Foreign firms probing Canada’s business terrain for opportunities should be aware that they’re increasingly likely to be interacting with Indigenous communities, entities and entrepreneurs. Because of past injustices and inequities, they must also know how vital it is to ensure that Canada’s original peoples are Respected and Embraced

COMPANIES THAT DON’T DO THEIR MARKET ENTRY homework have a marked tendency to fail. Before putting boots on the ground in Canada, they should know about the sensitive ongoing process of reconciliation between the government and the peoples who inhabited the land long before outsiders arrived. 

“Canada has a very strong sense of its own decency,” says Dr. Ken Coates, a historian, author and consultant for Indigenous groups and governments in Canada, New Zealand and Australia. “Over the last six decades, though, Canadians have reluctantly realized that they mistreated Indigenous peoples. This is now part of Canada’s zeitgeist, and anybody coming here as an immigrant, corporation or whatever has to know about it.”

Dr. Ken Coates—historian, author and consultant for Indigenous groups and government
Dr. Ken Coates—historian, author and consultant for Indigenous groups and government

Coates is also a professor at the University of Saskatchewan as well as the MacDonald-Laurier Institute’s senior policy fellow in aboriginal and Northern Canadian issues. Raised in the Yukon, he saw the problems firsthand.

“Thirty percent of the population was Indigenous where I grew up, but people were completely dismissive of the idea that residential schools might have been malicious and violent and degrading,” he recalls. “Yet Indigenous folks kept telling us ‘No, no, we have a terrible life here. We were swarmed by a bunch of outsiders who used the power of the state to take our land, put us on small reserves, and control our civil liberties for generations.’ ”

Reconciliation, Coates says, is about resolving those inequalities and reconciling two national histories that don’t mesh at all. His whole career has been focused on studying the relationship between Indigenous peoples and what he terms “newcomers.”

The federal government began discussing reconciliation in 1998, with one major spur being the shocking discovery of abuse at Indigenous residential schools. The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People inspired Canada to form the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2008. In 2015, the TRC defined reconciliation as the process of “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.” 

At the end of 2019, the province of British Columbia enacted its own Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, and the rest of Canada followed suit in summer 2021—just over a year ago.

According to Lana Eagle, a member of the Whitecap Dakota First Nation in Saskatchewan, “the government’s still working at finding a way to align themselves with the UN’s declaration. Canada’s Indigenous peoples have gained a voice, though, and it’s an important voice to listen to, because we’re concerned about climate change, about water, and much more.”

Eagle is an Indigenous relations strategist and social innovator who advises companies on the best ways to engage and work with Indigenous communities, including within a reconciliation framework. She’s a strong proponent of early engagement.

Lana Eagle, indigenous relations strategist and social innovator

“Here’s a good example,” she says. “In Ontario, several First Nations joined together to build a power transmission line. Two companies approached them. One said, ‘Here’s how we want to do it. Do you want to build a partnership?’ The second company said, ‘We want to do this, but we don’t know how to proceed. We need your input.’ The group went with the second firm and created a strong partnership. That speaks to me about companies willing to engage from the very outset.”


Please Adjust Your Mindset

The approach is crucial, according to Mark Podlasly, a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation. He’s also the chief sustainability officer at the First Nations Major Project Coalition—a national collective of nearly a hundred Indigenous nations interested in participating from an equity perspective in major projects proposed on their territories, including mining, clean energy, transportation corridors, geothermal power production and more.

“If you’re a company coming into Canada, first find out whose land it is,” he explains. “What’s their culture, their language, their history? Second, figure out how to approach those people, understanding that it’s about relationships before business. We want to understand who you are and what you value.”

Podlasly recalls a relevant exchange. “A Japanese natural gas company official once asked me, ‘Why can’t we just put the pipeline through this area?’ I replied, ‘Because it’s a fishing spot on the river that people have used for generations.’ His response was, “Well, we could just buy fish and ship them in.’ I asked him if he had an ancestral home, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m from a fishing village.’ ‘Okay, so can we go into your fishing village, pave it, put up a dock and just buy you fish every year?’ I asked. He said, ‘No, you could never do that.’ And he got it.”

Lana Eagle spends a lot of her time dealing with mining operations and organizations such as the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, which is global in scope. She’s also on the board of a company called Common Good Mining, which is looking at a new way of mining by building relationships with communities first. 

“We have to be very cognizant of our environmental footprint and how we work with communities,” she says. “Companies have to take that time at the outset, to build those relationships and get the social licence to operate from the communities, because that’s when you build trust.”

Being Indigenous, respected, connected and a known quantity often gives her an advantage as a go-between, Eagle reveals. In one case, the person representing an Indigenous community stated, “The only reason we’re talking to you is because Lana is here, because we’ve known each other for years.”

Podlasly adds one more insight when looking for relevant, cogent advice. “The question comes up, where are these Indigenous advisors from? Are they from eastern Canada and you’re doing something in western Canada? Not as effective.”


Cultural Common Ground

According to Mark Podlasly, Japanese firms can leverage common cultural traits they share with Indigenous peoples—such as being conflict-averse—to secure a competitive advantage over Western firms.

Mark Podlasly, chief sustainability officer at the First Nations Major Project Coalition

“That includes a strong sense of place, of history, your heritage, your ancestral home, and the spirits and ancestors that we honor through our traditions and knowledge,” he explains. “We share those things with Japanese culture. Japanese that have been successful in business relationships with Indigenous people here have also had an approach based on sharing their own culture. Interactions based on mutual cultural values and understanding what you value are deeply respectful.” 

Ken Coates acknowledges that the Japanese place great importance on relationships and nurturing those relationships, just like Indigenous peoples. “If you’re not transparent and you hide something and it’s discovered later on, the trust will be broken for a long time, even generations. The foreman on a construction crew could destroy a $100 million project by being a racist if they say the wrong thing, because every person represents the whole company.”

That last aspect is certainly familiar to the Japanese, whose identity is typically tied tightly to the company they are associated with. 

The best thing to do is just become friends, Coates adds, noting a similar pattern in Japan. “Going over to Japan, they’ll take you to a restaurant and a bar afterwards, then golfing or to the ski hill. They’re testing you every step of the way, trying to see who you are and what your real values are.”


One Size Does Not Fit All

Indigenous culture is not monolithic, and there is tremendous diversity among First Nations,  Inuit and Métis in Canada. Regional differences, the nature of individual communities and the communities developmental stages must also be considered. Moreover, businesses might be dealing with just one small community or a consortium involving dozens of disparate groups.

“The challenge in Canada is that we’re still not that organized, which makes it challenging for companies to navigate the complex Indigenous landscape,” says social entrepreneur Kelly Lendsay, a Canadian indigenous leader of Cree and Métis ancestry. Lendsay is the president and CEO of Indigenous Works, an enterprise that helps companies foster inclusive workplaces for indigenous peoples. “We do have some national organizations, though, such as The Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers, the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, and NACCA, the National Aboriginal Capital Corporation Association, but more institution-building is needed.”

Kelly Lendsay—Indigenous leader and social entrepreneur

Even businesses that do their due diligence and make good connections can face the possibility of opposition, however. Just recently, Lendsay says, Canadian multinational pipeline giant Enbridge took a $1.1 billion stake in a pipeline along with twenty-seven First Nations that has generated some controversy. “What you need to be aware of is that you have members in our communities for and against pipeline activity and on resource development,” Lendsay explains. “Your firm needs to be apprised of where the sensitivities and sociopolitics are.” 

Eagle presents another angle on reconciliation to be considered. “I read lots of posts put out by chiefs from different nations about what reconciliation is. One community might get a new school built in their community, and the chief calls that reconciliation. Another chief said it was health, the work that was being done and helping their community. Every community has a definition of what they hope to see, either the projects or the relationships that come up with industry. So in those early days of engagement, it’s all about finding out the issues important to a community.”

Another unexpected aspect of the difference between Indigenous lands and other territory in Canada has recently cropped up in Vancouver, according to Coates. It has to do with what he says is the largest residential development project in the city, a 7,000-unit series of high-rise buildings just a short walk from the middle of the financial district. 

“This is on land belonging to the local First Nations,” Coates reports. “The city says you have to have at least one parking spot for every every unit. The First Nation people said, we don’t need to do that. The whole area would be swarming with vehicles. You’re gonna walk or take taxis or water taxis, and the buses go right by there. So they’re only putting in one parking spot for every ten units. And that reduces the cost of each unit by $100,000, minimum.”


Undiscovered Resources

Canada’s vast troves of minerals, oil, natural gas, timber and other natural resources draw most of the attention of business. Not surprisingly, Statistics Canada reports that natural resource wealth has accounted for between 12 and 19 percent of the nation’s total wealth over the last decade.

But other resources remain largely undiscovered, including the human kind. That’s the focus of an initiative that Kelly Lendsay heads up called Luminary. Luminary’s goal is to harness research and innovation and pull in hundreds of millions of dollars of research funding to drive Indigenous economic priorities forward for economic transformation and job growth.

“Luminary is developing a new Indigenous innovation ecosystem,” Lendsay says. “We’re connecting the academic and Indigenous business community to build research and innovation collaboration in areas such as artificial intelligence, digital technologies, critical minerals, climate change, carbon markets, advanced manufacturing, traditional foods and agribusiness.” He has already recruited more than 160 Luminary partners from the academic, Indigenous business and NGO communities from Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, including over ninety business schools, colleges and universities across Canada. 

“We’ve innovated for thousands of years, including the canoe, snowshoes, the syringe and aspirin,” he says. “So I want to create these research collaborations and drive new commercial opportunities to achieve new levels of wellbeing.” Lendsay is globally recognized as one of Canada’s foremost innovators and experts in workplace models, corporate/indigenous partnerships, and Indigenous inclusion strategies.

Lendsay recently asked one of his Luminary partners for ideas. The response? “Seaweed and kelp,” he reports. “Turns out it’s an $8 billion industry, with Asia leading the way. It’s growing 8 percent a year and could provide 10 percent of future foodstuffs. Which nation has the most species of seaweed? Canada, with over five hundred.  Unfortunately, we’ve also got the least developed industry. This is an opportunity for Indigenous peoples to build a seaweed industry for Canada.” 

Having a Japanese firm help cultivate this industry would be a natural, he adds, and so would Japanese technology. What are the possibilities? He mentions one entrepreneur who’s come up with bricks made of seaweed. “It’s a potential building product,” he explains. 

Lendsay’s epic plan includes creating more indigenous masters and PhD students and getting business schools actively working to serve Indigenous economic priorities. “And these could be ventures between a Japanese firm and a community,” he notes. “Japanese firms generally support more research and innovation, so I’m drawing the dotted line between the Japanese firms and us, saying yes, we support growing a research agenda.”

The federal government told Lendsay that he’d built an amazing network and had a great strategy, and that he was doing something that will actually drive an economic transformation in Canada. But there was no funding for non-university organizations. 

That’s changed in a monumental way. Luminary is now one of thirty-five organizations shortlisted in Canada—and the only Indigenous entity—seeking support from the government’s new Strategic Science Fund initiative, created to give non-university players access to federal funding. Lendsay has put in a letter of intent with a concept for a five-year plan requiring an investment of $24 million Canadian, including 20 million from the government and another 4 million leveraged from the market.  The proposal review process is currently underway, and he hopes to hear application results by the summer of 2023.

Lendsay readily acknowledges that Canada is still a resource-based economy, and that people still focus a lot on traditional sectors of the Indigenous economy like tourism. He believes that there’s so much more that can be done, however. 

“How do you combine artificial intelligence with some of those resource-based activities, for example?” he asks. “Indigenous businesses could be leveraging AI research in robotics, carbon markets, and getting to net zero. If you invest in the right research and innovation, it’ll give you the best insights into which commercial products, processes and technologies to invest in. This is where I’m going, and I think Japanese firms that are in it for the long game would be interested, too.”

That’s just one more compelling reason to respect and embrace Canada’s original inhabitants and all they have to offer.