Canada deserves better than Indian Act economics, says Carol Anne Hilton

The Indigenomics Institute held its annual conference June 22-23, with leaders from across Canada speaking and participating in a timely conversation on growing the Indigenous economy.

Carol Anne Hilton, CEO, Indigenomics Institute.
Carol Anne Hilton, CEO, Indigenomics Institute. Photo supplied.

The Indigenous economy is poised for a giant leap forward, and Carol Anne Hilton is one of its greatest advocates.

As part of her keynote presentation in June at the Indigenomics conference she founded, Hilton, the Hesquiaht Nation business leader who formed the hashtag #indigenomics and then the company Indigenomics Institute, says the Indigenous economy is projected to reach $100 billion in less than five years.

“This is the opportunity in front of us,” she says, “and it requires us to get over the perception and lens of seeing Indigenous peoples through the cost side of the equation. The story that we can choose is of Indigenous economic empowerment, and that story has chosen itself in the uptake of Indigenous resilience.”

‘We, not me’ is the underpinning of a successful economy

Indigenomics conference panelist Todd Hirsch, Chief Economist at ATB Financial, said that participating in the Indigenous economy involves unlearning as much as learning. He posits the Indigenous economy as key in driving the fourth Industrial revolution, when we look for new sources of wealth. During the panel discussion on Money, Meaning and Metrics, he noted that “we, as white men, have been asking Indigenous peoples to come and sit at our table, and we see that as an act of generosity. It is not. We need to ask; can we come and sit at your table? Can we learn from your culture, and then imagine a brand-new table, a collaborative table, creating a new economy?”

Fellow panelist Mark Anielski, Economist at Anielski Management, said what strikes him about the Indigenous phrase ‘my relations,’ is what that can really mean in a healthy economy where we work mindfully in the service of each other. “[That leads to] a different kind of economy, one based on the abundance of relationships, a shared asset model that says we are all equal, and one that optimizes the wellbeing of all the relationships.”

The notion of ‘we, not me,’ is a core concept of Indigenous culture, with business models focused on improving standards of living for their people in a manner that protects the earth. In applying that concept to economic growth, the idea is that “we, as a society, understand that we are not working in the service of money. Rather, money is working in the service of our people,” said conference panelist Paul Lacerte, Managing Partner of Raven Capital Partners.

Corporations and government need to enact reconciliation, rather than talking about it

Indigenomics conference speaker Roberta Jamieson, past CEO of Indspire, said people are increasingly demanding the government and the corporate sector implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous girls and women. “And of course,” she said “we are impacted by the fact that around the world, the global anti-racism movement has created more potential for systemic and structural change than ever before. Governments, NGOs and corporations are being pushed to adopt new standards of environmental and social governance, and they’re also being required to promote and implement policies that ensure diversity, equity, access, and inclusion in their organizations.”

The end goal, says Jamieson, “is nothing less than the creation of sustainable Indigenous communities, communities that have shed the trauma created by centuries of colonialism racism and exclusion. It’s a daunting task because it will require the dismantling of the very structures that maintain the patriarchy and racial superiority of institutions in Canada.”

“I know our people hold the key. Our values include cooperation, collaboration, conflict resolution, and entrepreneurial spirit, and perhaps most importantly, a holistic approach to change. So, we have the power to shape our own future. We don’t have to act like white people on Bay Street to have successful Indigenous economies.”

Supporting Indigenous innovation

Kelly Lendsay, President and CEO of Indigenous Works, noted during the conference that “innovation is key in every nation around the world for effective competitiveness, productivity, growth jobs, and overall quality of life and wellbeing. How do we use innovation to go from that history of exclusion and dismal looking communities with unsafe drinking water and poor housing conditions and how do we transform our economies to healthy workforces and healthy communities?”

Lendsay says there is an engagement gap preventing access for Indigenous people to the support and training they want to create and grow their businesses. “The academic and the business community are not engagement ready,” he says. “There’ve been some poor, low engagement practices, and there’s a lack of trust and confidence. There are many indigenous organizations that are doing research and they would like to do more. How do we build the capacity of those organizations that would like to expand their own research, muscle, Indigenous curriculum, knowledge, and student support? This has come up where the business schools and universities are saying, ‘what’s the pedagogy that will support Indigenous students who could then go on to Masters and PhD and into research programs.’”

Gaps in equitable access

The conference comes at a time when Indigenous entrepreneurs, while starting their businesses in greater numbers than before, have struggled during the pandemic to access the same support as non-Indigenous entrepreneurs. Barriers are as simple – and complicated – as a lack of broadband access to communities not deemed ‘large enough’ for essential communication infrastructure.

A study from the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association, the National Indigenous Economic Development Board and the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business shows Indigenous companies needed more financial help during the pandemic, but many struggled to find relief.

The survey of 825 Indigenous businesses released in June found 72 per cent wanted more financial support and 44 per cent did not think they could operate until July without aid. Of those who applied for at least one government relief program had difficulty meeting application criteria and almost half said financial requirements were a barrier to accessing aid.

“This really indicates a missing link between Indigenous business needs and the accessibility and also the relevance of government supports that are offered,” noted Samantha Morton, the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business’s director of research in a media release for the study.

Canadians declare support

Another study, released around the same time, shows eight out of ten Canadians recognize Indigenous businesses strengthen the social fabric. The study, released by Sodexo Canada, noted that three-quarters of Canadians also believe supporting strong Indigenous businesses is an important pathway to healing Canada’s relationship with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.

“The success of Indigenous businesses clearly matters to Canadians,” says Tabatha Bull, president and CEO, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB). “The fact that Canadians expect the private sector to step up with action to help Indigenous entrepreneurs sends a powerful message to decision makers. This broad public support will also fuel the optimism of Indigenous business owners.”

Global Center of Indigenomics provides a clear path forward

On the heels of its conference, the Indigenomics Institute has announced the formation of the Global Center of Indigenomics “with the directive of bringing Indigenous leaders from across the globe together to strengthen Indigenous economies worldwide.”

Hilton says the Centre is an Indigenous economic design collective and engagement platform that “facilitates Indigenous economic leadership, knowledge development and the creation of generational value shaped by an Indigenous worldview.” It will not only move Indigenomics forward, but it will also shift the narrative of Indigenous peoples and their role in the economy.

“It’s time to create a new memory,” she says, “where we see ourselves in our own future. This is a key element of design: that the access to opportunities, training and education are visible. [Indigenomics] is about shifting the conditions, response, the language of dependency to economic freedom of the Indigenous population. This is about addressing and naming the shifting influence of Indigenous economic growth. This is about essentially naming the status quo and inviting it into possibility and a creative future. The creation of modern Indigenous economic space.”

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