Indigenous Community-Owned Business: An Overview

Photo provided by K+S Potash Canada

What is an Aboriginal Economic Development Corporation (AEDC)? The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) noted there was a lack of reliable information on AEDCs in Canada so they set to work conducting a study in 2018 that would shed light on this relatively new facet of the Indigenous economy. The study focused on the role AEDCs play in facilitating economic development in Indigenous communities across Canada and how they are creating social and economic prosperity.

Released in February 2020, the report was the work of numerous in-person interviews with senior executives of AEDCs as well as community leaders (Chief and Council), economic development officers, and community administrators) from over 100 Indigenous communities across Canada. The focus of the report was to gain understanding of Indigenous economies and determine the value and importance of AEDCs on community prosperity.

Aboriginal Economic Development Corporations

AEDCs are typically community-owned umbrella organizations that form and operate businesses on the behalf of the community they serve. Their primary goals focus on establishing an organizational vision for economic development, wealth creation, self-sufficiency, job creation, and diversification. AEDCs are a major source of employment for the communities they serve. The majority of AEDCs rely on own-source revenue for their ongoing operations and 31 per cent of respondents to CCAB’s report indicated their AEDC invests between $1 and $5 million annually for supporting growth and expansion projects.

One of the unique aspects of AEDCs is that they are driven by mandates established by their respective First Nations that bring community focus and business goals together. This direction is instrumental in determining the best economic course for the AEDC to pursue. As a result, they have become driving forces for the Indigenous economy, and the market in general, across the country.

AEDCs in Saskatchewan

Sean Willy, CEO of Des Nedhe (the economic development corporation of English River First Nation), confirmed the value of AEDCs for Indigenous communities. Pointing out the fundamental question, Willy asks, “Why do Indigenous communities feel the need to have economic development corporations?” This is the context that he would like people to see the development of AEDCs through. And, the answer to the question is that Indigenous communities want and need to create own-source revenue for their communities. And they also want to create employment opportunities for their band members and other Indigenous people.

“If you talk to the Elders of English River, they knew that they couldn’t keep their culture alive with government funding alone, you need your own-source revenue. The northern Saskatchewan communities knew this back in the late seventies and early eighties and therefore they were some of the first to incorporate in the country,”, says Willy.

Willy is referring to Northern Saskatchewan First Nations that in the late 1970s and early 1980s saw the importance and value of asserting their proprietary interest in their lands. I think Saskatchewan should be proud because it has some of the leading First Nations economic development corporations. And they were all started because communities in northern Saskatchewan wanted to ensure environmental stewardship of uranium development in the late 70s and early 80s. Secondly, they wanted to make sure they were engaged with and consulted with from a community to corporate level. After that, they wanted to create opportunities for business,” he says.

Willy wants people to AEDCs as striving to be the tier one business corporations that they have proven to be. “We are prominent GDP and employment creators and we want to be seen for our contributions to the province and regions where we serve”

Speaking with Chief Jeremy Norman of Flying Dust First Nation, he also advances the key desire for Indigenous autonomy. “What is my vision for the future of our community? It is to be sustainable. Where we don’t rely on anybody. No reliance on government. Where we have our own water, infrastructure, our own housing. A healthy economy and workforce with good jobs.”

Chief Norman continues his vision highlighting his optimism for the strength of the upcoming generation. “I’m optimistic and I’m very excited for the future of our next generation. During a relationship-building tour we had visitors out from the city and surrounding areas. Our students were the guides for the tour. The way they explained everything, they did an excellent job. They spoke with confidence and it reassured me that the next generation is going to be so much stronger than when I was their age. I would never have been able to do what they’ve done. And that’s excellent.”

Corporate Citizenship

A key recommendation from CCAB’s report was corporate relationship-building. This can be through formal agreements, training, and capacity development initiatives, and developing relationships at the senior level, CEO to CEO. It was also highly encouraged for non-Indigenous organizations to undertake Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) training. This sort of initiative helps corporations work more effectively with Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs.

Terry Bird, Indigenous Relations Manager at KSPC

One such corporation in Saskatchewan that is taking their Indigenous engagement very seriously is K+S Potash Canada (KSPC). KSPC has taken the initiative to develop an Indigenous Relations Policy that serves as the inspiration and blueprint for doing business in a respectful way. KSPC understands that to be a good corporate citizen is to strengthen their social license to operate by developing and sustaining positive relationships with local Indigenous people and communities.

Since 2013, KSPC has spent approximately $400 million on Indigenous-owned or partnered companies. Back in 2012 when they were first developing their Bethune mine (then known as the Legacy Project), KSPC saw the interest from local First Nations and Métis people for the work they were doing. KSPC recognized the value of engaging these communities which resulted in great partnership successes.

“There is a lot of value in terms of a business case. It’s an opportunity to create economic development with Indigenous communities. Given Canada’s increasing Indigenous population, this means an increase in workforce potential and more entrepreneurs. Indigenous entrepreneurship is the fastest growing demographic of entrepreneurs in the country. This is really a win-win situation for us all,” says Terry Bird, Indigenous Relations Manager at KSPC.

Another senior-level insight comes from Andrew Gajadhar, KSPC’s Senior Manager of Corporate Affairs. “There are many other businesses we are actively seeking to add to our growing list of contractors and suppliers. We are always looking to expand our contractor/supplier network with local Indigenous communities. We are really proud to support Indigenous Saskatchewan businesses and we encourage other businesses to partner with Indigenous businesses throughout the province,” says Gajadhar.

Though they are less understood as now, AEDCs as a business model will become better known throughout the business community of Canada and likely replicated. It is impressive to see such a model that has a mandate to a community. This is an inherent Indigenous value—supporting and sustaining community.