For far too long, Indigenous peoples and First Nations communities have been locked out of the economy with little opportunity for wealth creation. However, that is changing. Through Indigenous economic development corporations, procurement policies that drive Indigenous participation, and a growing appetite for inclusivity in business, economic inequality is slowly being addressed.
A place at the table
In the past four decades, we have seen the formation of economic development corporations and joint partnerships between Saskatchewan First Nations and corporate Canada, spurring economic participation for Indigenous peoples, particularly in the resource sector. “We got our start in mining and construction,” says Sean Willy, Des Nedhe Group president and CEO. “That led to building wealth, which is now allowing us to diversify our investments to create more certainty and withstand the cyclical nature of the resource economy.” That initial economic development work in resources has created an ever-diversifying portfolio of companies and investments for Des Nedhe Group, and its owner—the English River First Nation, a member of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council. Like most traditional private equity and venture capital firms, Des Nedhe is always looking for its next
investment opportunity. However, they’re in the market for opportunities that offer benefits beyond just the return on investment. Willy says Des Nedhe wants to create both value and jobs, and keep companies local. “We’re on the lookout for baseload revenue generators,” says Willy. “We like safe, secure, long-term bets but we’re not afraid of innovation.”
Breaking new ground
Further south, the PFN Group of Companies (owned by Pasqua First Nation in the Qu’Appelle Valley) is on a similar path, looking for companies and equity investments that will create and provide stable wealth for generations. “We’re in the private equity and venture capital space, but we think differently as Indigenous investors,” says PFN Group CEO Richard Missens. “We want to see returns, but we also want to see training and job opportunities and wealth creation for our community. We also want to work with companies that have similar values to ours.”
PFN Group has not shied away from innovative investments, placing funds into three companies with significant promise for their community, including a new oil and gas technology addressing flare gas, medicinal CBD, and national defense. However, all three investments were supported by the community, ensuring that their Indigenous values were taken into account when investing.
“There is tremendous drive in First Nations communities to enter the economy ‘on our terms’,” says Missens. “We’re entering the market for cash flow, but to also address the economic and social challenges our communities face.” He notes that Indigenous entrepreneurs are the fastest growing segment in the Indigenous economy, and present major opportunities for investment in the future. PFN knows that the investments they make today fuel the work they can support in Indigenous entrepreneurship and innovation. “We’re prudent and careful, but we’re ready to put our money where it matters,” says Missens.
How can an interested company work with Indigenous investors? For Willy and Missens, the answer is picking up the phone. Both field calls weekly from organizations with ideas and proposals, and say their door is always open. “We have managed poverty for generations and now we want to manage wealth. The Indian Act set us back and disrupted our journey,” says Willy. “Today, we’re a force to be reckoned with. We want to be the long-term shoulder behind successful companies.”
Missens echoes Willy’s sentiments. “We might be 20 years behind now, but it won’t take that long to catch up. We’re assertively taking control of our future, and building partnerships with like-minded companies to grow our wealth and support our communities for generations,” says Missens.