How relationship building can be economic reconciliation

For Indigenous author, scholar and entrepreneur Dr. Carol Anne Hilton relationships are a critical link in the economic reconciliation matrix, alongside a better understanding of the influences that have led to the lived economic realities of Indigenous people and the need to take progressive action.

“Until economic reconciliation can move towards shifting [Indigenous people’s] lived reality of economic isolation, it becomes really important, and it’s directly connected to that concept of needing to build the importance of the understanding of the Indigenous relationship,” says Hilton.

Non-Indigenous companies successfully partnering with First Nations must take the time to build trust and form long-term partnerships with multifaceted, mutually beneficial rewards.

These rewards often go beyond the revenue generated from the business relationship and extend into capacity building within the First Nation through training opportunities, job growth and network connections that spark and grow new business opportunities for the Nation’s members.

The ATCO Frontenac and George Gordon Developments Ltd. (GGDL) relationship that led to the joint venture Wicehtowak Frontenac Services, and recently announced an $86 million, multi-year contract with BHP at the Jansen mine, is one example.

In Cree, Wicehtowak means “they have an ongoing relationship, partnership or friendship,” and the name reflects the “fruitful” relationship between ATCO and George Gordon First Nation, says Jacob Sinclair, chief operations officer for GGDL, board member of the TLE holdings for the First Nation, chief executive officer of Wicehtowak Limnos Consulting Services LP, a GGDL-owned environmental consulting company and entrepreneur with two gyms in Regina.

“Right within our name, it’s about working together,” says Sinclair. “And that’s kind of been the whole essence of the relationship that ATCO and George Gordon First Nation has had for the past 15 years. And, you know, it’s exciting times to see a lot of the seeds that were planted [15 years ago] be fruitful right now.”

In Hilton’s book, Indigenomics: Taking a Seat at the Economic Table, economic reconciliation is defined as “the space between the lived realities of Indigenous peoples, the need to build understanding of the importance of the Indigenous relationship and the requirement for progressive action.”

“Indigenous peoples experience the deepest kind of expression of the socio-economic gap,” says Hilton. “So that lived reality of lack of access to opportunity, from an economic perspective, expresses as lack of jobs, income, poverty, all those statistics that represent that socio-economic gap such as highest number of Indigenous people in prison, or highest number of children in care, and all of those negative aspects.”

Hilton suggests economic reconciliation should reduce or eventually eliminate the economic isolation of Indigenous people through the Indigenous relationship and actions that “support economic empowerment.”

While revenue sharing is obviously important, says Sinclair, GGDL is interested in “partnerships that recognize our value as an Indigenous economic development corporation, and we recognize their value and try to work towards our strengths together so that we could try to capitalize on the opportunities that are in our backyard.”

Echoing a widespread and important teaching for many First Nations that community decisions and decision makers look seven years into the past and seven into the future before making a decision, Sinclair notes the importance of values and due diligence before forming a partnership.

“We’re long-term thinkers, and I feel that many [First] Nations are, [and] we want to benefit our members and our shareholders for many years to come,” says Sinclair. “So we often take a cautious stance when we try to sift out short term thinking organizations.”

Hilton also points to identifying shared values and “being very clear on the intention of the relationship and what the outcomes can be.”

She says “being on the same page” and finding mutually beneficial approaches to the relationship and “what is valued of the relationship is important.”

“I think a commitment to understanding of the structure of the Nation, the experience of the Nation and business and the advancement of capacity overall in terms of the Nation’s key goals and outcomes. I think those are the starting points of a partnership.”

Sinclair says non-Indigenous companies looking to form a partnership with GGDL should expect to commitment to longer term partnership and relationship building, earning trust not just from the First Nation’s economic development corporation, but from community members as well.

A good place to start, he suggests, is educating yourself about Indigenous people and visiting the community.