Rowing Together: Working Toward Indigenous Economic Reconciliation

Saskatchewan organizations are beginning to articulate a new future of economic inclusion in the province. Economically speaking, the post-treaty legacy was less than stellar. According to SREDA, it amounted to “purposeful exclusion of Indigenous people from the economy through policies and practices designed to produce an unequal distribution of wealth,” says SREDA president and CEO Alex Fallon.

We see this when ongoing inequities are sublimated under discussions about whatever new skyscraper or entertainment district needs to be built, in a lingering colonial model of progress.

Since the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were released in 2015, SREDA has made concerted efforts to advance Indigenous Economic Reconciliation through programs like SOAR, their Indigenous Economic Development Scholarship and their Learning Together Mentorship Policy. TRC Call to Action #92 addresses the need for respectful relationships and consultation, informed consent with respect to economic development projects as well as employment equity and education for business leaders and their teams on Indigenous history.

SREDA recently created an Indigenous Economic Development Committee of the Board. This is a first in its 25-year history and goes some distance to fulfilling its corporate objective of providing leadership and advocacy for economic reconciliation.

Education of elementary and high school students regarding First Nations history has been increased and gradual change is anticipated as a result. “That will take time,” says Fallon. “We’ve seen a big change in the educational system which will lead to one of the biggest shifts we’ve ever witnessed.”

Accounting firm Meyers Norris Penny (MNP) has a long-standing relationship with First Nations in Canada. The company’s internal policies support education and awareness of the Indigenous community. “We have an internal learning portion that’s available for all team members. That is something we’ve put a little more emphasis on since the TRC report came out, but we had it previously,” says Keith Fonstad, MNP Provincial Director for Indigenous Services in Saskatchewan.

Recent media reports about the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at residential schools in Kamloops, B.C. and Cowessess First Nation have reopened old wounds and underscored the urgency in redressing the wrongs of the past. “Understanding the specific history of residential schools and the impact, understanding the treaties and the relationship with the Crown are aspects of MNP’s educational training,” Fonstad says. The Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada boasts over 217,000 members, but Fonstad says fewer than 100 of those are Indigenous. “That number is way too small,” he says. A focus for MNP is hiring Indigenous team members.

Beyond that, the company is going into high schools with programs like the Martin Family Initiative to deliver the message that finance and accounting and the numbers side of business are good opportunities for Indigenous people to pursue. “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of role models in that field as of yet. It’s not a top-of-mind profession for a lot of Indigenous students,” says Fonstad. MNP is trying to change that.

The Mayor of the City of Humboldt, Michael Behiel (centre), and Humboldt & District Chamber of Commerce president Brent Walker (right) were honoured to participate in the Indigenous Day Event of Horizon School Division at their central office in Humboldt, Sask. Pictured with Horizon School Division Assistant Superintendent of Indigenous Education, Bryan McNabb. Photo by Brent Fitzpatrick.

In the city of Humboldt, conversations involving the Chamber and the City are beginning around the goal of becoming a more inclusive community. “We were funded under the Training and Education Network earlier this year to provide reconciliation awareness to our business community,” says Brent Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Humboldt Chamber of Commerce. He says the only way to implement the expansive program the Chamber had in mind was to partner with the city’s Department of Cultural Services. That means Brent has regular coffee meetings with his wife Jennifer Fitzpatrick who serves as the director of the department.

“We had funding from SaskCulture through their Community Cultural Engagement and Planning Grant to do some initial conversations with the community about their thoughts on reconciliation and how to move forward together,” says Jennifer. The City endorsed a public awareness campaign and is looking at municipal staff development as well as municipal frameworks around land acknowledgment.

Brent says that historically First Nations represent a very small percentage of the population in the Humboldt area. “Reconciliation and the Calls to Action are rarely talked about around here. Now we’re wanting that to come forward.” He says the response from the community has been wonderful. “There is a real appetite to learn. There is a great future ahead for this conversation in our area.”

That future needs wider distribution. According to the U.S. Center for Assessment and Policy Development, racial equity is “the condition that would be achieved if one’s racial identity no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares,” To that end, hopefully, all corporate entities will ponder SREDA’s question, “Why should racial identity be statistically correlated with your likelihood of being employed and/or how much you are paid?”

Why indeed.