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As the economic fallout from COVID-19 continues to impact all Canadians, TheFutureEconomy.ca spoke with Tabatha Bull, the newly appointed President and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. She discussed how the crisis is impacting Canada’s Indigenous economy, and what the government and corporate Canada must focus on to ensure Indigenous businesses get the support they require to weather the crisis’ challenges.
- There are over 50,000 Indigenous businesses in Canada and 99% of them are small- or medium-sized enterprises, which are being hardest hit by the pandemic.
- Indigenous businesses are pivoting and retooling in order to provide personal protective equipment to the federal government and communities during Covid-19.
- Indigenous businesses on reserve face unique barriers at this time because of the lack of broadband and infrastructure that enables e-commerce.
The federal government needs to continue to work towards a 5% procurement of Indigenous businesses. Corporate Canada must also ensure that Indigenous businesses remain part of their supply chains during this crisis. These measures will help to close the economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses and communities during Covid-19 and Canada’s economic recovery.
The Coronavirus’ Impact on Canada’s Indigenous Communities
We’ve definitely seen in recent days and weeks that the virus has hit some communities, and we’ve seen a few deaths as well in recent days.
I think the concern is in ramping up our communities—any vulnerable population is going to be more impacted by a virus and a pandemic, and the gap between Indigenous populations and average Canadians is quite wide.
Any vulnerable population is going to be more impacted by a virus and a pandemic.
We need to be thinking about how we are getting that PPE equipment to those communities. We are thinking actively about food scarcity and the risk of food scarcity for those communities, and also just from having healthcare workers within those communities. How do we ensure that they have proper accessibility to testing and to healthcare?
The Size and Make-Up of Canada’s Indigenous Economy
The Indigenous economy currently contributes $31 billion to Canada’s GDP. If we continue to include Indigenous businesses in corporate supply chains and continue our push to get the federal government to increase their supply chain from Indigenous business, we see that that can increase significantly.
Already there are over 50,000 Indigenous businesses in Canada, and Indigenous people are creating businesses at nine times the rate of non-Indigenous Canadians. We expect that and hope that that will continue to grow.
There are over 50,000 Indigenous businesses in Canada, and Indigenous people are creating businesses at nine times the rate of non-Indigenous Canadians.
We see Indigenous businesses across all sectors and every shape and size, but we do see a significant number of those businesses in the small- and medium-sized enterprise—about 99%, in fact.
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The Crisis’ Impacts on Indigenous Businesses
We do hear the same concerns from small Indigenous businesses as we do from [non-Indigenous businesses]. But there are some different factors that make the impact more severe. One being that there is such a high percentage of small- and medium-enterprises and Indigenous entrepreneurs in the Indigenous economy and in Canada’s economy.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses released a study that said that 25% of small- and medium-sized enterprises will not be able to sustain a closure of 30 days. If we look at the high number of small- and medium-enterprises in the Indigenous business sector, that’s going to significantly impact those businesses.
The other thing is that about one third of Indigenous businesses are on reserve and there are some unique barriers for those businesses to be able to access financing, and also currently to be eligible for some of the programs that are coming out of the federal government—with respect to payroll, for example. As a non-taxable business on reserve through the Indian Act there are some questions that we have raised to the government on the eligibility of those businesses.
The Federal Government’s Response and Support for the Indigenous Economy
I have been really pleased with the government’s response and with the proactive nature of how they have been dealing with the crisis, but specifically from an Indigenous lens. The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business has been approached by a number of ministries to understand what the gaps are, what is the impact on Indigenous business, and how can we work to ensure that communities are okay through this crisis as well.
We need to look at where the funding may be able to flow, so that we can ensure that Indigenous businesses can access the same type of programs as the emergency business account.
We have been having discussions with Indigenous Services Canada and a number of Indigenous economic associations, and one of those has been specifically about the financing and financing through traditional financial institutions. And currently less than 20% of Indigenous businesses have financing through those traditional financial institutions. We need to look at where the funding may be able to flow, so that we can ensure that Indigenous businesses can access the same type of programs as the emergency business account.
Those discussions have been going well, and I am hopeful that there will be some type of stimulus for Indigenous business either through other means or through the existing Aboriginal Financial Institutions that businesses access—or separate programs to ensure that financial institutions can take on new clients if Indigenous businesses that are not currently banking with them.
Those discussions have been going well, there is real interest in understanding what the impact is and understanding what is needed. It gives me a sense that there will be other measures that they will be able to roll out.
Government Procurement’s Role in Supporting Indigenous Businesses
We have been working with our members to provide lists of businesses that can provide personal protective equipment. It is a good pivot to provide that type of equipment, and we have been sharing those lists with procurement and with Indigenous Services Canada—really as many ministries as we can—and we continue to share those lists.
We are really pushing to say that yes, even during this crisis, we need to ensure that we are working towards the 5% [government procurement for Indigenous businesses.] It has been an incredible response from Indigenous businesses that have been able to pivot their manufacturing or are open to that.
Even during this crisis, we need to ensure that we are working towards the goal of 5% government procurement for Indigenous businesses.
We have seen businesses that are interested in buying 3D printers and can make face shields. We have seen businesses pivot their tooling to be able to provide hand sanitizer, and businesses that are able to access hand sanitizer and face shields as well, and we are continuing to work with the government on that procurement part. It is going to be very important, not just through this crisis, but to ensure that we have economic recovery.
There is going to be a time where government needs to stockpile and ensure that we can get back and build up our stockpile of PPE—so we want businesses to be ready to part of that as well.
Currently and in the past the government has never been over 1% procurement for Indigenous business—so 5% is significant, definitely. And I think from where we were, if we can come out of this crisis and continue to push for a 5% procurement, for sure it is going to help with the recovery.
Everyone is starting to look a little bit towards what economic recovery is going to look like. Yesterday National Chief Bellegarde called for an economic recovery team and for First Nations to be a part of that. And I think that is going to be very important for us to ensure that businesses are, one, ready to be a part of that and be part of the procurement needs of government, and that we are enabling them to retool in order to be ready for that time. For sure, it is going to be a significant impact.
The other thing is that it is money that is going to be spent anyway. It is not an ask for the federal government to increase tax dollars in order to put money into the Indigenous economy and into Indigenous peoples’ pockets and into Indigenous communities. It is very clear that Indigenous businesses employ more Indigenous people, and Indigenous businesses give back to the Indigenous community. Through procurement they can make a significant impact on the Indigenous community, Indigenous people and closing the gap.
We talk a lot about federal government, but provincial and territorial governments have a role to play here as well, as do cities and municipalities. All provinces are looking for PPE, and so are major cities, so we have been working to make sure they are aware of the Indigenous businesses that are out there—and that they are looking to partner with those businesses to help communities.
From a more political point of view, I think every province has the responsibility to ensure the safety of their communities and all communities, regardless of whether they are First Nation or not. And we have seen some of the provinces make a play there.
Corporate Canada’s Role in Supporting Indigenous Businesses Through the Crisis
We have still seen a real interest in corporate Canada and in our corporate members understanding what they can do to help Indigenous businesses and communities. We have had Sysco Foods, for example, just come on as a patron member of the CCAB—and they are really wanting to see what they can do for food scarcity in communities.
I think there are definite opportunities for us to partner Indigenous businesses and corporate Canada for the immediate needs, but it is very important for corporate Canada continues with their procurement strategies in their supply chain. It must continue to ensure they can keep the Indigenous employees—that they have worked so hard to bring into their organization—employed. The change on the 75% wage subsidy to allow larger businesses to also access that was key for them to be able to keep those Indigenous employees employed. I think that has been a real benefit.
We have also seen some really great opportunities from corporate Canada in helping us to develop programs that will help Indigenous businesses through this crisis. Those might be how to move your platform to e-commerce or shipping—if you are moving to an e-commerce platform, UPS has offered a 50% off discount for shipping for Indigenous businesses. There are lots of ways that corporate Canada cannot just continue what they were doing before but ensure that they can specifically help the Indigenous economy growing.
If you are moving to an e-commerce platform, UPS has offered a 50% off discount for shipping for Indigenous businesses.
The Switch to Remote Work and Impact on the Indigenous Workforce
Even when we see Indigenous businesses that are already in e-commerce and on reserve, those businesses prior to this pandemic already had some barriers to ensuring they can deliver their products based on the infrastructure and lack of broadband within their communities. And those are communities like Six Nations in Southern Ontario.
Then when you look further out to more rural communities, particularly remote communities, there is a significant lack of broadband. We know that this was in the budget in 2019 and 2018 by the federal government, but there is going to need to be a push to move that financing forward to ensure we can get broadband to all First Nations communities across Canada.
We have definitely seen, as an example in the oil and energy sector, a number of Indigenous people that would have been employed and the downturn in that sector is definitely impacting Indigenous people and Indigenous businesses that support that sector. We have had some interesting conversations this week with other businesses that are ramping up in terms of trying to understand how we can move that workforce from one business to another. You know we are all looking for innovative ways to get through this and I think that is something we are going to be focusing on in the coming days.
The Crisis’ Silver Lining
It has been really heart-warming to see people, towns and cities come together, and corporate Canada and Indigenous businesses come together as well. We have this Team Canada idea that everyone has been speaking about, and Team Ontario. Even as Indigenous organizations, we have been meeting more regularly to talk about how our staff is doing and our employees are doing, and sharing ideas around remote working—but also how do we continue to ensure, as Indigenous economic associations, that we are doing all that we can to keep the Indigenous economy going and to ensure that our communities are safe through this crisis. I hope that that collaboration will continue after this crisis is over.
I think we have also seen some really great innovation from businesses. As I said, Raven Brewing, which is a certified Aboriginal business, they have changed to start to make ethanol and hand sanitizer, which is really exciting. We have seen great partnerships with another member, Shared Value Solutions, and Diageo to make ethanol and hand sanitizer. They are partnering with FedEx and Air Canada to get that hand sanitizer to remote communities in Ontario. Those type of innovative ways of asking how do we work together to solve problems has really been heart-warming, and I really hope that is going to continue.
On Becoming CCAB’s New President as the Crisis Hit
Some days I feel quite optimistic when I think about the questions that are being asked of us and the real interest of what the impact is on Indigenous business. Those days are optimistic, but also trying in that I cannot leave any of those questions unanswered.
Things are changing so fast, and programs are being rolled out so quickly that we need to be able to respond very quick. I think in some way, on the silver lining side, this is an opportunity for me as a new leader to make connections and to build relationships, because people need information right away.
And I think I am very well-supported by our team and I am very lucky to have the strong team that we have. I think it probably has helped that I became a leader from the inside. It would be very difficult to bring someone in not from CCAB at this time. I think that we announced to the staff that I had got the role and then we moved to work from home the next Monday.
So, I really have not been President and CEO in the office with the team since it was announced. But we are all a really supportive team, we are keeping very well connected through media, seeing each other’s faces, and it has really stuck with me what a family our team is—with everyone checking in on each other—and that has been very positive. It is positive to know there are a lot of leaders within the organization—not just me. At all levels, everyone is looking out for each other and helping out with each other, so in that way it has been an easy transition.
#StayAtHome Top Do’s
I have really started to make a point of leaving my computer and my phone for half an hour, a couple of times a day to check in with the kids, make lunch and have lunch with the kids. The first couple of weeks I was really at my desk for ten hours straight a day, on phone calls back-to-back, so I have managed to get myself out of that routine and into a better routine. Also, just to take a mental break and give yourself a relaxation moment—I have been encouraging our team to do that as well.
The first couple of weeks I was really at my desk for ten hours straight a day, on phone calls back-to-back, so I have managed to get myself out of that routine and into a better routine.
I think in terms of supporting Indigenous business, personally I have been reaching out and going online and finding a number of Indigenous businesses that I can support and buy products from and I have been sharing that information. A lot of Indigenous businesses make soap, for example, and hand salve, and those are things that we need right now.
I am just trying to promote and do what I can from the Indigenous economy from home, and that has been really important. And staying connected to my family and friends has been a big key need for me and particularly for my parents and my brothers and sisters. I have one brother that is an emergency physician, so I am making sure I am checking in on him. All of us our trying to support each other and playing games online—that has been really important for us and for the kids.