On July 2, 2019, Industry West brought together six Saskatchewan Indigenous business leaders to talk about their work, the challenges and opportunities for Indigenous entrepreneurs, and how to succeed in the business community. Patrick Dinsdale, Chair, Indigenous Chamber of Commerce of Saskatchewan, moderated the discussion held at Dakota Dunes Casino on the Whitecap Dakota First Nation near Saskatoon. Meet Chief Darcy Bear (Whitecap Dakota First Nation), Brad Darbyshire (President, STC Industrial Contracting), Devon Fiddler (Founder and Chief Changemaker, SheNative Goods), Ron Hyggen (CEO, Athabasca Basin Security and All Peace Protection), Guy Lonechild (CEO, First Nations Power Authority), and Shelley Pinacie (Founder and Management Consultant, SKYE Management and Consulting). For video of the discussion, visit our YouTube channel, @iwmediagroup.
As Indigenous entrepreneurship grows year over year, with massive room for more, Dinsdale asked the group why this, and the work of the people in the room, important to the overall provincial economy and Indigenous communities. Chief Bear sees that more Indigenous people are getting post-secondary education and wanting to get involved in economic development and providing for themselves. They see the opportunities that non-Indigenous people enjoy, such as home ownership, and want to provide that for themselves. However, Indigenous people must overcome serious historical factors to achieve those goals, notes Dinsdale. The work that Bear has done, along with everyone in the room, helps move their people in that direction.
Darbyshire says the importance is about changing outcomes. “Changing outcomes is a big piece of why we do what we do,” he says. The company he now runs, STC Industrial, was created for that purpose—to enhance the quality of life, create opportunities for the community members and the Indigenous community at large. “We are the groundbreakers here to create the path for the companies in this province to succeed, and they don’t even know it yet in a lot of cases,” he says. He sees the importance of enabling the broader Indigenous community to become more engaged, and wholly-owned Indigenous businesses do that.
History has been the most significant challenge for Indigenous people to get ahead. Bear and Lonechild agree on the Indian Act, and what is has meant for Indigenous people and their ability to participate in the economy. “The biggest challenge is always the Indian Act. It was never created for us to be part of the economy. It was created to segregate us from society to keep us out of sight, out of mind,” says Bear. Lonechild agrees. “When we talk about the larger question of building beyond the Indian Act, economic development and entrepreneurship is the antithesis of the Indian Act. It wasn’t put there for us to succeed. It was there to limit our involvement in the economy,” he says.
Relocation can be a major barrier to Indigenous people accessing education and economic participation in Saskatchewan. Darbyshire moved from a small Indigenous community in the north as a child to a non-Indigenous community, and then moved further south as a university student at age 17. Two years later, he recognized that university was not the education for him. “The education model didn’t fit me. I went back to school and became a tradesperson instead,” says Darbyshire. He notes that moving is a common issue for many Indigenous people, and credits his supportive parents to provide the motivation to do more. While relocation seems like an easy barrier to overcome, there are still deeper issues involved that mentorship may help ease. “I was always motivated to do something, and to succeed. It wasn’t easy, and I don’t think it’s easy for anybody, from any race,” says Darbyshire. “But it’s much more difficult in this province with the history that we have with residential schools. My grandmother raised me until I was ten and she was from a residential school. We had issues to deal with like that, but I think the growth is within all of us and I think a lot of it comes back to that mentorship.”
Fiddler’s challenges came from simply being an Indigenous woman. She sometimes feels her voice gets a little smaller because there aren’t many Indigenous women entrepreneurs in the marketplace. She is striving to change that, to see more people like her in business and contributing to the economy. “10 years ago, I would have never been at a podium,” says Fiddler. That changed when she started her own company, because she knew she needed to be in the public eye with her brand. She also notes the challenges of caregiving, which make entrepreneurship more difficult for women, and the issues around accessing capital. “For me it’s always been capital. If I had not moved forward and bought a house, I don’t think I would have been able to get any capital at all,” says Fiddler.
Lonechild also sees self-doubt as a challenge. “I think sometimes if comes from a position of self-doubt, where we put up barriers for ourselves in terms of whether we can do something or not. And it isn’t always others who can’t believe in you, sometimes it’s within ourselves,” says Lonechild. “Whether we can get to that next step, whether it’s raising $10,000 for that business, but for me it was reinventing myself a little bit, getting out of politics and getting back into business school. I had to prove that I could bring some value and innovation back into this conversation that we call economic development and entrepreneurship.”
Darbyshire agrees that while self-doubt is a barrier, once you get past it, there is more to overcome in Indigenous business. Like Fiddler, he sees financing as a major issue. “Try to get financing. Try to get people to be comfortable with investing $1 million on a property that is on reserve along the river,” says Darbyshire. “Trying to get that level of comfort from the general community is difficult. And from a business perspective, when we started STC Industrial, and even as a Tribal Council-owned entity that’s well-known, at first no bank would talk to us. Not a chance they were going to lend us a dollar.” Darbyshire’s company had to self-finance, going to communities like Bear’s, because no bank would lend to them. “Now the banks want us because we’re in year three, and we’re making money and we’re employing people like crazy,” he says. “But those barriers were there to start with.” And, he notes that those barriers still exist. “There’s still too many biases out there about businesses that are Indigenous-run,” he says. “It’s a challenge to get the functional pieces to run a business because of who owns it. It’s unfortunate but we’re paving that road with the businesses we run.”
Pinacie found her challenges during startup. “One of my challenges through startup was convincing someone that my knowledge and what I know and what I’m going to serve up to you is going to be valuable,” she says. She found success early on in Manitoba, and that experience helped her business grow at home. “My challenge was coming into a male-dominated industry, which is consultancy and trying to convince others that I have a valuable service,” says Pinacie.
Partnerships have played a major role in the success of the people in the room, and the organizations they lead. Darbyshire noted how First Nations helped his company grow when financing was not available, and Bear makes a similar point on how partnerships are part of the culture. “Us as Indigenous people, we always believed in partnership, and working together, creating alliances. So, for us even talking about the word Dakota, it actually means ‘ally’,” says Bear. “So, we said we need to go back to what our old people talked about and build partnerships and start working together to go forward.” He notes that the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and the Muskeg Lake First Nation for capital to build the Dakota Dunes Golf Course. “That kind of kicked things off for our community,” says Bear.
Lonechild remembers the time well, and also praises the Whitecap Dakota governance structure that builds trust. “His governance structure speaks about accountability, it speaks about transparency, it speaks about partnership and collaboration, and building and sustaining trust,” says Lonechild. He works in his organization, First Nations Power Authority, to have a set of values that the company lives by and that strategic partners share those principles.
“The biggest advantage is to know what you’re getting into when it comes to doing partnerships with First Nations, getting to know what the values are of the community, and understanding what they value and what they see in terms of their future,” says Lonechild. He sees that there is skepticism when a non-Indigenous organization wants to do business with the Indigenous community. “So you can’t just come into a community and say I’m going to promise you X amount of jobs and X amount of income and revenue. It just doesn’t start like that,” he says. “The conversation shouldn’t start like that because there’s skepticism involved. And I think what we should do is have a good honest conversation about what are the expectations of the community.” However, success can be found with long-term partnerships building over time. He notes major success stories in partnerships between communities such as the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and Cameco, as well as Whitecap Dakota First Nation and Saskatoon Tribal Council. “That’s the blueprint for the future,” says Lonechild.
“There’s major advantages for businesses from an employment side. The resource industry is migrating towards Indigenous engagement. And I think part of it is certainly self-serving and that’s okay. It’s to our advantage,” says Darbyshire. “And they need to create tomorrow’s workforce for their operations. So it’s an advantage to partner with an Indigenous community. If you look at the successes of the Camecos in the north, they tapped into a captured workforce. They are never moving; they are never leaving. Once you train them, they are yours.” He sees it as good commerce as both sides benefit. Companies get a trained workforce, and people get good jobs. “It’s mutually beneficial,” says Darbyshire, and Hyggen agrees.
Fiddler also addresses the advantages she sees. “I feel that because I’m an Indigenous woman I’m also tokenized and sometimes I can use that to my benefit,” she says with a chuckle. She gets invited to many organizations to speak, and feels that it because she is one of a few doing what she does. What’s missing is the capacity. Fiddler wants more young people to feel like entrepreneurship is an option and wants to see that grow.
Throughout the discussion, the idea of role models and mentorship comes up over and over again. Positive role models and mentors play a major role in for the success of Indigenous people in education and economic development. Early on, Hyggen noted the importance of his grandmother’s words to provide his motivation. “For me it’s always been about never saying no to a challenge. Taking on what came regardless of what it is. You only get a certain amount of chances and then you need some luck,” says Hyggen. “And then that right attitude is always in my head. Gotta be focused on growing as a person. Helping out where you can. Think about your grandparents.”
Pinacie also saw the work ethic of her parents as motivation for her success, and now sees how youth are ready to succeed. “We need to develop skill, and once we develop the skill, then we can get them to start businesses,” says Pinacie. She sees how people like herself and the others in the room can make a difference for young people. “It’s people like us sitting around the table that they’re going to look up to,” she says. Fiddler also notes that she notices the tendency in herself to downplay her skills and abilities, and many in the room agree. Darbyshire says that good risk, and taking risks, isn’t well taught to young people. He relates a story about a career risk he took when he was young, and how good risk can lead to success for people and their communities. “You might fall down, but you need to take that risk,” says Darbyshire.
So, what does the future hold, and where are the opportunities for Indigenous people and entrepreneurs? Lonechild sees project management and business consulting as major opportunities, and recognizes the change that is coming with automation. He also sees local food production and renewable energy as places for growth that are ripe for entrepreneurs and innovation. Hyggen also sees opportunities outside of the province, if you’re prepared to learn new markets. “You can’t possibly think everything is going to be in one area to work in. If that was a fact, I’d be probably be up living on a lake in northern Saskatchewan. It’s where I want to be, but it doesn’t work that way,” says Hyggen.
Bear also sees less “box checking” from corporations, and more real partnerships forming between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations, and equity ownership growing. Darbyshire agrees, and that it’s become a movement driven by Indigenous people and companies. Fiddler isn’t seeing it yet in her industry, but she is hopeful as she grows. She points to Manitobah Mukluks as a major success, and an example of what she is working toward.
Darbyshire also recognizes the non-Indigenous companies that value and appreciate the work that Indigenous companies are doing. “What I wanted to do was put a plug in for a lot of non-Indigenous businesses that are working with us now that believe in us because we stand for more,” says Darbyshire. Companies sees Indigenous people working for companies like his, and like to invest in it for the right reasons. “Indigenous corporations are a big player and big employer,” says Lonechild. He sees an exciting future ahead.
Dinsdale’s final question asked how consumers could support Indigenous business, and Fiddler had a simple and poignant answer—buy authentic Indigenous goods. “Purchase from an Indigenous owned company, and stop supporting that companies that appropriate our goods,” says Fiddler.