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Dawn Madahbee Leach
Interim Chairperson - National Indigenous Economic Development Board (NIEDB)
Part of the Spotlight on the Post-COVID Indigenous Economy

Developing a National Indigenous Economic Strategy

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Takeaways

  1. Indigenous communities face unique infrastructural barriers and they should not be categorized with urban centres when seeking funding to improve infrastructure.
  2. Indigenous peoples in Canada need their own Indigenous institutions or centres of excellence to encourage the sharing of leading practices for managing land and developing infrastructure.
  3. Indigenous leaders are developing a national Indigenous business directory—Supply Nation—to ensure that Indigenous businesses are included in procurement practices and reconciliation action plans.

Action

The Prime Minister, Indigenous leaders and industry should support the implementation of the National Indigenous Economic Strategy and the calls for prosperity contained therein. By having such a strategy in place, Indigenous people will help drive and lead sustainable development in Canada which will benefit all Canadians.


What is the state of Canada’s Indigenous economy today?

I am very proud of Indigenous businesses in that they are growing in every sector across Canada. And I must say in every region, we see more and more young people starting businesses and more and more women. As a matter of fact, I am seeing that a lot of the businesses that I am working with and helping to invest in, more than 50% are women now. So it is really interesting, and I think that is an important element of Indigenous businesses today.


What are the barriers to Indigenous economic development and participation in Canada?

In Canada, there are really no policies in place that support Indigenous economic development or Indigenous business development. Recently, a report was launched here in Canada by the OECD that talks about ways to better support Indigenous businesses and to link Indigenous economies to regional economies. I think there are some really good policy suggestions there that can make a huge difference in Canada on involving Indigenous people in economic development and in business development.

For example, the OECD report talks about areas such as land. We have a lot of restrictions in legislation in Canada that really limit Indigenous people using their lands for economic development. The OECD report makes some suggestions in that regard. It also talks about supporting Indigenous capacity through building Indigenous institutions. So we are looking at Indigenous institutions that could help with infrastructure; to help with things like a centre of excellence for Indigenous lands, so that we could share leading practices with each other on managing our lands; and the kinds of case studies on how other communities have developed their lands in a sustainable way. A lot of communities and regions and Indigenous people are working on their own and we do not have a place or a clearing house of that kind of information on case studies and leading practices that we could share amongst each other.

“We have a lot of restrictions in legislation in Canada that really limit Indigenous people using their lands for economic development.”

So I think that building this institutional capacity in all areas, whether it is education, health, is so critical to helping us build our capacity and help us to share our leading practices and the case studies of what works and what does not work.


How have those barriers coincided with COVID-19 to impact Canada’s Indigenous economy?

During COVID, I think a lot of the barriers have come to the forefront—but I do want to say, though, there are some really great things also that we found during COVID. We have a lot of businesses. I would say 50% are doing well and 50% are struggling. The half that are doing well were those [businesses] where they are located right within the Indigenous communities such as grocery stores, construction companies and building material suppliers. Those kinds of business, as in mainstream, did really well during COVID.

But the ones that struggled were those businesses that were able to sell goods and services to a wider area but many Indigenous communities did not have good connectivity—many did not have proper Wi-Fi, broadband, bandwidth to be able to provide online services.

It is mostly Indigenous communities that do not have the connectivity. We are in a lot of remote and rural areas. In the case of Indigenous communities, they are sort of the last ones on the planet to have good connectivity and it is usually an afterthought as we are not included. We might not have the population base for or a lot of the big companies to come in and put that infrastructure in, so we are at a real disadvantage.


How do you assess the rollout of government support for the Indigenous economy during COVID-19?

The federal government has provided some assistance to Indigenous businesses, through NACCA, but that was only after we were able to educate them about the limitations of the their mainstream programs. It took a while to rollout the programs for Indigenous businesses and I can tell you that a lot of them have struggled immensely because of waiting and not qualifying for those programs. So we have been trying to play catch-up to make sure that we can address their needs but a lot were right on the brink of closing, if not a few have closed, because the assistance did not come fast enough.

We are very grateful for the supports that they have given—but we are starting from behind already. Oftentimes when it comes to infrastructure, of course we have to compete with a lot of the urban centres, so we do not become the priority when we have to stand in the same line as some of the larger cities in each of the provinces across the country and stand in line for some infrastructure dollars.

“We are very grateful for the supports that they have given—but we are starting from behind already.”

We are so behind in addressing the infrastructure needs of our communities, when we have buildings in dire need of repair. Our public buildings are in dire need of repair, our roads are in dire need of repair and if you can think of our on-reserve schools where the guidelines are a lot of the courses will be online, and most homes do not have connectivity. Most schools do not have the right connectivity or the ability to rollout regular education programs. So there are a lot of things that we need to educate the government about and I do not really think it is fair for us to stand in the same line as the urban centres when it comes to infrastructure.  There is a different need that it is just as important in the small rural areas of Canada.


What do you see as a first step to bridging Indigenous communities’ infrastructure gap?

When it comes to infrastructure, one of the things that we are proposing is that we have a separate Indigenous infrastructure institute. We know that dollars set aside for Indigenous communities in Canada have gone unspent. They do not sometimes realize that to get building supplies to a community can only happen seasonally, over winter roads sometimes—or that there is a need for storage units for building supplies, so they do not get ruined in bad weather when we are taking them to remote and rural communities. There is no understanding by mainstream about the challenges that Indigenous communities face when it comes to infrastructure.

“It has been proven in many areas that Indigenous people are better deliverers of government programs than government”

So we feel that if we had our own institute that knows these needs firsthand—instead of having the government deliver these programs—we think we could do a way better job.  And it has been proven in many areas that Indigenous people are better deliverers of government programs than government people themselves and it is because we have an understanding; we live in these communities and so we know. So our hope is that we can have such an institute.


How does capital fit into this strategy?

We are looking at ways to leverage capital. We have a First Nations Finance Authority (FNFA) that can offer financing at the same rate that municipal bonds receive, and so we are looking at those kinds of measures. We are looking at maybe expanding services through Aboriginal Financial Institutions that will help with economic infrastructure. So there are ways that we could look at leveraging some of the dollars that we do have and spending them more wisely because there is such a deficit for infrastructure. But the way it is working now, it is just not working properly and I think that we could fix that problem by working together, and having an institute of our own that would be in charge of delivering those kinds of resources and programming and would understand the best way to do it. There are ways we can have communities working in bulk purchasing, in all of these different kinds of things, and I think we have a lot of solutions ourselves.


Would you say we need a national strategy for Indigenous economic development in Canada post COVID-19?

Absolutely. That has been a passion of mine—is to have a national Indigenous economic strategy for Canada that is developed by Indigenous people.

Since last December 2019, we have brought all the Indigenous organizations together to talk about developing this strategy and we are working on it right now. We are in the midst of finalizing the literature review for the strategy, so many of our calls to economic prosperity will be based on a lot of work that has been done but we are also coming up with some new ideas.

“A lot of the strategy is based on four pillars. The four pillars are people, land, infrastructure and finance.”

The world has changed post-COVID, so there are some things that we need to look at in that regard, but a lot of the strategy will be about building our capacity, our institutional capacity—we need to do that. We need to deliver our own program because we can do it better.

A lot of the strategy is based on four pillars. The four pillars are people, land, infrastructure and finance. Those are the areas for the strategy that we are developing for those calls for economic prosperity. They will be directed to not only the Government of Canada but also to corporate Canada, all the agencies, universities and health organizations as well as our own people. These calls will have actions that we can take ourselves to improve Indigenous economic development.


What are some of the priority areas this strategy will focus on?

One of the areas that will be included in the strategy is the development of what we are calling Supply Nation Canada. Supply Nation is a business directory of Indigenous businesses across every sector, across every region, so that we can include those businesses in procurement opportunities right across the country.

“Many organizations in the past few years have developed reconciliation action plans, and a lot of them talk about buying from Indigenous businesses but they do not know how to find them.”

The Canadian government has an objective of 5% of federal government procurement going to Indigenous people in purchasing goods and services from Indigenous businesses, but sometimes they do not know who those businesses are, so it will be really important to have such an institution. This institution will also help our businesses to ensure that they are procurement ready, investment ready, so that they have good online presence, good websites for becoming involved in the sales of goods and services.

They will be promoted all across corporate Canada, to all of the health organizations and hospitals, the universities and colleges—all of the areas that are important in Canada. Many organizations in the past few years have developed reconciliation action plans, and a lot of them talk about buying from Indigenous businesses but they do not know how to find them. So, it is incumbent on us to develop such an institute. That is an important element of the strategy.

Another element is defining who an Indigenous business is. Right now, there is no one definition in Canada. We are not going to have the government define it, we are going to define it as Indigenous people. We are protective of who an Indigenous business is—we want to make sure that those are real businesses that are run and operated by our people, so I think that that is going to be an important part.

“Another element is defining who an Indigenous business is. Right now, there is no one definition in Canada. We are not going to have the government define it, we are going to define it as Indigenous people.”

Another element is how important it is that, as I mentioned before, our own institutions or Indigenous centres are excellent in every field—in terms of developing our land, developing human resources—so a lot of the strategy will be revolving around that institutional capacity.


If you could pitch an individual or group with the power to improve Indigenous economic development in Canada—whether that be the Prime Minister, corporate Canada or Indigenous leaders themselves—who would you pitch and what would you urge them to do?

I think I would give the same message to all of those groups—the Prime Minister, to Indigenous leaders, to industry. I would say that right now, we are in the process of developing a National Indigenous Economic Strategy that is solution-oriented; that we would like to see you support the implementation of this strategy and the calls to economic prosperity contained therein. And that we know that by having such a strategy in place, Indigenous people will help drive and lead sustainable development in Canada that will benefit all Canadians.

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Dawn Madahbee Leach
Interim Chairperson - National Indigenous Economic Development Board (NIEDB)

Bio: Dawn Madahbee Leach is the Interim Chairperson and Vice-Chair of the National Indigenous Economic Development Board. Shemhas been the General Manager for the Waubetek Business Development Corporation since 1988. Waubetek is a leading Aboriginal Financial Institution that provides financial services to Indigenous entrepreneurs and 27 First Nations in Northeastern Ontario. Ms. Madahbee Leach is the first Indigenous woman in Canada to head up a regional financial lending institution. She also currently serves on the Boards of Peace Hills Trust and the Northern Policy Institute. She has also served on her First Nation Council, the North-East Local Health Integration Network Board and was the former Chairperson of the Northern Ontario Development Corporation.

 

Organization Profile: The National Indigenous Economic Development Board (NIEDB) provides advice and guidance to the federal government on issues related to Indigenous economic opportunities that enable the Indigenous peoples of Canada to have a voice in government policy.