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Indigenous Leaders: Entrepreneurship will lead Indigenous communities out of the 'social trap'

NACCA CEO Shannin Metatawabin believes the path to First Nations well-being and prosperity is federal investment in Indigenous economic development
Shannin 2 (NACCA 2020 photo)
Shannin Metatawabin (NACCA photo)

Shannin Metatawabin’s experience in the business world goes way back to when he was a young boy growing up in Fort Albany, a Cree Nation community on the west coast of James Bay.

“My family had been operating a restaurant out of the old residential school in Fort Albany for over 50 years, so I’d seen business early on,” said Metatawabin.

He recalls early memories of helping his mother and grandmother in the family restaurant where they fed many community members and visitors to Fort Albany.

“When I was 16 or 17, me and my brother operated that restaurant for the summer and we had a full suite of food, we had ice cream, we had everything. We were just doing it to have the cash but it was a training ground; it was a real great learning opportunity for us,” fondly recalled Metatawabin.

“My grandfather, who really influenced all of us, he was probably one of the last trappers of the region. He always worked for himself, so he’s always been an entrepreneur. He was always on the land trapping, providing for his family. That was pretty well the mentality of our people before being colonized.”

Metatawabin’s hard-working nature has certainly earned him the reputation as someone who gets things done with a long track record to prove it.

He has vast experience working in various roles for such organizations as Waubetek Business Development Corp., Industry Canada, De Beers, and the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation.

Currently, as the CEO of the National Aboriginal Capital Corporation Association (NACCA), a network comprised of 58 Aboriginal Financial Institutions (AFIs) dedicated to providing loans to Indigenous entrepreneurs and business owners, he helped raise a half-billion dollars to provide new programs and supports to help boost the Indigenous economy in Canada.

Metatawabin believes that if governments really wanted to support First Nation communities and people, then they should invest significantly more dollars into Indigenous economic development and other business development tools than what’s currently provided.

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Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) earmarked less than one per cent of the total budget for economic development when it comes to Indigenous funding, he said. Yet over $17 billion had been used for social spending, up from $9 billion in 1996. By 2030, Metatawabin estimates it could be as high as $35 billion if trends continue with this trajectory.

Metatawabin believes the current approach to funding Indigenous communities is not sustainable and governments should be investing in economic development instead.

“We have social impact indicators we look at, so we know what impact the loan dollars we give out have on the community and our clients,” said Metatawabin.

“Right now, we know that 72 per cent report an increase in life satisfaction, 52 per cent report increases in mental health indicators, 19 per cent have increases in physical health indicators. All these indicators demonstrate that by helping an Indigenous person start a business, Canada is saving money because there’s less social cost with those people having a better quality of life just by starting a business.”

Metatawabin said First Nation communities need to find own-source revenues as the path to self-sufficiency and points to the great example of Membertou First Nation (Nova Scotia) Chief Terry Paul’s blockbuster deal to purchase Atlantic Canada’s largest seafood firm, Clearwater Seafoods.

In British Columbia, under Chief Clarence Louie’s leadership, the Osoyoos (British Columbia) Indian Band Development Corporation enjoys annual revenues of $28.2 million from 13 different lines of business.

This is what First Nation communities can achieve with the proper supports and a business development mentality, he said.

Despite institutional research and real-life examples that prove funding Indigenous business development and entrepreneurship is vital in helping communities and people escape the social trap of despair and dependency, the government continues to cut funding for Indigenous economic development, Metatawabin said.

He points out that the Aboriginal Business Canada program’s funding has been cut by over 70 per cent since it was first introduced 35 years ago.

Indeed, the trauma that’s been inflicted upon Indigenous people by colonization has resulted in many negative consequences such as a loss of identity. Yet Metatawabin points out that Indigenous people had their own systems of economy before European contact and now it’s coming full circle again where Indigenous people are claiming their rightful place in the economy.

“Our people have always been entrepreneurial; we had our own trade routes back in the day and now we’re starting to find our roles in the community again. I love doing what I do and that’s management consulting, helping our people and helping our community,” said Metatawabin. “Other people are lifelong politicians, other people like to cook, other people like to gather wood. We all have roles that we’re trying to fill.”

When speaking about what the future holds, Metatawabin said he wants to better measure how the lending dollars for business development are impacting the Indigenous borrowers and the communities they come from.

“It’s really important that we measure how our communities are impacted by entrepreneurship and to make sure our people are really hearing and feeling that entrepreneurship is one of the ways to get out of the social trap.”

This is one in a series of articles profiling recognized leaders from Indigenous communities across Northern Ontario, who stand out for the contributions they’re making on local, regional, and international levels.