Indigenous Businesses Shaping Vancouver Island’s Economy

Indigenous businesses are shaping the Island’s economy and challenging traditional narratives through innovations ranging from tech and tourism to civil engineering.

Corey Brown (right) and Kear Porttris
Corey Brown (right) and Kear Porttris are co-founders of the aboriginal consulting company, Gwaii Engineering, on the grounds of the Tsawout Nation’s new longhouse on Saanichton Bay. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

When Corey Brown was a youngster playing on the beaches of Haida Gwaii, he never imagined he would do something groundbreaking – but it turns out he did. At age seven, born into the Old Massett Village Council, Brown moved from Haida Gwaii to Vancouver Island with his mother. She hoped for better opportunities than he could get in his remote home village, where, according to Brown, secondary education is a struggle.

With an aptitude for math and science, he eventually gravitated to university and went on to earn a master’s degree at UBC in civil engineering — a lonely profession when it comes to Indigenous representation, Brown would soon learn.

“When I went back to Haida Gwaii and realized that I was the first professional engineer to ever come out of my community, that’s when it struck me,” Brown explains over the phone from the Victoria offices of Gwaii Engineering, a company he founded in 2017. Not long after, Saskatchewan Métis and fellow engineer Kear Porttris joined as partner.

Running a viable civil engineering consultancy in a competitive market is paramount for the partners. However, Gwaii Engineering, a member of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, is anchored by a deeper set of values. On their website Brown describes their mission: to “create capacity within First Nations communities on Vancouver Island and throughout BC.”

Brown and Porttris are also driven by another unspoken mission that social programs, smoke shops and casinos do not define the First Nations experience in contemporary British Columbia.

“How many Indigenous engineers do you know?” Porttris asks.

It’s another way of saying, though they may be breaking ground, there remains a mountain to climb. In many ways, the Indigenous economy has never been as rich or as diverse as it is today on Vancouver Island and elsewhere in Canada. A new generation of Indigenous entrepreneurs and leaders are helping First Nations emerge from the dark legacy of residential schools and the Indian Act, which, when it was first enacted in 1876, in effect rendered Canada’s First People to be wards of the state.

From tech and tourism, to commercial cannabis cultivation and civil engineering, it is an increasingly diverse business ecosystem. Partnerships like the one between the Huu-ay-aht First Nation and Western Forest Products aim to grow a more sustainable local forestry sector. The Port Alberni Inlet-based nation has a seven per cent stake in the Western Forest Product’s Tree Farm Licence (TFL) 44, granting them timber harvesting rights in the Port Alberni region.

Enterprises like the Comox First Nation’s Salish Sea Foods or the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s majority-owned Canoe Creek Hydro and the Best Western Plus Tin Wis Resort, are providing long-term revenue streams and employment for members.

Carol Anne Hilton calls this resurgence Indigenomics. Hilton is CEO and founder of the Indigenomics Institute; author of the soon to be published book, Indigenomics: Taking a Seat at The Economic Table, and has a master’s in business management from England’s University of Hertfordshire. She sits on B.C.’s Indigenous Business and Investment Council and on the federal government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, among many other pro-Indigenous initiatives.

“There’s this constant negative narrative of First Nations lagging behind the rest of the country on a whole range of socio-economic metrics,” says Hilton, who is of Nuu-chah-nulth descent from the Hesquiaht First Nation in Clayoquot Sound, but grew up in Chemainus. Her goal is to flip this narrative on its head.

The Best Western Plus Tin Wis Resort is owned by the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, providing long-term revenue streams and employment.

A 2017 Toronto Dominion Special Report unearthed some facts and trends about Canada’s Indigenous economy that many might find surprising; namely, that Indigenous businesses tend to be more innovative and export oriented than businesses started by Canadians of other nationalities.

The report found that “a higher share of [Indigenous] businesses introduce new product/services, or new production/delivery processes relative to the broader Canadian small business sector,” and were “twice as likely to have introduced a new product or service over the prior three years.”

But the report also highlighted some less surprising facts about the ongoing systemic challenges faced by Indigenous Canadians, such as talent recruitment, relatively low educational attainment and geographic isolation. Hilton says remoteness has compounded a cycle of dependence on government services and lack of capitalization.

She points out an example close to home and close to her heart.

The Hesquiaht nation is the most northerly of the three Nuu-chah-nulth nations (which includes the Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht nations). Of the Hesquiaht’s more than 700 members, many live off-reserve in urban centres.

Those who live on-reserve are off-grid and for decades have been reliant on diesel power generation, which has resulted in an unsustainable yearly drain of cash. The nation pays for barge loads of diesel just to keep homes lit and heated.

The Hesquiaht are now in the process of building a run-of-river hydroelectricity project to wean the community from diesel power — a seemingly small but significant step forward on the road to economic independence, Hilton notes. Poor access to capital has also been a major stumbling block. First Nations who live on reserves are unable to own the land —

Indian reserves are federal property — making it difficult or impossible to leverage personal property for financing.

In August 2020 the South Island Prosperity Partnership (SIPP) released the Rising Economy Taskforce Committee Reports. According to the six-member Indigenous Economy Committee, which included Hilton and SIPP’s Director of Innovation Jacques van Campen, better integration of First Nations into the regional economy is key, achieved with measures like creating a dedicated Indigenous economic development office and having Indigenous input on public and private procurement.

In addition, the committee called for better cooperation to build infrastructure and business development through initiatives like Indigenous- focused financial training and e-commerce capacity support. Underemployment and the need for upskilling is another area that was singled out for attention. (In 2018 Indigenous unemployment was more than twice the provincial rate of 4.5 per cent.)

Hilton’s Indigenomics Institute is championing a lofty target for growing the Indigenous economy from its current annual value of $32 billion to $100 billion by 2025. (There are currently no accurate estimates for the value of B.C.’s Indigenous economy; however, prior to the pandemic Indigenous tourism in B.C. generated $705 million in direct gross domestic output and 7,400 full-time jobs.)

The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business’s Aboriginal Procurement Marketplace could go a long way toward helping to reach this target. For example, if all levels of government in Canada — municipal, provincial and federal — allocated five per cent of the current $224 billion that Indigenous businesses bring in, it would add $11 billion to the Indigenous economy. However, it also takes a conscious shift in thinking at the individual band and First Nation level, says Christina Clarke, CEO for the Songhees Development Corporation.

For the Songhees, that shift happened under the visionary leadership of the late Chief Robert Sam. Before his passing in 2012, Sam was the elected Songhees chief for more than a decade, during which time he sat on the board of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority and developed bylaws for property tax and fire protection, among many pioneering initiatives.

“He had a vision of self-government and self-sufficiency and to go beyond just program delivery,” explains Clarke, who is of Labrador Métis descent, and began working with the Songhees in 1995 in the finance department, later becoming finance manager. “That kind of re-orientation allowed us to reach out to the community.”

The neighboring territories of the Songhees and Esquimalt nations placed them in a strategic location that, pre-contact, fostered a culture of exchange. Clarke believes it’s a natural evolution for the two nations to return to the values of trade, entrepreneurship and cooperation that were crushed under colonial rule and the residential school system.

“It allowed the Songhees to say ‘Yes, we’re capable; yes, we’re entrepreneurs,’” Clarke says.

Today, the Songhees and Esquimalt nations are a growing economic force on the Victoria waterfront. Through a joint venture management company, Matullia Holdings LP, the two nations own three acres of former Transport Canada land and will close a deal to buy an adjacent four acres from BC Hydro in January 2021. The Matullia-lands are considered a pivotal piece of Victoria’s aspirational plans for an Arts and Innovation District.

Pre-pandemic, the community-owned companies Songhees Tours and Songhees Events & Catering would have collectively employed more than 40 mostly Indigenous staff at peak business times. Salish Sea Industrial Services, a partnership between the Esquimalt and Songhees nations and the Ralmax Group of Companies, is giving members apprenticeship and job skill opportunities.

According to Clarke, the Songhees Wellness Centre was a big step forward for the nation. This community-driven project, which opened its doors in 2013, was initially financed by Vancity followed by long term joint financing from Royal Bank of Canada and a debenture bond issued by the First Nations Finance Authority, a nonprofit corporation that Robert Sam helped create to give First Nations communities access to the same financial tools available to non-Indigenous municipalities.

In 2018 the Songhees launched the Songhees Innovation Centre, a coworking space housed in the same building. Animikii Indigenous Technology is one of the innovation centre’s anchor tenants.

This certified B Corp software development company was founded in 2003 by Jeff
Ward, an Ojibwe and Métis, originally from Manitoba. It is driven by a simple mission: to use “technology as an economic driver toward Indigenous self-sufficiency.”

Jarid Dixon Taylor, a ’Namgis nation entrepreneur from Alert Bay, is another Innovation Centre tenant. His company Brandigenous, which opened in 2019, works mostly with First Nations and Indigenous organizations to create quality branded products. He views Indigenous companies as de facto social enterprises. “We’re trying to recreate an economy that was taken away from us. It’s been a generation-upon-generation rebuilding process,” Taylor explains.

The Songhees and Esquimalt nations have the benefit of proximity to an urban centre, with access to talent, resources and business partnerships to help fuel their economic resurgence. It’s a different story if you’re from the Kingcome Inlet village of Ukwana’lis, like Mike Willie, owner of the Port McNeill-based Sea Wolf Adventures. As a member of the Kwikwasutinuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation, he grew up playing around on dirt trails and listening to his grandmother speak the native Kwakwaka’wakw language in the family home.

Back then, there was no electricity and only outhouses for toilets. However, Willie remembers it as a “real community surrounded by grizzlies and mountains.” And one with its connection to culture left more intact than other Indigenous communities, thanks to its location at the head of a central coast inlet.

That put Indigenous people from Ukwana’lis beyond the reach of the RCMP and Indian agents who were tasked with policing the potlatch, a practice fundamental to coastal First Nations that was banned by the federal government between 1884 and 1951. The potlatch survived in Kingcome Inlet through more than six decades of prohibition.

Cultural traditions had a powerful impact on Willie. It led him to learn traditional songs and stories from his grandfather, and eventually he became a teacher at Gwa’sala – Nakw ́ axda’xw School, previously teaching language and culture at the Lilawagila School in Kingcome.

In 2013, after a return trip to his home village in Kingcome, Willie had an entrepreneurial itch to scratch. To launch Sea Wolf Adventures, first as a water taxi service and of Telegraph Cove, he tapped into NEDC who provide financing and business support to Indigenous peoples on Vancouver Island. Two years later, he expanded into wildlife and cultural tours. Before the pandemic slammed tourism and reduced his 2020 summer business by 75 to 80 per cent, Willie was managing a staff of eight Indigenous guides and boat operators and welcoming guests from Germany, the U.K., the Netherlands and elsewhere.

“We don’t want to be standing on the outside of the tourism circle, watching as others access our territories,” Willie says, adding that he’s hoping the government will help Indigenous tourism businesses like his bridge through the challenges caused by COVID-19. “A lot of Europeans take our tours. They want to dive deeper into our culture and history.”

He also says he’s seen a transformation in his young guides when they visit places in their territory “that they’ve only heard about in stories.”

The entrepreneurial success and cultural resurgence exemplified by pioneers like Mike Willie and Corey Brown of Gwaii Engineering are helping reshape the way Indigenous people are perceived by broader Canadian society, and also how Indigenous people see themselves in Canada.

Carol Anne Hilton of the Indigenomics Institute believes it’s high time.

“There’s a perception of viewing First Nations as a cost rather than a constructive or generative force,” Hilton says. “And that’s not helpful for Canada’s goals for reconciliation.”

Continue Reading:

Songhees Nation says yes to regional collaboration

Indigenous tourism industry gets creative in rebounding from the pandemic