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Time for corporate Canada to embrace Indigenous equity — it just makes economic sense

For investors, write Daniel Tisch and Tabatha Bull, supporting the Indigenous economy is a smart bet on long-term thinking that can help tackle our national productivity challenge.

By Daniel Tisch and Tabatha Bull Contributors - June 29, 2024


Text originally published at: Toronto Star


Across Canada, a growing number of businesses now honour June as National Indigenous History Month.

While this progress is worth celebrating, as June comes to an end we must ask a bigger question: What are businesses doing the rest of the year?

Business leaders must face a difficult truth: While many great companies were built on this country’s abundant natural resources, not only have Indigenous people not shared equitably in this wealth, but they have also been intentionally excluded.

Canadian businesses have a responsibility to reestablish vibrant Indigenous economies, promoting economic self-sufficiency, prosperity and socio-economic equality with the rest of Canada. Beyond this responsibility, there is also opportunity and benefit to business, to the economy and to Canada as a whole.

In fact, the National Indigenous Economic Development Board estimates that by closing the education, employment and poverty gaps facing Indigenous people, we would add $27.7 billion annually to Canada’s GDP — enough to double the Canada Child Benefit, provide a national pharmacare program or meet our NATO defence spending costs.

Many businesses have begun to understand this truth and are playing their part in reconciliation, in partnership with the Canadian Council for Indigenous Business and other organizations. But while these leaders are in the vanguard of positive change, we need to move the mainstream: those who do not yet understand the opportunity or are uncertain about how to turn their good intentions into action.

How big is the challenge? According to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s 2024 Ontario Economic Report, most organizations surveyed have either not taken any action (35 per cent) or don’t know/prefer not to say (20 per cent). Further, only 27 pe cent are confident in their ability to take meaningful action to advance reconciliation.

So, what can businesses do?

In its 2015 report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada offered essential guidance. Its Call to Action 92 urges corporate Canada to educate and train leaders and teams, build meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities, obtain their consent and involvement in economic development projects, and provide Indigenous people with equitable access to employment and training.

Here are four ways to get started:

Embed reconciliation in your corporation’s DNA. Close to 260 Canadian corporations are in the process of doing so with the help of CCIB’s Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) program, Canada’s premier corporate social responsibility program with respect to Indigenous relations. PAR certification, soon to be renamed Partnership Accreditation in Indigenous Relations, takes companies through a journey, assessing their commitment to relationships with Indigenous Peoples and communities, and then building an implementation plan — not just for the Indigenous relations team, but integrated throughout the entire organization and the board.

Begin empowerment with education and employment. Businesses in the Ontario Chamber survey reported that finding employees remains a key challenge: 72 per cent reported a labour shortage in their sector. As the youngest and fastest-growing demographic in Canada, Indigenous people can play a key role in solving this challenge. However, Indigenous people remain under-represented across the workforce, on management teams and at boardroom tables. This is one reason CCIB has partnered with Schulich ExecEd to offer a Mini-MBA for Indigenous Leaders to qualifying CCIB members.

In addition, people living on First Nations reserves are four times less likely to have a university degree than non-Indigenous Canadians. With scholarships and training streams, Bay Street has been stepping up to support future Indigenous employees through scholarships and specific training streams. However, all businesses and sectors can create cultures of inclusion in their workspaces, with the expertise of Indigenous-led educational institutions, scholars and knowledge keepers.

Procurement can be powerful. The Government of Canada has recently committed to the Canadian Council for Indigenous Business’ recommendation to meet a minimum five per cent procurement target specifically for Indigenous businesses. The private sector has been increasingly demonstrating that this is achievable. With more than 75,000 Indigenous-owned businesses across Canada, corporations can diversify their supply chains at no additional cost while supporting Indigenous entrepreneurs.

Invest in the Indigenous economy. Compared to the Canadian average, Indigenous people are nine times more likely to start businesses. Indigenous businesses are twice as likely to have introduced a new product or service in the past three years, and nearly three times more likely to have introduced new processes. For investors, supporting the Indigenous economy is a smart bet on the demographic shifts, relationships and long-term thinking that can help tackle our national productivity challenge.

While corporate decision-making often prioritizes quarterly earnings, many Indigenous communities follow the seven-generation principle, asking leaders to make decisions today that would benefit the great-grandchildren of our great-grandchildren and leveraging the wisdom and learnings from previous generations.

This National Indigenous History Month, we challenge our fellow business leaders to channel this thinking and seize an enormous advantage for Canada. By working to close gaps, we can support equity for Indigenous people while generating new jobs, tax revenue, and economic growth for our country.

With the Indigenous economy already worth $50 billion, with a growth target of $100 billion, reconciliation is both an ethical and economic imperative.

Now is the time for business leaders to shift good intentions into decisive action. Our economic future will be brighter when we do.

Daniel Tisch is president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. Tabatha Bull is president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Indigenous Business.

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