Special Report: Economic ReconciliAction – Indigenous innovation will power a thriving local economy

Timothy Hudy, Theo Clean Janitorial Services; Alicia Hrbachek, Ally’s Cake Creeations; Joshua Turner, JT’s Beach Cafe and Tiki Bar; Christine Marie, Awasis Boutique; and Delaney King and Cole Tait, Preventative Measures Ltd.

Saskatoon’s growth to be propelled by Indigenous economic reconciliation.

The Saskatoon Region has an incredible opportunity for growth at its fingertips. The city’s first economic growth strategy, developed by the Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority (SREDA), articulates a vision of becoming a leader in Indigenous economic reconciliation.

“Saskatchewan’s ‘three Fs’—food, fuel and fertilizer—are foundational to our economy,” says SREDA president and CEO Alex Fallon. “But I’d argue there should be more than these three so that we include First Nations. Social and economic reconciliation is possibly the most important economic growth opportunity facing this province.”

Action on this focus area has already begun. Over the past year, many Indigenous initiatives have been launched, including new businesses, supports, and partnerships that will see economic reconciliation at the forefront of Saskatchewan’s growth and development.

The recent provincial legislation to create the Saskatchewan Indigenous Investment Finance Corporation (SIIFC) is one example of this strategy in action. SIIFC will support Indigenous participation in the province’s natural resource and value-added agriculture sectors, providing up to $75 million in loan guarantees for eligible projects.

Recently, Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL), in consultation with Indigenous leaders and communities across Western Canada, developed the Western Nations gas bar brand to create locally owned Indigenous gas bars that help re-invest in the Indigenous communities where they are based. Sturgeon Lake First Nation near Prince Albert began construction on the first such gas bar in Saskatchewan midway through 2021.

Innovation in the natural resource sector has been particularly dynamic: Cowessess First Nation developed a tailor-made training program to help potash companies recruit Indigenous employees, while Saskatoon-based sustainable energy company miEnergy also recently signed an agreement with Meadow Lake Tribal Council and Mistawasis First Nation to employ band members and provide financial support to projects in the partnering communities. In the nuclear industry, three Saskatchewan Indigenous-owned companies—Kitsaki Management, Athabasca Basin Development and Des Nedhe Group—also recently signed an agreement to pursue small modular reactor (SMR) investments.

The world of infrastructure has also seen growth. The Indigenous Owned Construction Companies Group (IOCCG), which aims to increase the socio-economic impact of construction for Indigenous peoples, was formed in 2021. Furthermore, the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) invested a more than $15 million loan into the Kahkewistahaw Business Landing Limited Partnership in spring 2022 to accelerate the Kahkewistahaw Landing Infrastructure urban reserve project.

Meanwhile, SREDA has made strides in furthering economic reconciliation through supporting Indigenous entrepreneurship.

SOAR Kihiw Paskîyâkêwin Indigenous Entrepreneurship Competition

The future of Indigenous entrepreneurship in Saskatoon is bright. To understand this, look no further than SREDA’s SOAR Kihiw Paskîyâkêwin Indigenous Entrepreneurship Competition. SOAR supports majority Indigenous-owned enterprises in the Saskatoon Region from any industry, awarding cash funding to entrepreneurs looking to grow their business. This year’s competition saw its top five finalists take home $45,000 in prize money as well as a special gift of eagle feather artwork created by youth in the Almighty Voice Education Centre Business Club on the One Arrow First Nation.

But SOAR offers much more than just prizes—the top 15 SOAR applicants receive one-on-one coaching sessions with local business experts specializing in finance, legal considerations, marketing, business strategy and entrepreneurship. This targeted guidance helps the entrepreneurs develop before the top five are chosen to advance to the Pitch Finale. By participating in SOAR, entrepreneurs sharpen key skills to help grow their business as
well as develop professionally, ultimately serving to foster more leaders in the local community.

Christine Marie, Awasis Boutique.

This April, the 2022 Pitch Finale was held at Dakota Dunes Resort. There, the top five finalists presented for five minutes on their business idea, progress so far and plans for growth. All five impressed the judging panel, with Christine Marie of Awasis Boutique taking home the top prize of $15,000.

Of her experience with SOAR, Marie said: “In addition to learning how to craft a good pitch, I was so inspired by being in that room. Seeing the courage of everyone giving their pitches, as well receiving the amazing help from all the experts. And right from the get-go, SREDA was super supportive, there to answer questions and cheer for you while you’re giving it your best shot.”

Awasis Boutique is the first Indigenous baby and kids’ apparel shop in Saskatchewan. Founded in 2018 after Christine saw how few clothing options were available to celebrate Indigenous culture, Awasis has seen success online and at retailers across Saskatchewan and Alberta. Thanks to the first place prize at SOAR, Christine now plans to enhance her marketing and strategize about growth and expansion.

Christine’s most recent success? Awasis Boutique will be featured in the Summer 2022 Jilly Box offered by Canadian entrepreneur and influencer Jillian Harris. “I fully believe that everything happens for a reason,” said Marie. “Everything is lining up as we head into that season.”

Timothy Hudy, CEO of Theo Clean Janitorial Services, a commercial cleaning company, won SOAR’s second place prize of $10,000. Timothy channelled his more than 20 years of property maintenance experience into founding Theo Clean, where he’s proud to be able to provide Indigenous employment opportunities; over 75 per cent of Theo Clean’s staff are Indigenous. He’s seen business growth already thanks to taking part in SOAR, with new clients reaching out and increased media interest.

After his SOAR win, Timothy plans to expand Theo Clean with the long-term goal of becoming the largest Indigenous commercial cleaning company in Saskatoon. He views the SOAR experience as an important contributor to building knowledge-sharing networks for Indigenous entrepreneurs. “It’s a wonderful event to showcase Indigenous businesses,” said Hudy. “It was so much fun, and I’ve learned a lot from it as well as getting our name out there.”

Timothy Hudy, Theo Clean.

Both Christine and Timothy are passionate advocates for giving back to their communities. A portion of the proceeds from every Awasis Boutique Every Child Matters shirt is donated to organizations that support Indian Residential School survivors. Among other charitable donations, Theo Clean funds a scholarship for Yellow Quill First Nation youth graduating at the top of their class. And both entrepreneurs see this community involvement as central to their business.

“That’s something I’d say to every entrepreneur,” said Marie. “Find a way that you can support your community. It helps to keep you grounded. You’re doing this great thing with your gifts but remember to stay connected.”

“Being an Indigenous man,” said Hudy, “I was always taught to give back to our people. I’m very proud of giving back. I started the company when my son was born—I named it after him—because I wanted to show my children that you can follow your passion, succeed, and be able to provide for your family while giving back to the community.”

Reconciliation into the Future

Beyond SOAR, SREDA has made Indigenous economic reconciliation one of its key pillars going forward. To support this work, SREDA recently introduced the role of Chief Economic Reconciliation Officer, a position held by Milton Tootoosis.

“We need to be doing more to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #92,” said Tootoosis. “The economic aspect of Treaty 6 is crucial. By living up to the vision of a good livelihood that the Chiefs who were Treaty 6 signatories had in mind, we have the potential to be leaders in Indigenous economic inclusion right here in Saskatchewan.”

To learn how your organization can implement Call to Action #92 and foster Indigenous economic reconciliation, contact:

Milton Tootoosis
Chief Economic Reconciliation Officer