Indigenous Leadership and the Economy: Saskatchewan Success Stories 

The lost children of residential schools are cause for Canadians “to reckon with decades of national shame,” writes Elizabeth McIninch. But it also coincides with an emerging era of Indigenous leadership and “economic empowerment.” McIninch looks at Saskatchewan as a case study in business success stories.

Elizabeth McIninch 

While the nation weeps over the 215 lost children of the Kamloops Residential School—and, per the conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, the many thousands more—our national conscience begins to reckon with decades of national shame. Meanwhile, there is a parallel, positive movement afoot amongst Indigenous people.

The cry for justice is impassioned across this country.

But something else is happening here. Indigenous leaders and their communities are tackling the repressive, colonial policies of the past head on. Positive. Confident. Courageous.

This is a story about economic empowerment. From small Indigenous entrepreneurs to multimillion-dollar partnerships with non-Indigenous firms across many sectors. This is about an Indigenous economy on the upswing and communities taking control of their own destinies. 

Saskatchewan’s 74 First Nations inhabit a land with over 6,000 years of history; ancient peoples, ancient languages. By 2045, it is estimated 32 percent of the Saskatchewan population will be Indigenous. Today, one third of Saskatchewan youth under the age of 18 are of aboriginal descent. 

Overall, when looking at numbers since 2006, the Indigenous population in Canada as a whole has grown by a breathtaking 42.5 percent. Our Indigenous market, as of 2016, contributes $32 billion to the national economy with projections as high as $100 billion by 2025.

In July 2019, Industry West magazine brought together six Indigenous Saskatchewan business leaders, ground-breakers in creating opportunities for the communities they represent. They agreed that a substantial part of real reconciliation is about achieving influence for their people, as well as carving out new opportunities for the youth of today and the generations yet to come. 

There is no doubt that colonial-settler policies over the centuries have contributed to huge socioeconomic gaps between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples. Guy Lonechild, CEO of Saskatchewan’s First Nations Power Authority, pointed to the Indian Act as the principal systemic obstacle to full Indigenous participation in the Canadian economy. Chief Darcy Bear of the Whitecap Dakota First Nation added: “It wasn’t put there for us to succeed. It was created to segregate us, to keep us out of sight, out of mind.” 

Systemic racism and colonialism worked together as the engines of the residential schools and the concerted effort to destroy Indigenous ceremonies such as the potlatch. The idea was to destroy the arts and culture of an ancient people. The soul of an ancient people.

The idea was to populate the prairies with shadows of once proud aboriginal nations. Shadows no more. 

As Ron Hyggen, CEO of Athabaska Basin Security and Peace Protection put it so well in the Industry West discussions, “Entrepreneurs have to come from our side of the world, because that’s what’s going to run the future.”

Our side of the world. Building new leadership. Learning about new markets. Training young people for jobs in software. Securing mining scholarships for women and Indigenous people. Developing Indigenous partnerships with Orano Canada Inc and Cameco. With its focus on “Education for Everyone”, Saskatchewan’s post-secondary sector serves as a model for the nation in supporting Indigenous students.

“It’s all about working together and listening to the elders,” reflected Chief Bear. A great tribute to his leadership stands now at the Dakota Dunes Hotel near and the beautiful golf course that’s a major tourist attraction in the province. Bear’s Lac La Ronge Indian Band and the Muskeg Lake First Nation financed the complex, working with the Bank of Montreal. The future will be built on what our old people talked about, he said during the Roundtable. “We have to build partnerships to go forward.”

Guy Lonechild praised the Whitecap Dakota governance structure that builds trust: “It speaks about accountability, it speaks about transparency, it speaks about partnership and collaboration, and building and sustaining trust.” He should know. The First Nations Power Authority’s collaboration with SaskPower has meant $50 million in Indigenous procurement and a recent 20-megawatt Solar Opportunity Agreement.

As a major force for advancing renewable energy, Lonechild points to the Cowessess First Nation’s wind and battery storage project. But many First Nations in the province are building to scale, advancing renewable energy power while focusing on the needs of their communities. These are the first steps on the road to economic reconciliation, said Lonechild in Industry West. “It ensures that Indigenous people are actively participating in the economy in a significant way.”

Over the course of history, business on the Northern Plains was all about the bison hunt; a highly disciplined regime involving thousands of people. Order and justice were critical to subsistence and survival on the prairie. So, too, was the key virtue of generosity to all. 

Participants at Indigenous Business in Saskatchewan, a roundtable initiated by Industry West magazine. At Dakota Dunes Casino on Whitecap Dakota First Nation Territory (L to R) Shelley Pinacie, Brad Darbyshire, Guy Lonechild, Ron Hyggen, Devon Fiddler, Patrick Dinsdale.David Carter photo, Industry West magazine

Thomas Benjoe, President and CEO of FHQ Developments—which was founded by the 11 member First Nations of File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council—is now the youngest individual ever elected chair of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce. He is a big promoter of building Indigenous wealth through partnerships with non-Indigenous enterprises, equity ownership and the development of Indigenous businesses, over 500 of which are members of the Chamber.

As he points out in a recent article in Report on Business: “Indigenous business practices are inextricable from the core teachings of the Nehiyaw (Cree), Dakota, Nakota, Lakota and Anishinaabe (Saulteaux) First Nations they serve: Miyo-wîcêhtowin (or “the principle of getting along well with others, having good relations and expanding the circle”), Wîtaskêwin (“living together on the land”) and Pimâcihowin (“making a living”).” 

Think of the ancient symbol of the Medicine Wheel. For Canada’s First Nations, it is representative of our interconnectedness with all creation. We are all on this journey together. 

The story of Chief Jerry Asp’s long-time push for both the prosperity and inclusivity of the Tahitan First Nation in Northern B.C. was through direct participation in the mining industry. That meant the bottom line and Indigenous community values worked hand in glove. Asp brought this model to the world when he co-founded the Global Indigenous Development Trust. 

Think of the recent single largest Indigenous investment by a coalition of Mi’kmaq communities across Atlantic Canada through their acquisition of 50 percent of Clearwater Seafoods. As Chief Terry Paul of the Membertou First Nation was quoted in a recent Globe and Mail article: “We explained (to Clearwater) that we were in this for the long run because fishing was part of our identity and that we wanted to be fishing until the end of time.” 

The message to non-Indigenous entrepreneurs is clear. Canada’s First Nations are open for business. But community engagement is essential. Establishing relationships of respect and caring are based in the traditional Lakota expression, mitakuye oyasin, which is generally translated as “we are all related.” Because we are all on this journey together, we must prioritize our beautiful environment.

None of this is new. 

Ask yourself how, in the centuries after early contact with Europeans, the coureurs des bois broke open a vast continent, always moving forward, conquering great rivers and expanding through the Mississippi as far south as Louisiana. The Montreal Nor’Westers, heirs to the French Canadian fur trade, followed in their wake. As did the Hudson’s Bay traders across Rupert’s Land.  

Without bonds of kinship with the First Nations, there would have been no fur trade. No survival in horrific winters. No portaging magnificent rivers. No understanding of dark forests. 

Indigenous people took the traders in. To their families, to their communities and their kin, no matter how scattered across the enormity of this immense land. Biracial communities founded great cities, small towns and settlements across the Great Lakes and the prairie. Jacques Rousseau (1905-1970), Quebec’s respected ethnohistorian and biologist, has estimated that at least 40 percent of Quebecers, perhaps many more, have at least one Indigenous ancestor. 

Mixed unions across the vast stretches of northern Canada will probably never be properly estimated. Like our surging Canadian rivers and quiet gurgling channels and magnificent lakes all tied into one, ethnohistory remains an ambiguous part of Canada’s past. 

But Indigenous values lay at the heart of the opening of a vast continent to the early Europeans. And they are at the heart of partnerships with non-indigenous businesses today. 

Now, more than ever, as an exhausted, endangered planet demands deliverance from our years of exploitation and greed, we need to remember the balance of the Medicine Wheel and the interconnectedness of all mankind. 

As Ron Hyggen put it so well, “the future will come from our side of the world.” We need to walk that world. We need to understand it and protect it. Thats how real reconciliation will happen.  

Elizabeth McIninch is a book editor, speechwriter, and former archivist to Former Prime Minister John Napier Turner. She is a recent graduate of the Saskatchewan government’s Indigenous Awareness Programs.