According to the National Indigenous Economic Development Board, there is massive potential to fuel Canadian economic growth through Indigenous economic development. The board’s 2019 Indigenous economic impact report states that Indigenous economic development and participation are keys to closing the opportunity gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, which could, in turn, boost Canada’s economy by $27.7 billion annually.
In Saskatchewan, Indigenous business is already one of the most rapidly expanding sectors. The opportunity is there to build bridges and the economy if companies are willing to take the steps needed. With an eye on improving Indigenous engagement in the local business community, the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce recently introduced its Indigenous engagement charter. The charter serves as a roadmap to assist businesses in creating their own Indigenous engagement strategy and provides the necessary support and tools to help them along the way.
“What we’re doing is we’re thinking about what the future economy is going to look like for Saskatchewan,” says Thomas Benjoe, first vice-chair on the chamber’s board of directors and one of the leaders who created the charter. “If we don’t start creating an economy that is creating more opportunity for Indigenous participation, we’re not going to have the same robust economy that we may have today. We could really help to enhance what the economy looks like at that point in time. Failure to do that could create issues for us long term.”
The chamber wanted to offer resources that companies can adopt to facilitate more Indigenous participation in their own organization, and thus further helping to impact the Saskatchewan and national economies. The adaptable charter—the first of its kind in Canada—includes goals, timelines, actions and responsibilities, and can be used as little or as much as needed to match business goals and structure while fostering inclusivity. Approximately 40 organizations have already reached out to use the charter.
“We’re not saying here’s the box you have to stay within. We’re saying find unique ways that work for your business, because not all the solutions we’re going to provide do we expect you to implement because it may not make sense for your organization,” says Benjoe, who is also the president and CEO of FHQ Developments. “There’s no right or wrong way of doing this. It’s about finding a way to customize it to make sense for your business, but at the same time, having an effect and hopefully increase the effect you have in the Indigenous community.”
There are many ways for businesses to increase Indigenous engagement, including hiring, procurement, partnerships, or community participation, says Nick Crighton, director of Indigenous engagement for the chamber. The benefits can also be felt immediately, as companies can fill hiring gaps, discover innovation, and connect with new partners and allies in Indigenous-owned businesses.
Benjoe is also quick to point out that many national or large corporations are beginning to require Indigenous engagement from their partners or contractors, so a lack of engagement could begin to impact a company’s bottom line.
But perhaps most important, there is a corporate social responsibility for workforces to resemble the communities they serve. Statistics Canada projects the Indigenous population will represent one in five people in Saskatchewan by 2036. Through ongoing Indigenous engagement, companies can begin to dispel decades-old misconceptions and deep-seated racism.
To get started, Crighton recommends doing an organizational audit to identify how many staff are self-declared Indigenous, from First Nations and Métis to Inuit. If company numbers are low, ask yourself how that can be changed. Consider using an Indigenous business in your supply chain. Give staff the day off to volunteer for National Indigenous Peoples Day or honour Orange Shirt Day—a day to remember the Indigenous children who were sent away to residential schools and learn more about the history of those schools.
When Black Lives Matter swept through the US, it shone a spotlight on the racism our Indigenous people face and we can and should be better than that. “We all want the younger generation to be more progressive than the current generation,” says Crighton. “And this is a step in the right direction.”