Indigenous children participate in Martin Family Initiative education program Indigenous children participate in Martin Family Initiative education program
Paul Martin, former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, founder of the Martin Family Initiative
Rt Hon. Paul Martin
Founder - The Martin Family Initiative

Recognition, Procurement & Education to Grow the Indigenous Economy

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  1. As a nation that has global recognition for its multiculturalism and equality, historically, Canadians have not sufficiently recognized the deep cultural values of the Indigenous Peoples. A stronger recognition of the cultural strength of Indigenous Peoples will reduce discrimination, barriers to entry, and contribute to accelerating the growth of the Indigenous and Canadian economies.
  2. Indigenous entrepreneurs must be integrated into Canada’s supply chains, which are an integral part of the national economy. Some sectors like mining and oil and gas have started, but the examples remain few and at a small scale. Governments and industry players should look to develop stronger procurement programs specifically for Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs.
  3. Business and entrepreneurship should be vital components in Indigenous high school education. We must ensure that Indigenous students are financially literate with a basic understanding of economics.


Education drives economic growth. More joint educational programs and collaborative exploratory projects with Indigenous schools and the business community must be undertaken so that Canada can accelerate the growth of the Indigenous economy.

What is the foundation or starting point for your vision of a partnership between Canadians who immigrated to this country and Indigenous Peoples?

Canada has a most successful immigration history and it plays a very important part of who we are as a country. Canadians encourage immigrants to keep and live in harmony with their culture, their religion. If somebody emigrates from China, for instance, there is a deep recognition of the cultural values found in China.  

However, Indigenous Peoples have had to fight to keep their different cultures, languages and philosophies alive; and so, protecting these justifiably must remain a focus.  

Although the situation is improving, it has a long way to go. Another challenge is that many Indigenous communities do not have access to essential services, support, and structure in education, healthcare, infrastructure, and in connectivity. The lack of these essential services has had visible consequences on remote Indigenous communities. These discriminatory challenges have severely restricted the Indigenous economy. 

“Many Indigenous communities do not have access to essential services, support, and structure in education, healthcare, infrastructure, and in connectivity.”

Strong values are the foundation of a burgeoning economy; we cannot separate the two. Canadians value fairness and equality, which means that every person living in Canada should be given equal opportunity to quality healthcare and education across the provinces. If we ignore these values, it is not only contrary to our national identity, but it will affect our national economy.  

What are some barriers to entry for Indigenous entrepreneurs and how can they be minimized?

The Canadian supply chain is generally recognized as an integral part of the national economy. Supply chains are the source of so many economic opportunities because their participants have linkages to multiple industries, which allows the business they create to cascade and diffuse across the economy.

But for all of its importance, you cannot underestimate the challenges Indigenous entrepreneurs face when they seek to be included in the Canadian supply chain. Some companies have a history of selecting Indigenous business as their primary suppliers – for example, in sectors like mining and oil and gas – but these cases are not the rule.

One of the main problems is the procurement process, both at the industry and government levels. Very few Indigenous vendors get selected for a bid opportunity and when they do, they are judged quite severely. What we need are specific programs supported by the government and private sector, enabling Indigenous suppliers to enter the supply chain. And finally, financial institutions must ensure that Indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses have sufficient access to capital.

“What we need are specific programs supported by the government and private sector, enabling Indigenous suppliers to enter the supply chain.”

An example of this can be seen in Île-à-la-Crosse, which built their own fish plant that and now employs 20 members of the community. They did this because they developed the industrial skills and the financial skills required to make proposals to financial institutions and because they had a very good project.

These are the kinds of projects that should be able to raise money from government and industry. This is what will unlock the widest range of jobs and opportunities.

How would you characterize the current state of entrepreneurship amongst Canada’s Indigenous communities and its importance for future economic development?

There is no one answer. However, if I was to pick one condition that is universal, it is that the young people in the community be encouraged and this means that they be provided with the same kind of economic education found elsewhere. Most high schools in Canada offer courses in business and financial literacy. However, the courses are always taught with little or no Indigenous content, leaving Indigenous students with business lessons that do not reflect their surroundings, their cultures and ways of knowing. Young people need to be given the tools to help their communities grow economically and this all starts with the right frame of reference and tools made for success.

“Young people need to be given the tools to help their communities grow economically and this all starts with the right frame of reference and tools made for success.”

For this reason, 10 years ago, MFI introduced a two-year program teaching business and entrepreneurship in Grades 11 and 12 at a high school in Thunder Bay, Ontario which serves fly-in students living on reserves up to the shores of the Hudson Bay. The program was a success, but it really took off when we asked two Indigenous teachers to work with Elders, businesspeople and Nelson Publishing to create textbooks and workbooks that put the basics of business in Indigenous contexts with Indigenous examples.  

As a result, the program today has helped over 5,000 Indigenous youth in 50 high schools across the country. It is a huge success. Unfortunately, costs have prevented us from being in twice that number of schools. This is the next challenge. 

In addition to the above, several Chiefs inquired about the possibility to offer our entrepreneurship and our business course to their youth who have dropped out of school and adults in their communities. Using the same model of co-designing with Indigenous experts and in Indigenous communities, we developed a short course based on the existing high school curriculum with modifications. We dedicated this intensive course to Indigenous youth or young adults who may want to open up a small business, a store, or engage in a trade. This is one of the most recent programs and it is now taking off. Interested participants are able to take the course in community institutions. 

This success demonstrates that by listening to what communities need and working in partnership with Indigenous business leaders, educators and experts, we can ensure that Indigenous People are provided with the same opportunities available to any Canadian. 

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What must be done to ensure that Indigenous youth have access to the academic opportunities that will help them lead in the future economy? 

The answer lies in education at all levels. With this in mind, the Martin Family Initiative launched the Early Years (EY) program. Starting prenatally, the program provides Indigenous parents with the tools and supports to uplift their families by weaving together Indigenous-led community innovation and scientific evidence around early childhood development.  

The EY program reaches women in the community who are either pregnant or have new babies in the form of weekly visits from home visitors from the community and group gatherings. The program is supporting healthy pregnancies, fostering strong parent-child and caregiver attachments, creating opportunities for nurturing caregiving and play, fostering early language development, and encouraging overall family well-being.  

Once in school, research demonstrates that children who cannot read and write well by the end of Grade 3 have severely reduced chances of graduating from high school. 

Forty years ago, Ontario schools had an unacceptable literacy record for students by the time they reached Grade 3.  The government took several steps to address this.  These included identifying schools with chronic underachievement in reading and consulting with early literacy experts to develop a reading and writing program for those schools.  It took several years to develop, but once it got off the ground, it was considered the best in North America.  

Learning about this, MFI brought in some of those same early literacy experts who had been involved in the Ontario program.  They developed the Model School Literacy Project (MSLP), a program centred around increasing teachers’ ability to teach reading and writing powerfully to kindergarten through to Grade 3 children attending First Nations schools.  Following a tremendously successful pilot in two First Nations schools, the project was expanded in 2016.  Twelve First Nations schools are now involved and six more will be welcomed into the partnership this year.   

Through innovative use of technology, schools come together to learn, collaborate and discuss their practices in early literacy across time, distance and First Nations.  

Working with a community to co-design programs is key. Anyone who tries to implement a program without the essential collaboration of the Indigenous Peoples will fail. And we are proving this today, as the MSLP partner schools and communities come together as a family or network of First Nations schools, learning and sharing together, supporting one another and looking to reach out and share their practices and lessons learned with other First Nations schools across Canada.  

“Anyone who tries to implement a program without the essential collaboration of the Indigenous Peoples will fail.”

Through MFI’s different programs, we have seen how joint ventures and collaboration can improve the quality of education, health, and well-being in Indigenous communities. However, it is important to understand that our role is as facilitators and that the projects are run by the Indigenous Peoples themselves.  

Programs such as these will ensure that Indigenous youth, from as early as the prenatal period, will be prepared for successful careers in entrepreneurship and other disciplines.

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Paul Martin, former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, founder of the Martin Family Initiative
Rt Hon. Paul Martin
Founder - The Martin Family Initiative

Bio: The Right Honourable Paul Martin was Prime Minister of Canada from 2003 to 2006 and Minister of Finance from 1993 to 2002. Together with his family, Mr. Martin founded the Martin Family Initiative to support education for Indigenous children and youth, and to address the wider determinants that influence their educational outcomes, including health, and wellbeing 


Organization Profile: The Martin Family Initiative MFI walks hand-in-hand with Indigenous peoples as they lead the co-development of new approaches to education and well-being, weaving community-based knowledge together with the most current research and evidence-informed methods to ensure that Indigenous children, youth, and communities have the tools they need to reach their highest potential.