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Indigenous Leaders: Tracee Smith's on a mission to tackle the Indigenous housing crisis

Keewaywin Capital CEO goes the banking and investment route to build 500 homes in First Nation communities
Tracee Smith is the CEO of Keewaywin Capital, Inc. a newly incorporated private credit fund for Indigenous communities.

For Tracee Smith, embarking on a personal journey means returning home.

The Niagara-based Smith, a member of Missanabie Cree First Nation, is CEO of Keewaywin Capital, Inc., a newly-incorporated private credit fund for Indigenous communities. She’s made it her mission to provide housing – four to five hundred homes is her goal over the next half decade – for remote First Nations.

“Keewaywin is so much more than just building a structure,” Smith said. “Yes, it’s about providing homes, but the impact, the ripple effects from the community perspective, from a child's perspective, it's hard to quantify."

It’s a bit of a challenge raising capital for Indigenous housing, Smith said. Historically, banks have been hesitant to lend out money when the community, not the individual, owns the land.

There are also barriers within those lending organizations. If the people behind the scenes aren’t familiar with Indigenous culture – not to mention the systemic oversights in hiring – money isn’t easy to come by.

That’s where Keewaywin – an Oji-Cree word that means “coming home” – comes in.

“There's no shortage of housing projects that we can invest in,” Smith said. “But it's more that I want to work with some amazing investors that want to sit around the table and be involved in this.

“It’s about finding people who want to see their money at work, but also want to see their money doing good.”

So far, Canada’s banking and investment sectors are taking notice of Smith’s initiative.

In April, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) announced its partnership with Keewaywin for the Accelerated Construction Pilot Project, while more private investors are slowly coming on board. 

“It’s kind of intriguing to them,” Smith said, adding that getting mainstream financiers to invest has been a somewhat sluggish process.

“I've been on the phone with them, literally for two years. But we’re now into legal agreements now, and I expect we’ll start funding communities for houses in the spring of next year.”

The construction targets are an ambitious goal, especially in Canada's current housing market.

In a September report, CMHC said about 3.5 million additional housing units are needed by 2030 to restore affordability across the country. That’s in addition to the already precarious situation in Indigenous communities, where Statistics Canada estimates that over one in five First Nations people lived in crowded housing in 2021, and almost one in five resided in a dwelling in need of major repairs.

It’s a challenge for people in the housing industry, but also for people like Smith who are looking to affect some kind of positive change.

“If I can show that this can be done, I hope more financial institutions look at this and say, ‘Why don't we start a fund?’

“Because God knows, the big banks could do this tomorrow, and a lot faster than I could. But that political will is just not there, it’s just not a priority. But if I can show that it can be done, what’s to stop the big banks from doing it bigger and better and start solving problems?”

Smith’s journey from stage to Bay Street

The journey from the stage to the Bay Street boardrooms wasn’t a straight one for Smith. 

Smith grew up in the small, southern Ontario community of Port Colborne, returning north to spend summers in her community of Missanabie, northeast of Wawa.

She trained to be  professional dancer and choreographer, even being lauded by Canada’s Council for the Arts as one of Canada’s Top 50 Artists for her work. Her talent landed her a spot in front of the Governor-General, the first ever dancer to perform live for the chair.

While holding down her MBA studies at Queen’ University, Smith brought her art back to Northern Ontario, making several visits to remote communities to help kids build and perform dance routines. 

Her involvement in one community, Lac La Croix, in the Rainy River District of northwestern Ontario, served as a catalyst for one of her most ambitious projects: Outside Looking In (OLI,) an Indigenous-led program to motivate kids to stay in school.

“I didn’t know we were starting something when I visited Lac La Croix,” Smith said.

“I went there for a week, teaching dance, saying to the kids, ‘Let’s work hard then we’ll put on a show for the community.’”

At the end, a group of kindergarten kids, and another group of high schoolers performed a short, 30-second routine in front of family, friends and elders, which Smith admits from a professional standpoint, wasn’t a “big deal.”

But the reception in Lac La Croix, she said, was impressive.

“The community, they were just so overwhelmed,” she said. “They were just so proud of this performance. A lot of the parents and grandparents had tears in their eyes, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”

“Look at the self esteem and the empowerment and everything you saw in those kids’ eyes.  Imagine what we could do if we had more time?,” she said.

“Imagine the kind of work they could perform if they had a year to prepare?”

From that moment, OLI became Smith’s vehicle for helping kids learn discipline, motivation, and the art of dance. 

She made a plan – more of a promise – to the people. 

“Listen, I'll come back every three weeks,” she said. “I'll teach you a new routine. And we'll keep building that routine.

“Then, I can rent a theatre in Toronto, a small theatre, and if you stay in school, and you're coming to all our rehearsals, whoever's left at the end of the year will travel to Toronto, and we'll put on this big show.”

The kids, not to mention parents in the community of under 200, were a bit skeptical.

“The parents were like, ‘That doesn’t sound real, is this really happening? Like, who does that?’”

Smith then set to raising money from granting agencies to fund the program. She networked, she called in a few favours from friends who had worked in similar fields.

Seventeen years later, the Outside Looking In program culminated with an annual gala in Toronto – the largest Indigenous dance festival in Canada – featuring over 250 Indigenous youth.

In 2022, the gala drew in dancers from Big Island Lake Cree Nation, Lac La Croix First Nation, Matawa Education and Care Centre in Thunder Bay, Pikangikum First Nation, Six Nations STEAM Academy, and Wasagamack First Nation in northeastern Manitoba. 

Reports show that the charity also raised over $600,000 in donations and another $500,000 in sponsorships in 2022.

Smith only stepped down as the CEO in 2023 to focus on Keewaywin, in hopes of bringing the same energy and optimism to housing.

It may seem like the world of mortgages and dance aren’t a natural fit, but Smith said the two can go hand-in-hand. And considering the success she’s already shown, don’t bet against Smith when she commits herself to a project.

“I always felt like economic development can't really happen unless your community and your kids are really socially engaged,” she said. 

“You can't have contributing systems to the economy unless people feel good about themselves. You can’t move forward until they know who they are, and they have a place to live. They need to feel comfortable in all the social aspects of being a human being.”

But it’s not about activism, per se. In fact, Smith bristles at the thought of being labelled as someone who’s angry.

“It's just trying to find that right balance,” she said. “Once I'm able to raise the money, and I have that credibility, then I think it's time to strike.

“I don't want to go out loud until I can actually say, ‘Listen, I've done this, and I have the track record to be able to speak to it, and prove it and show it, then I can ask the big banks, ‘Why aren’t you lending?’”

A tough battle, Smith concedes, and one that continually raises its ugly head.

RBC recently settled in a case where a U.S subsidiary, City National, the largest bank based in Los Angeles, was accused of letting staff generate loan applications largely from its disproportionately white customer base instead of reaching out to Black and Hispanic people. It also ignored internal reports that suggested shortcomings in its fair lending practices.

Canada’s big banks have also been under pressure from advocacy groups and shareholders to conduct racial equity audits of their companies to ensure they are hitting inclusivity targets when it comes to hiring. 

According to industry newsletter Advisor’s Edge, only TD Bank has publicly committed to releasing the results of an audit in 2023, while the other banks – CIBC, RBC and BMO – have lagged behind.

It’s something that Smith said she encounters frequently, but she’s working to dispel some persistent myths about Indigenous people’s relationship with Canadian banks.

“At the end of it, I want to be able to say to RBC, ‘I’ve proven it to you.’” Smith said.

“I know everyone thinks that Indigenous people don't pay back their loans. There's no demonstrated proof. If anything, we pay back loans better than the Canadian mainstream do, and I have lots of stats to prove it.”

The question for Smith, then, is figuring out when the proper time to “strike aggressively” could be.

In the meantime, Smith continues her journey to find the proper investors, hoping each encounter with a Bay Street executive or an employee in Canada’s lending industry leads to a greater awareness, or at least the chance to help educate.

”It is frustrating at times, but you have to keep trying to find those investors that understand that this is different,” Smith said. “And I’m okay with them saying, ‘We know we don't really get it, but we know we participated in doing some good in this world.’

“That's kind of what the kind of investors I'm going after.”