The emerging Indigenous economy is essential to Canada’s future prosperity

Guest Contributor
October 28, 2020

By Rita Fundner

The 19th annual Research Money Conference began just as confrontations between commercial and Mi’kmaq fishers turned violent in Nova Scotia. With these headlines as a backdrop, the conference’s keynote: Indigenomics – The Fundamentals of Innovation in the Emerging Indigenous Economy by Carol Anne Hilton, was both relevant and timely.

While media headlines focused on dysfunction, poverty, service gaps and culture clash, Carol Anne Hilton, the founder and CEO of the Indigenomics Institute, took a decidedly more positive tone by focusing on Indigenous economic potential.

Hilton said the potential of the Indigenous market, which has grown from $24 billion in 2011 to $32 billion in 2016, may reach $100 billion in five years.

The reality of treaty-based Indigenous ownership and control of enormous tracts of Canada’s land and associated natural resources offers great opportunities for growth in trade, entrepreneurship, infrastructure and social enterprise development as well as new partnerships and leadership. The dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities has historically been nation-to-nation and legal in nature. Over the past several years, Indigenous litigants have won 250 cases, resulting in greater autonomy and acknowledgement of Indigenous rights. This forms part of a necessary re-balancing of power relationships and the establishment of more equal economic partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups

Although the Indigenous population is growing and currently represents 5% of the Canadian population it remains under-represented by as much as 85% in the overall Canadian workforce. This discrepancy, termed ‘the missing economy’, provides an incredible opportunity. First Nations infrastructure deficit alone is estimated to be as high as $30 billion for essential services such as housing, water, wastewater, health facilities and roads. Establishment of reliable, high-speed internet access in the North will also be essential to connect products and services to local, national and international markets.

Hilton defined Indigenomics as “a modern, constructive, generative economic design” which now, more than ever, must facilitate Indigenous economic growth. She sees it as part of a necessary shift away from socio-economic gaps and toward inclusion, investment and a shared understanding of the complex relationships, histories and assumptions involved.

How should we build that shared understanding? Hilton called for the development of a new “storytelling” of historical Indigenous economic activity. It’s a narrative based on subsistence and more traditional ways of life that include more modern, owner-based management of not only lands and resources but also services, manufacturing and development. Indigenous economic potential is more powerful than Canadians think and even more powerful than Indigenous communities themselves may believe.

And then there’s the problem of racism. For those seeking to better understand these issues, Hilton said a good first step is to read the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as the Indian Act. She acknowledged that Indigenous peoples are hardly monolithic and different groups must necessarily be seen as having distinct characteristics based on geography, history, strengths and aspirations.

On the Nova Scotia fisheries issue, we’re witnessing racism, conflicting interpretations of law and the imperative to exercise rights and make a sustainable living. It’s as deeply personal as it is legal and political for both sides.

Hilton's talk reminded us that it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. Rather, the emerging Indigenous economy offers benefits for all of Canada. Both during this conference, and since it ended,  incidents and issues have continued to make headlines: the Nova Scotia fishery dispute continues; a northern Indigenous community is once again being forced to move because of a lack of safe drinking water; and conflicts over land rights continue in Caledonia; among others.

Moving away from problem-based thinking clearly remains elusive, just as the need for a new kind of storytelling becomes more urgent. Building bridges of understanding must begin in earnest for Indigenous communities to reach their potential within Canada and for Canada as a whole to benefit from that economic strength.

Rita Fundner is a former IT/HR executive and former president of RFundner Group.

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