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Earlier this week the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce and the Joint Economic Development Initiative (“JEDI”) hosted our first Indigenous Business Forum at the Maqitahtimok Centre on Sistansisk (St. Mary’s First Nation). It was important to us to get leadership and guidance from the Indigenous communities we worked with and Stanley Barnaby, CEO of JEDI and a chamber board member was instrumental as the co-chair of our Indigenous Partnerships Committee as a connector. The event aimed to: (a) to create more opportunities for connections and collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses, (b) to educate attendees about some of the unique challenges faced by Indigenous entrepreneurs, and (c) use this information to explore what is needed to organically create more partnerships and opportunities collectively. 

The response to this event demonstrated a willingness and desire in our communities to bridge both real and perceived gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses, communities and people to everyone’s benefit. Attendees included individuals from the private sector, governments, and support organizations. Due to the overwhelming response from all areas – Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses, government agencies, not-for-profits, and other support organizations, the venue was at capacity and attendance doubled our original goal. 

Once the event started, it was evident that many attendees were being exposed to Indigenous economic issues from the Indigenous perspective for the first time. A few of the unique challenges for Indigenous entrepreneurs discussed were racism, accessing capital, and a lack of representation / role models in some sectors and few opportunities to connect with businesses outside of their own communities. Solutions were harder to come by, but the one thing that speakers kept returning to was events and opportunities for communication just like the one we were attending.  

The forum began with Chief Allan Polchies and Patrick Brooks of Sistansisk speaking about their vision for economic development in the community which set the stage the entrepreneurs that subsequently spoke. The afternoon featured two panels – one featuring Indigenous entrepreneurs talking about challenges and the other at the flip side of opportunities and partnerships. There were two particular highlights for me: first, the session that featured the newest graduates from JEDI’s procurement accelerator program. The five participants each had a unique journey but every one of them spoke about how it was important for them to succeed not only for themselves but also to provide jobs for others and to be role models for Indigenous youth that might not have seen someone from their community in a certain sector – whether it was IT, metal fabrication, construction, or hosting events.  The second highlight was the trade show that featured ten Indigenous businesses and allowed those entrepreneurs to showcase their products and services and introduced them to more than 100 potential new customers. 

The key takeaway for me from the day was that the private sector and organizations like the chamber and JEDI need to be leaders and do our part towards economic reconciliation. Governments will have whatever relationship they have with Indigenous people, communities and nations – some better, some worse – but that doesn’t need to affect the relationships and progress being created between businesses and individuals. 

Relationship building is a mutual effort and we also heard from some non-Indigenous people a hesitancy to engage for various reasons – but ultimately all of these reasons related to a lack of knowledge and experience – people just don’t know where to start.  

I would strongly recommend two things to people feeling this way – read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report – particularly the 94 calls to action and participate in JEDI’s Indigenous Reconciliation Awareness Module training. Much of what is learned in both of these resources should have been taught in our educational systems (and they are now starting to) and a couple of days won’t replace that lost time, but they do provide a logical starting point to increase the personal knowledge needed to affect change. 

Recommendation 92 in the report is titled “Business and Reconciliation” and contains three specific actions: 

  1. Commit to meaningful consultation, building respectful relationships, and obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before proceeding with economic development projects. 
  1. Ensure that Aboriginal peoples have equitable access to jobs, training, and education opportunities in the corporate sector, and that Aboriginal communities gain long-term sustainable benefits from economic development projects.  
  1. Provide education for management and staff on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism. 

The chamber’s organizational vision is Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity. It’s the lens through which we view all decisions and activities. I thought about that a lot when panelists were speaking about needing to define what success looks like in any partnership. What are the mutual goals? Maximizing profit? Creating jobs for people in your community? Making the world a better place? A combination of these? Not a single panelist identified maximizing profit as the sole motivator for putting those long, stressful hours into their business – it’s always about more than that – and it’s critical to discuss and agree what those motivators are before entering a business relationship.  

Communication and trust are foundational keys to building relationships – whether in your personal life, your business or across communities. Our Indigenous Business Forum was a step in that direction and our organization is very keen to keep this momentum going. It may not be easy but it’s important and it’s worth it.  

Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with more than 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity’. 

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