June is National Indigenous History Month, and as we take time to understand and reflect on the history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, it’s also a great time to take stock of the current landscape of Indigenous business in Canada – and where we’re headed in the future. We sat down with three of CAMSC’s Indigenous suppliers to discuss the importance of bringing Truth and Reconciliation policies into businesses and what organizations and governing bodies are doing to improve opportunities and outcomes for Indigenous entrepreneurs.
Zach Stewart, President of Wilcox Door Service and Nivee Cyber Security Inc., is currently focused on speaking tours to raise awareness for partnerships with Indigenous businesses and to help Indigenous entrepreneurs grow.
“A lot of our mandates within both of my companies are, ‘How do we recruit Indigenous people? And how do we grow them up through our systems to become either door technicians in the door company or cybersecurity specialists in the cybersecurity company?'” says Zach.
Sylvie Ouellette is the CEO of Versatil, a company specializing in business analytics, AI, and security. She recently finished a challenge with Indigenous Services Canada—a digital navigation tool that helps Indigenous individuals, businesses, and communities get matched to the correct services from Indigenous Services Canada.
Barry Payne has over 20 years of experience as an Indigenous entrepreneur. While working as the CEO of OnNation, he was offered a position with the Government of Canada: Indigenous Procurement Specialist with the Indigenous Engagement Centre of Excellence. Here, he uses his wealth of experience in Indigenous engagement and entrepreneurship to influence policy and challenge organizations to take action.
“My role is to try and make the world a better place. The part I like about it is I get to work with government officials and coach them through the process, which is kind of unique in the federal government world. And that’s something near and dear—to give back,” says Barry.
As members of CAMSC, Zach, Sylvie, and Barry all see the tremendous power in building connections with Indigenous businesses, diversifying the supply chain, and investing in Indigenous communities and talent. There are many avenues for establishing these connections, like supplier databases, corporate partnerships, and implementing cultural training within organizations. However, they all agree that the most important and powerful tool for Indigenous leaders to propel their business forward is self-promotion and networking.
“We’re proud of what we do, but we don’t always take that extra step. I think we need to all work together in promoting ourselves,” says Sylvie.
Finding creative ways for self-promotion helps make all the other engagement tactics, like database registries, even more effective. Larger-scale networking opportunities like CAMSC events, public speaking engagements, and webinars are great ways to make yourself known as an Indigenous-led business. However, even small-scale tools like social media can make a significant impact. For Barry, he has seen incredible success by regularly posting and interacting on LinkedIn, without necessarily “self-promoting.” He says people love reading Indigenous stories, and by sharing this content, you’re reaching out and making your presence known to a massive audience.
Truth and Reconciliation Frameworks in Canadian Business
Section 92 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action outlines how Canada’s corporate sector can apply principles and standards to corporate policies and operational activities within a reconciliation framework. As more businesses commit to complying with this call to action, we’re seeing positive changes in how Canadians run their businesses.
Zach says one of the best things organizations can do is have Indigenous people working in front-facing positions within Indigenous business procurement and outreach.
“Their job is to find companies like us, and see where we can fit within their business, connecting us to the right people, and establishing us as a high-priority diverse vendor within their system,” says Zach.
Barry agrees that hiring diverse employees to spearhead diverse recruitment initiatives helps build genuine connections and empathy between businesses, clients, and entrepreneurs. He recommends having Indigenous representation in front facing positions so the community sees someone they identify with.
Barry says that in his government role, the team has representatives from various communities and backgrounds to broaden their reach. Accessibility is also an important focus, and Deaf representatives are available to communicate with Deaf clients in American Sign Language.
The Importance of Initiatives that Elevate Indigenous Industry
Every dollar invested within a community can generate 3–4 times the wealth in return. Barry says that if we want to see systemic change, particularly within Indigenous communities, this is the approach we should take.
“It’s not a handout. It generates wealth in the community. From a health perspective, it generates positive attitudes: you can buy better food, eat better, and live a healthier lifestyle. There are all kinds of positive side effects.”
For Sylvie, as an Indigenous business leader, there is an even stronger responsibility to look beyond the company’s bottom line and focus on service—not just to clients, but the community, so companies hold a higher purpose beyond simply running a business for profit.
Zach is an excellent example of someone who has put these principles into practice within his organization. By creating training academies and recruiting Indigenous people into the cyber security industry, he has helped provide opportunities for long-term, financially-rewarding careers.
“That was something we wanted to do right from the beginning. I think these types of programs and policies that are coming into place are enabling our businesses to grow, so we can seek out that vision and help support our Indigenous economy.”
The Future of Indigenous Business in Canada
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently implemented a mandate that all government departments commit to 5 per cent procurement with Indigenous-owned businesses, with a timeline that must be met by 2024. Barry says we’re currently sitting at about 1 percent, so we can expect massive growth within the next two years.
“It’s easier than ever if you’re an Indigenous business. Just look at the numbers: 5 per cent of 23 billion? That’s quite a bit!”
With so many growth opportunities on the horizon for Canada’s Indigenous businesses, now is the time to get serious about self-promotion. Put your name out there, seek out partnerships with organizations who share similar values, and get creative about how you network. It’s easier than ever to make connections with organizations across Canada and beyond.
Unsure where to start? Take a look at some of our upcoming events for opportunities to learn, connect, and diversify your business!