time and time again, there’s more to inclusion than just having a seat at the table. Our goals shouldn’t just be limited to representing diversity, but building a culture of belonging, and a robust strategy of engagement. Projects involving Indigenous people, livelihoods, and land (that is, all land) need to involve Indigenous people from the very beginning. As Haisla Chief Crystal Smith puts it, “we just want a share and a say.”
  1. Beyond the engagement gap, there’s a serious finance gap. This includes a major disparity in wealth, in infrastructure, in investment, and in access to capital. Hillary Thatcher from the Canadian Infrastructure Bank knows just how to help address this: low-cost debt that is accessible and affordable, like the $1 billion in Indigenous investment that’s been committed by the federal government over the next two years. Often, this capital is inaccessible due to high premiums. “This is a barrier right now,” says Hillary. “The access to capital for Indigenous communities to own major projects in this country is significant. It’s difficult for communities to get affordable capital, to buy equity into projects. This demand is loud and clear.” Further to that, Indigenous-led projects and organisations should be prioritised when tax incentives, grants, and public funding are on the table.
  1. Whether you think of it as capacity building, or the Seventh Generation Principle: economic development is all about the long view. This means legacy planning in organisations, educating and training each new generation of workers (from executives to labourers, and everyone in between), and, like FHQ Development’s CEO Thomas Benjoe, knowing that sustainable projects take time to deliver dividends. But when they do, we all know that the projects have been set up for longevity, and the benefit of generations to come. This builds resilience and strength for the whole economy.
  1. All of these ideas feed into a simple, but revolutionary idea: we need to establish an Indigenous corporate culture. Margaret Kenequanash, Thomas Benjoe, and many others are leading by example in fostering a system that respects traditional protocols and customs – including ceremonies, blessings, and land use protocols – alongside government compliance requirements. They’re also building organisations that prioritise Indigenous ownership, governance, procurement policies, and more. There’s no reason this should not be the norm across all Canadian organisations, and we were reminded by all of our speakers: all non-Indigenous partners in projects should be doing their due diligence to this end.
  2. “Pay for success,” says Jeanie McLean. “We put a lot of money into systems that don’t work. But we struggle to pay for success. We struggle to pay for the initiatives that really change the lives of our people.” All of us need to be open to new solutions, complement one another’s strengths, and recognize the value everyone brings to the table: from culture, to communication, to guiding principles. In the words of Maragret Kenequanash, “People say it’s too hard to work nation-to-nation? I don’t buy it.” Instead, we can choose to invest in what works for everyone, not the old systems and structures that have left Indigenous communities behind.

Want more to explore more conversations on reconciliation? Check out the 2020 Network podcast Everyday Reconciliation, hosted by Elin Miller, as well as other events in our economic reconciliations series: Getting to Net Zero and The Workforce of the Future.

Tabatha Bull, Chief Crystal Smith, Hillary Thatcher, and Jeanie McLean at the Economic Reconciliation Summit in Ottawa, May 2022.