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Last week, the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce and the Joint Economic Development Initiative (JEDI), a leading New Brunswick Indigenous organization dedicated to working with partners to foster economic development among Indigenous peoples, held their first Indigenous Business Forum. It is good to see this sort of cooperative effort to build connections between Indigenous peoples and the non-Indigenous business community. Greater participation of Indigenous peoples in the economy, as employees and, even more importantly, as entrepreneurs and business owners, is good for all of us.

As Krista Ross, CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, described it, the purpose of the forum was to create more connections and opportunities for collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses, educate people about the unique challenges that Indigenous entrepreneurs face, and explore what is required to create more partnerships. These are important objectives as there are smart people with great, creative ideas out there in the Indigenous communities; they need support and inspiration, though, to take their great ideas and turn them into tangible business opportunities. Experienced entrepreneurs who make the effort to connect with Indigenous entrepreneurs can provide that inspiration for those Indigenous entrepreneurs who are looking for it.

Ms. Ross reported that the forum demonstrated the willingness on the part of New Brunswickers to bridge both real and perceived gaps between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities of this province, to everyone’s benefit. She also noted that, once the event started, it became clear that many non-Indigenous businesses were being exposed to the perspective of Indigenous peoples on economic issues, challenges, and opportunities for the first time. The learning that events like the Indigenous Business Forum can provide is, therefore, critically important to building economic reconciliation, broadening economic participation to all New Brunswickers, and growing the economy.

Equally, though, she reported some hesitancy on the part of the non-Indigenous business community to engage in dialogue and partnership, essentially due to their lack of knowledge and experience in working with Indigenous peoples. This speaks to the damage that colonialist policies and structures have done, not only to Indigenous peoples but to all of society. Colonial and Canadian policy sought to separate Indigenous peoples from “mainstream” society by putting them on isolated reserves. This meant that, rather than creating opportunities for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to grow and prosper together in relationship, the policy environment sought to make Indigenous people poor and dependent on government “largesse’ (which was anything but large).

Despite governments’ efforts to make Indigenous peoples poor and marginalized, though, Indigenous peoples’ histories demonstrate their strength and resilience in the face of racism. Indigenous people are every bit as modern and, if they are provided the same educational opportunities as non-Indigenous people take for granted, intelligent and capable as anyone. Indigenous entrepreneurs and groups are proving their capability to contribute to the economy over and over again. For example, here in New Brunswick, Pabineau First Nation is driving the development of a clean energy hub in the Chaleur region of the province. Their clean energy hub idea will both grow the economy of the region and the province and help us address climate change, all while also contributing to the well-being of the Pabineu First Nation community. Elsewhere in Canada, First Nations even own airlines. That’s right; Rise Air, formerly West Wind Aviation, was the creation of the two tribal councils in northern Saskatchewan. All of this is simply proof that, if given the chance, Indigenous peoples can harness an entrepreneurial spirit to grow our economy as well as anyone.

A key contributor to Indigenous entrepreneurs converting their creative ideas into business success is for non-Indigenous society to engage them and demonstrate interest in helping them realize their aspirations. This means not merely consulting with Indigenous peoples, but moving to the next step of creating partnerships. It means that those of us who are non-Indigenous must advocate to ensure that Indigenous peoples have equal access to education and training, employment, and the economic benefits of development in their regions. And it means having non-Indigenous business owners, and non-Indigenous people generally, learn about the reality of Indigenous peoples, their histories, their cultures, their knowledge and worldviews, and our treaty and constitutional obligations to them, rather than perpetuating myths about Indigenous peoples as being somehow “lesser.”

If all of us, Indigenous and non-Indigenous neighbours in New Brunswick society, can achieve these three things, Indigenous entrepreneurs will have real opportunities to help our province grow. Their success will make them, their communities, and the whole economy better off. Surely, that is what we all want, isn’t it?

*This article was originally published on 6 April 2023

Ian Peach has worked in senior positions in federal, provincial, and territorial governments, at universities across Canada, in non-governmental organizations, and as a public policy consultant. He is currently Executive Director of the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council; the views he expresses in this column, however, are strictly his own and do not represent the views of the Council.

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