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Indigenous partnerships picking up momentum

Second annual PEP business conference in Sudbury touts successes

After 150 years of living in a system plagued by social welfare, Canada’s Indigenous people are looking at managing wealth rather than managing poverty.

The starting point is how they approach and negotiate relationships with potential partners, with inclusion for their traditional values and history.

The second annual Procurement, Employment and Partnership Conference and Tradeshow brought hundreds of delegates, businesspeople and students to Sudbury Jan. 22 and 23 to take in panel discussions and keynote addresses, browse business booths, and exchange ideas on how to nurture more partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses.

Mutually beneficial collaborations are built into Indigenous culture, noted independent accountant Helen Bobiwash.

In a keynote address, Bobiwash said the First Nations have always looked to natural relationships when considering partnerships with a focus on either zero harm or both parties gaining together.

“In the past, the Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships have been negative,” she said. “Governments and society have seen themselves as superior to Indigenous culture. The thing is, a relationship is one-sided; it breaks down.”

The country is in a perfect position to learn from its past and figure out a way to use reciprocity going forward, Bobiwash said.

JP Gladu, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, talked about his experiences during his featured fireside chat with Melanie Debassige, executive director at Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corp. Their topic was economic reconciliation, and they discussed the mutual benefits for non-Indigenous businesses to actively seek out Indigenous business and hire First Nations.

“There are many of our communities that are doing well, but others that are not doing so well. It's all in how they manage their assets,” Gladu said.

He added sometimes it can take years, but carefully negotiated partnerships will pay off.

Gladu relayed the story of Fort McKay, a reserve in Alberta that has had a 37-year-long business relationship with Suncor, an oil and gas company. The agreement has created numerous jobs and generated millions in revenue, with residents earning an annual average of $70,000 in income.

One major issue hangs over many Indigenous communities: infrastructure. Debassige said so many communities lack basic infrastructure, and so government and communities have to work to solve those problems so they can have a stable base to build on.

“Those things can actually develop together successfully,” she said. “When a community is finally getting clean water that doesn't mean they can't work on economic development as well.”

More business with Indigenous entities would make a huge difference in the economic stability of the country, said Gladu, noting all three levels of government can do more to include Indigenous business when procuring goods and services.

The buying power and increased business will lead to more political clout and in some cases, policy changes.

That doesn't happen by itself, Gladu said. It requires encouragement and open discussion.

The best way for businesses to increase their partnerships is to take stock of where they are now, think about how serious they are about hiring more Indigenous people and partnering with businesses, and take it from there, he noted.

“If you don't know where you have been, it's hard to measure where you are going into the future,” he said.

There are many resources out there for businesses, schools and agencies to access if they need assistance.

The panellists said businesses can also hold up good examples of progress made by companies and government agencies, which will drive others to match and exceed those examples, keeping the momentum going.

Conference organizers are hopeful conversations started at the event will continue for another year, and then they can revisit the progress.

“We have to walk the walk,” said Stephen Lindley, principal at Stephen Lindley Consulting and master of ceremonies for the day. “It's one thing to talk about things and it's another to do things.”

Lindley believes the presenters gave conference participants plenty of great ideas about how they can approach issues and improve existing business relationships.