Entrepreneurship Among Indigenous Peoples
Presentation of the theme
This theme is based entirely on excerpts from a powerful and very informative book by Shaun Loney with Will Braun, entitled: An Army of Problem Solvers, Reconciliation and the Solutions Economy. (2016). These quotes are with the permission of the authors.
My introduction to the solutions economy came through my work with several social enterprises. This book arises very directly from those experiences.
I am currently at Aki Energy, which I co-founded, along with Darcy Wood, Kate Taylor and Sam Murdock, in 2013. Based in Winnipeg, Aki serves as something of a social enterprise incubator, offering various supports and services for First Nations wanting to start their own social enterprises. We help with ideas, training, and the various steps required for setting up and operating a social enterprise. In most cases, we do not own the businesses – we just support and facilitate them. Our chief executive officer is Darcy Wood, the former chief of the Garden Hill First Nation.
In our first three years, Aki and our partners have installed $6 million of energy efficient geothermal energy systems in 350 homes on four First Nations in Manitoba. Each venture is a non-profit social enterprise with local employees doing the actual work. Eight crews of trained workers have already installed 213 kilometres of piping loop for geothermal systems that will cut utility bills by $15 million over the next 20 years. Peguis First Nation and the Fisher River Cree Nation have their own geothermal installation operations – the two largest in western Canada. Not only is this work paid for out of the utility bill reductions, it also creates sustainable, local employment. We intend to install $100 million worth of geothermal energy in the next decade in Manitoba alone.
Prior to Aki, in 2006, I was on the team that co-founded BUILD (Building Urban Industries for Local Employment), a Winnipeg social enterprise that trains mostly people who have been in prison to do energy-saving and water-saving retrofits where low-income families live.
It was my introduction into the world of social enterprise, and I am very proud to say that we were awarded Scotia Bank’s EcoLiving Green Business of the Year in 2011, Manitoba Apprenticeship’s Employer of the Year in 2013, and recipient of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce’s Spirit Award in 2016.
In 2014 my co-workers and I at Aki Energy began discussions with the Garden Hill First Nation about setting up a community-based healthy food venture. Out of our talks, Meechim Inc. arose. Meechim is an Oji-Cree word for food. Meechim now runs both a healthy food market and a commercial-sized farm. Meechim is a registered non-profit corporation with a board selected by the community in addition to one member appointed by Chief and Council.
We had asked the First Nation to clear some land thinking a few acres would suffice to get us going. We were amazed to see that they cleared 5.3 hectares (13 acres), similar in size to a large urban shopping mall. It will take some time for the venture to be profitable and to plant the whole area but in year one a fruit orchard was planted, a range of vegetables were grown (potatoes, carrots, beans, peas, and squash), and fencing was erected for 1,000 broiler chickens, laying hens, and turkeys. In 2015, Meechim’s first year of operation, ten people were employed for the growing season.
The Meechim healthy food market – another branch of the venture – sells fruit, veggies, meat, healthy cooked meals, and locally caught fish. The market is held at the local TV station with live Oji Cree language broadcast of what is available. It may be the world’s only healthy food shopping channel. Some of the healthy food sold is from the Meechim farm while some is shipped in and sold at rates lower than the Northern Store.
Meechim is also selling healthy food out of the canteen at the arena. It offers fruit, veggies, and Garden Hill chicken soup in place of standard canteen fare. With the help of an innovative foundation called Canadian Feed the Children, we are also working with five classes from the local school. As part of the curriculum, students are gardening and taking the produce home to their families.
I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that all this is easy. Changing the status quo can offer its challenges, and we are all learning along the way. But we began to see the benefits immediately.
‘The goals of Meechim are to improve health in the community, provide employment, and displace many flown-in foods that can be farmed locally. Of course it is also increases overall community capacity to start other economic ventures.
Again, this is not a government program or a charitable endeavour. It is a business. But it is related to government policy, and governments can create conditions that facilitate the re-emergence of the local economy. This is key. A good idea is not enough if government policies get in the way. The problem solvers and the problems must be connected.
What factors influence diet in a place like Garden Hill? Country foods – a common term for foods hunted, fished, or gathered in the wild – were of course the basis of Indigenous diets not that long ago. They still form a small part of the diet in many places, such as Garden Hill, but have largely been replaced by modern grocery store offerings. How has this happened? How did the traditional food system and economy give way to modern dependence on grocery supply? The answer is not simple, but let’s start by going back to the question of why there are no gardens in a place called Garden Hill (and before long we will return to the economics of diabetes).
Like the Indigenous population in general, Garden Hill has been beat up by a string of government policies and practices. Treaty 5, which Indigenous signatories understood to be a commitment to live together in a good way, was treated by the Crown as a way to get Indigenous people out of the way of white colonial expansion. The Indian Act placed restrictions on cultural practices and commerce, treating Indigenous people in a highly paternalistic fashion.
According to article 32 (1) of the Indian act:
A transaction of any kind whereby a band, or a member thereof’ purports to sell, barter, exchange, give or otherwise dispose of cattle, or other animals, grain or hay, where wild or cultivate, or root crops or plants or their products from a reserve.., to a person other than a member of that band, is void unless the superintendent approves the transaction in writing.
Stan McKay told me that his parents sold one of their five cows so Stan would have some pocket money when he was away. But this was done only with permission of the Indian Agent and at a cut-rate price. They had to go through him because it was illegal for Indigenous people to sell anything off-reserve without the permission of the Great White Mother’s agent. While not enforced in recent years, this restriction was only repealed in 2014.
The Indian Act is only one example of a government policy that inhibits Indigenous people from solving economic problems. There are many others. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) funds new-home construction on First Nations. Their policy is generally to keep the upfront costs to a minimum, and extras are not usually allowed. For example a new home can be hooked up to geothermal technology for an additional $5,000 (installation in a new home is cheaper than retrofitting an existing home), a move that would cut energy bills by about $1,800 a year. But CMHC won’t allow it because they see the $5,000 as a cost rather than an investment. They can’t afford to save money.
There is a way forward. The term “solutions economy’ or “solutions sector” as it is sometimes called, is somewhat general and flexible. Different people define it in different ways. My own definition will come most clearly through the numerous concrete examples I provide in this book, but I’ll offer a more concise definition here as well. The solutions economy is essentially about solving social and environmental problems by using market forces.
Within the solutions economy, challenges like climate change, high incarceration and re-incarceration rates, persistent poverty, and ballooning healthcare costs are addressed not by demanding more government spending, offering charity, or expecting free enterprise to solve all ills. It seeks out transformative, common-sense, real-world solutions from outside the box – or, as the Elders tell me, “from inside the circle.”
The solutions economy criss-crosses the ideological spectrum, at times confounding both sides, more often winning them both over. It seeks collaboration, not polarization of sides. It is not an ideology, which is to say it is not about arguing that one economic school of thought is superior or that one political philosophy is the answer. It is not about being right in some abstract, theoretical way. It is about innovative, on-the-ground solutions.
First Nations reconciliation has to include rebuilding local economies. In this excerpt we have included only a few examples. Shaun Loney”s book describes many more of these successes.
Discussion: Passing of the talking stick