Bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups, and how they do business, has been the evolving focus of Angela van den Hout’s career. Her own identity and career experience, sitting on both sides of the table, is evident in the insight she brings to negotiating.
“I use ‘we’ interchangeably between referring to myself as white and Indigenous,” says van den Hout who is Italian, Cree, Canadian, and by marriage, a touch of Dutch. “My niche is being in the middle and being able to liaise.”
A formative experience in her early career saw van den Hout convince her then employer, a mining company, to rent a truck and drive to northern B.C. to facilitate a conversation when written correspondence hadn’t received a response.
“I met with each chief by just showing up and going to the office. Every one of them was completely welcoming, just saying we just want to be part of this process. They didn’t care that the government sent a letter saying, this is what’s happening in your territory. In fact, that’s really offensive. That’s not engagement.”
Now only a few months into her new role as director of economic development at the Malahat Nation, van den Hout inherited the high-profile debut of the hugely popular Malahat Skywalk. The partnership, she says, is an example of what success looks like for Indigenous economic development — a multi-tiered project whose long-term impact will include improved well-being and access to resources for the Nation.
The Malahat has long been a pass-through on trips up and down the Island. While the SkyWalk is a taste of the change to come, the Nation’s ambitious vision will make it a destination.
The Nation’s overall strategy is to develop and diversify the local economy so visitors could come to just the Malahat region over a number of days, and be able to sample a number of unique tourism offerings.
“The same plan would allow individuals and families to relocate to the region and never have to leave the community,” says van den Hout. “However, being so close to Victoria would have quick access to the urban lifestyle next door.”
What are some of the takeaways from the Malahat SkyWalk partnership?
This is unfortunate, but people come to the Malahat Nation and speak at them. They’ll say, “We’ve been thinking about it in our boardroom, and what we think is going to be great is this,” rather than coming and saying, “We were thinking this; what are your thoughts?”
What I see here is a complete shift from that. It’s: we have this idea, and we think this might be a good spot for it. What do you think? We haven’t had to guide them. On the contrary, they’re guiding us toward how to make this happen. The timber is from one of the partners of the Malahat Nation, and you’ll see artwork from members of the Nation and other local Indigenous artists.
It’s that culture shift that I think is so needed, especially in Indigenous business. It’s more than just somebody bringing home the paycheque. Imagine a day where this is your workday — you come here and you help people, and it’s a beautiful opportunity that wouldn’t otherwise be here without economic development.
It aligns with this whole idea of reconciliation — how to approach it in a collaborative way. It will take time, but it’s really just as simple as asking instead of telling.
“Yes, you can have a business on your own as either non-Indigenous or Indigenous. But if it’s about reconciliation, growth and economic success, the only way to get there is to work together.”
How does that collaborative approach reflect Indigenous values?
Indigenous business is all about developing genuine relationships that are not based on paperwork. I think the biggest dichotomy in this misunderstanding in business between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups is that non-Indigenous want the paper — that makes them feel trust. For Indigenous groups, that means little — you meet me, meet me again, meet me again, know me for a year or two and then I will listen to your recommendations and probably trust them. It’s so different.
How did you come to know your Indigenous roots?
My whole life, I knew I was Italian. But it was probably in my late teens that my mum started seeking her own family, and, by osmosis, I learned that I was somehow Indigenous. She was taken away from her family at three years old, and she didn’t meet them again until she was 45. She never sat us down [to tell us], and she doesn’t look Indigenous at all.
There was this major gap in my early 20s where I discovered that this had happened, and my mum started pinning a lot of her memories of what that was. It was probably very painful for her. She’s somebody who doesn’t deal with things; she’s learned to sweep it away — you just don’t talk about it again.
You could consider me almost a success story of what the government intended to do. Here I am living a life, driving my car, paying my taxes. It’s exactly what they wanted. I don’t speak a single word of Cree. My own mom couldn’t speak to her own mother [when they were reunited]. When she was taken away, they were forbidden from speaking Cree. If they spoke a word of Cree, they had to have a stone on their tongue for the whole day. Shockingly, she’s the most optimistic human I’ve ever known.
How has this framed your motivation and career path?
Over the last decade, it really internally pushed my career in a direction towards serving Indigenous people and communities. If I couldn’t do that with the knowledge that I’ve gained, then I would be doing a disservice to her and almost disrespecting what she went through — that it was for nothing.
I believe strength is genuinely understanding both cultures at the table, to help bridge the gap between the groups. I think they can thrive really well together. Yes, you can have a business on your own as either non-Indigenous or Indigenous. But if it’s about reconciliation, growth and economic success, the only way to get there is to work together. That’s really my path now. It has a deeper meaning for me than a job. If you can take a positive away from everything that’s happened, it’s hopefully making a difference and being part of this reconciliation movement in my own way.
How was it in the beginning, when you started taking that on in your work?
In the beginning, I was a person who spoke at First Nations and told them what I was going to do for them. It took me some learning and some feedback — strong feedback — sometimes it felt so uncomfortable. But now I’m so grateful. It’s those people that have the courage to say, “Don’t talk at me, talk with me, ask me questions.”
It was being around Chief Recalma from the Qualicum First Nation. He is so quiet in meetings, he barely speaks. But when he does, it really means something. Without being taught directly, he showed me another way to do business — that’s with both your ears open and your mouth only open when it needs to be open. Even in responding to people, we don’t always have to say something or compare it to something we’ve been through — just listen. It’s really just exposure and immersing myself and welcoming the discomfort that it may bring.
What have you learned?
No community is the same. I cannot just transfer to another community what I learned over three years working in another. You can take some of those tools with you, but at the end of the day, it comes back to what I said, building genuine relationships. I’m not going to do that by telling a community about my work history.
I’m standing here for a reason in this position — I’m here to serve you, so I’m going to need you to share with me what that looks like for you. What’s your vision, and I’ll help you get there. It’s nonstop learning. If any one of us, as humans, thinks about how we build a genuine relationship with somebody, the answer is the same: it’s simple, and it does take time. But the fact that it takes time is a complete contradiction to how we live our lives today. We’re always looking for the quickest way from A to B.
What advice do you have for people interested in partnering with Malahat Nation?
We’re open to business. We just want to make sure that the business aligns with not simply a strategic plan, but the overall vision that the community has to protect its lands and resources and people. Come on in and meet us. That’s the only way that we’ll get from step one to step two.
I get a lot of emails — I’ve literally had people that I’ve never met just send an agreement. You would never, ever do that in downtown Vancouver. You would not walk into the president’s office and hand him an agreement if he had never met you.
“We just want to make sure that the business aligns with not simply a strategic plan, but the overall vision that the community has to protect its lands and resources and people.”
What is your approach to economic development?
That’s the thing with economic development that a lot of people don’t think about — it’s so much more than just the bottom line. It’s not necessarily about everybody getting the same thing. It’s about everybody getting everything they need to thrive for themselves and their families. That’s a success.
Many non-Indigenous groups don’t know how to go about reconciliation. They have the intent, but they’re not sure how. So when they are put into a position of doing business, it creates an organic sort of bridge. For example, a company meets with me about a business opportunity.
They talk about some of the opportunities that will come out of that for the Nation, for example, education or youth programming. I can then loop in our employment coordinator, and it creates a whole other layer of that opportunity. That means so much more than just the net revenue.
You can’t pay for those resources unless you have some flow of funds. But if that flow of funds is pulling away from the other aspects of what true economic development is, then that’s not a good strategy. The multi-layered ones are the most successful relationships that we’ll have.
Can you tell me more about the two projects (the business park and the film studios) you are working on now?
Malahat Innovation Park is a greenfield project in the infrastructure development phase. We will be looking to secure tenants in early 2022 for a tenancy date in early 2023. The park itself will support innovative businesses, and could potentially act as a symbiotic hub between various collaborators.
For example, we are currently speaking to potential tenants involved in a number of diverse industries, including marine vessel technology, environmental mapping and analytics, hydrogen production, waste recycling and solar energy product manufacturing, to name a few. The location of the Malahat Innovation Park allows for ideal proximity to water, a major airport and the highway for both island and international transport.
The Malahat Film Studio is a major project with an estimated five years from feasibility to complete buildout. We are currently in the feasibility stage, specifically seeking to confirm interest from other Nations in a 100 per cent Indigenous-owned project.
The details of the project timeline will be more clear in spring 2022, as we work towards detailed planning for the film studio and on-site support services, such as equipment, props, visual technology, film production processing, as well as the village and surrounding residences.
Road to Recovery: Malahat Nation on their economic impact and latest projects.