A new report from a prominent aboriginal business organization is calling on governments and banks to boost their support for indigenous entrepreneurs.
But according to the study, Promise and Prosperity: Ontario Aboriginal Business Survey, Research Report, released by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) on April 8, the solutions aren't going to come from the top down.
“There's a misconception that aboriginal people aren't contributors to Canada's economy,” CCAB president and CEO JP Gladu told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The opposite is true—we've got incredible businesses and business leaders out there competing. Overall, there seems to be an optimistic view amongst aboriginal businesses—we're going to continue to see growth amongst them.”
Gladu, who is Anishinabe from northern Ontario, added that three particular efforts could significantly improve business success: improved access to financing, more labor skills training and support for creating business plans. In all parts of Canada, he said, such businesses are already thriving. According to the last census data available, in 2006 there were 36,000 aboriginal-owned firms across the country—and by 2016, Native entrepreneurs will boost the economy by an estimated $13 billion, he said.
The report released this week honed in on Ontario, the province with the highest aboriginal population. Surveying some of the province's 9,000 Métis, First Nations and Inuit people who own businesses, the report concluded that a typical aboriginal-owned business in the province is a small, often one-person operation bringing in less than $100,000 a year.
But sole-proprietor entrepreneurs aren't the whole picture, the report found. A third of Ontario's aboriginal-owned businesses actually create jobs for others—jobs most often filled by aboriginal people. With disproportionate levels of unemployment in many First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, this is welcome news—and shows that many solutions can be generated from within.
One of the biggest barriers for such businesses is simply accessing the capital that any enterprise needs to launch and to grow.
“A lot of our startups are using personal finances or borrowing from relatives to start up,” Gladu added. “Part of that stems from the Indian Act, especially on reserves—we don't own the land, so we can't put anything up for collateral; we don't even own our homes on reserve land.... We're behind the eight-ball trying to get financing.”
The province's aboriginal affairs minister applauded the report and said the data would be useful to developing better support programs for the growing sector of aboriginal business.
“We’re proud to have provided support to CCAB for this significant research project,” David Zimmer said in a statement. “The Aboriginal Business Survey provides valuable insight that will guide our efforts to support First Nations, Inuit and Métis people in starting and growing their own business.”
But while aboriginal entrepreneurs aren't waiting for a change from the banks, provincial or federal governments, many are hoping for a change in the very laws that have hampered indigenous economic development for more than a century.
Gladu, whose family background is in forestry, said his own northern Ontario First Nation decided to take advantage of recent federal legislation to develop its own land code. The law has generated controversy among some critics who fear it may break up what little remains of indigenous communities for development. But Gladu argued that now his community can leverage its reserve lands with long-term leases—something long forbidden under the controversial Indian Act, which created the reserve system and entrenched a system of unequal status.
“The Indian Act is such a paternalistic, archaic thing that hamstrings our communities,” Gladu said. “It needs to be slowly disassembled, but in full consultation with First Nations people. It's not going to happen overnight, but the Indian Act is just not healthy, and hasn't been a piece of legislation that's helped our people at all.”