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Economy Rising: Aboriginals Celebrate Growing Business Clout

Entrepreneurs were celebrated and schooled at the annual conference of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business on October 24-25.
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Businesses run by First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples are poised to become a major foundation of Canada’s economy, with the youngest citizens emerging as the potential saviors of an aging Canadian workforce.

That was the overriding theme of the annual National Aboriginal Entrepreneurs Conference and Tradeshow of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), held on October 24 and 25. It was a fitting takeaway: As 2011—dubbed the Year of the Entrepreneur by the Canadian ­government—winds down, it is clear that the ingenuity of the CCAB’s membership has taken the lead in driving a $24 billion market.

Among the conference highlights was a recap of a study conducted by the CCAB and TD Economics and released this past spring. The study predicts the growth trend will continue, with the aboriginal market increasing to $32 billion by 2016. That is “larger than the GDPs of two provinces in Canada,” said CCAB Chief Executive Officer Clint Davis.

“It destroys the myth that we’re a drain on the Canadian taxpayer,” he said. “In fact, we’re making a significant contribution to Canada’s economy.”

From recent major mineral finds in northern Ontario, to the opening of northern Quebec, to the potash mining sector in Saskatchewan, many of the country’s major economic sectors have a Native component, Davis said. In opening the conference, he noted that 37,000 aboriginals are self-employed, and that more than 240 aboriginal economic development corporations have sprouted and are fomenting ideas.

The conference addressed both the big and little pictures. On day one, various panels focused on aboriginal business presence within the Canadian economy. Day two was devoted to individual companies, tools and how to enhance that presence. Workshops on marketing and selling to big business, government and other institutions looked at the nuts and bolts of how to be successful in today’s economic environment, from basic marketing to the use of social media. Mentorship was a big issue as well.

“Many aboriginal entrepreneurs operate in isolation, so they don’t know what they don’t know,” Davis said. “So there is that real need—and they don’t ask—to do outreach and connect with other successful businesspeople to get that insight and advice for those tools for success and to build your business.”

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Aboriginal youth ages 15 to 24 constitute Canada’s fastest-growing demographic, making educational reform ever more urgent as a route to turning this group into another major economic driver, suggested CCAB spokesman Chris Allicock.

In recognition of aboriginal economic clout, top Canadian officials were on hand. Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) John Duncan co-hosted with Davis. Among the speakers was Peter Penashue, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and President of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada. Duncan spoke of investment to boost aboriginal entrepreneurship and job creation.

“Our government recognizes the importance of business development to First Nations, Inuit and Métis individuals,” he said. “Our government is committed to working in partnership with aboriginals across the country to increase economic development opportunities.”

To this end, Duncan announced several financial initiatives at the conference. The Métis Entrepreneurship Fund, created to meet the demand for loan financing for mid-size businesses, was awarded $3.1 million. The fund, managed by three Métis capital ­corporations—Apeetogosan­ Métis Development Inc. of Alberta, the SaskMétis Economic Development Corp. of Saskatchewan and the Louis Riel Capital Corp. in Manitoba—will help businesses that need $250,000 to $1 million.
“With this funding, Métis entrepreneurs will be able to expand their business and increase jobs across the prairies,” Duncan said.

Another beneficiary was the Kitsaki Mining Limited Partnership. It will receive $1.2 million to assist the Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s Kitsaki Mining Limited Partnership in Saskatchewan.
“This project is expected to provide significant economic benefits to Lac La Ronge Indian Band and the surrounding communities, including the creation of many jobs, as well as skills-training opportunities for First Nation people,” AAND said in a statement.

Two smaller-scale projects also received monies. About $200,000 went to the Cooperative d’Ivujivik to build a 16-room hotel with amenities for business travelers and government officials, as well as tourists, in Nunavik, Quebec. And the Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada received $348,633 to develop the Inuit Women in Business Network.

It was all in line with the goals of the Federal Framework for Aboriginal Economic Development, created in 2009, which emphasizes partnership between aboriginal groups, the private sector and the provinces and territories. The federal government is helping increase access to capital, reaching out to aboriginal providers for procurement, and facilitating access to business expertise and services, AAND said.