Written by Kayla Isabelle
Canada is home to a rising 1.6 million Indigenous people and over 600 Indigenous communities. Systemic discrimination, including historically oppressive government legislation and deep-seeded societal bias, has lead to these communities being largely disadvantaged in academic and business circles.
As a direct result of inequitable funding and resource allocation to Indigenous communities, only 48 per cent of on-reserve Indigenous peoples graduate high school. Canada’s corporate world, which so heavily relies on educational background and previously established networks, remains largely inaccessible to Indigenous peoples as a result. Developing and maintaining resources and support networks created by and for Indigenous peoples is vital for empowering Indigenous entrepreneurs to succeed and create sustainable businesses.
During a recent Indigenous business accelerator, Todd Evans, Export Development Canada’s national lead for Indigenous exporters, discussed unique challenges Indigenous entrepreneurs face when attempting to launch and grow their startups. Evans stated that inaccessibility to funding and investors, catalyzed by a lack of historical relationships between banking institutions and Indigenous communities, is a large hurdle for First Nations, Inuit and Metis entrepreneurs.
Paul-Emile McNab, director of business development and Strategic Initiatives for the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, supported Evans’ conclusion. McNab explained during the accelerator that CCAB’s 2017 Partnership in Procurement Study indicated that respondents recommended seeing stronger advocacy for Indigenous procurement commitments from Canadian corporations. Beyond this, the CCAB’s 2016 Membership Survey indicated that another financial-related concern is meeting the requirements for lending, with 45 per cent of Indigenous businesses having had difficulty with this.
Aside from access to capital, Evans explained that another unique obstacle for Indigenous entrepreneurs is geographic remoteness. According to Statistics Canada, roughly 60 per cent of Indigenous peoples live in predominantly rural areas – 33 per cent more than the share of non-Indigenous peoples living in rural areas. According to the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), low-density remote areas tend to have less diversified economies, lower labour market attachment, lower educational attainment and poorer health outcomes. Remote locations are also less likely than urban hubs to have adequate telecommunications and internet infrastructure, drastically reducing the connectivity of Indigenous startups to their partners and customer bases.
Entrepreneur-specific factors such as management capacity and access to skilled workers are also a large barrier for Indigenous-owned businesses, according to Evans. This can once again be attributed to the socio-economic conditions and historical contexts surrounding Indigenous communities. A literature review by the First Nations Caring Society explains that structural inequalities and discrimination (including chronic underfunding in healthcare and education, inaccessibility to essential services, and unequal representation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system) stems from a “long and calculated history of assimilation and impoverishment of First Nations communities in Canada.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TTRC) directly called upon Canada’s business sector to provide equitable access and support to Indigenous peoples. Specifically, the Commission called upon the corporate sector to: “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.”
During the recent Indigenous business accelerator, Todd Evans explained that there are currently over 56,000 Indigenous-owned businesses within Canada. What’s more, Indigenous businesses contribute over $30 billion annually to Canada’s collective GDP.
To fully address the inequalities that exist within Canada’s entrepreneurial landscape, developing and maintaining resources and support networks created by and for Indigenous peoples is vital. There are many Indigenous-owned startups that are currently creating networking opportunities and accelerator programs specifically for Indigenous entrepreneurs. Founded by Sunshine Tenasco, Pow Wow Pitch aims to provide a safe, supportive, collaborative, empowering and culturally supportive environment that addresses the unique challenges of Indigenous entrepreneurs and aspiring Indigenous entrepreneurs. The annual pitch competition, held during a traditional Pow Wow, offers a cash prize to the winning entrepreneur and the opportunity to connect with other Indigenous entrepreneurs.
Another business currently offering support services to Indigenous entrepreneurs is Kwe-Biz. Founded by Shyra Barberstock, Kwe-Biz provides Indigenous-led online and in-person business training and mentorship for Indigenous women entrepreneurs. Kwe-Biz provides accelerator courses, workshops and mentorship programs whether you are in the startup phase or have an existing business you would like to grow.
Some other tools and resources available to Indigenous entrepreneurs include:
- Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada | Aboriginal Business and Entrepreneurship Development (ABED)
- Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) | Tools and Financing for Aboriginal Business
- Animikii | Technology & Entrepreneurship Scholarships For Indigenous Youth
Education and Training
- Canadian Center for Aboriginal Entrepreneurship (CCAE)
- Aboriginal Business and Entrepreneurship Development (ABED)
- Martin Family Initiative | AYEP (Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program)
- Innovation, Science and Economic Development | Aboriginal Business Directory
- Native Women’s Association of Canada | Aboriginal Women’s Business Entrepreneurship Network (AWBEN)
- Okwaho Equal Source
- Canadian Council for Aboriginal Businesses (CCAB) | Aboriginal Business Mentorship Program (ABMP)
- Inuit Women in Business Network (IWBN)
Tools for help expand Indigenous businesses to the global market
Additionally, the Resource Guide for Indigenous Entrepreneurs is a living and curated document powered by Startup Canada in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to support the growth of thriving Indigenous-owned companies.
We have a lot of work to do in addressing the inequalities that exist in our entrepreneurial ecosystem. Together we need to recognize the unique barriers and hurdles that too often discourage Indigenous entrepreneurs from launching or growing their businesses and collectively empower Indigenous-led resources and support networks.
Kayla Isabelle is the Executive Director of Startup Canada, the national rallying community supporting and giving a voice to Canada’s 3.5 million entrepreneurs. Kayla has dedicated her career to supporting entrepreneurs, both in Canada and internationally. Kayla is an award-winning strategic communications consultant and change management facilitator and is passionate about leveraging the power of storytelling in the entrepreneurial community.