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Indigenous entrepreneurs can fuel Canadian economic growth

JP Gladu is president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, and Katherine Power is vice-president, corporate affairs, Sodexo Canada, and a member of CCAB's Board of Directors.

June 21 is National Aboriginal Day. It's fitting to include Indigenous entrepreneurs in this important celebration. First Nations, Inuit and Métis business owners provide a job-creation engine that sustains a unique culture and heritage essential to our social fabric.

Indigenous owned and operated businesses also strengthen Canada's economy with valuable services and products.

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It is our duty to help these entrepreneurs innovate and thrive.

As part of this year's celebrations, Sodexo Canada asked Canadians to weigh in on the importance of Indigenous businesses via a national Leger survey. The findings show broad recognition of the value created by Canada's 43,000 Indigenous entrepreneurs and strong support for concerted action by the private sector to help them reach their full potential:

  • Eight in ten Canadians believe that Indigenous participation in the economy strengthens the country’s social fabric.
  • Supporting strong Indigenous businesses is also seen by 77 per cent as a pathway to healing relationships with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.

Lifting Indigenous people out of poverty must be a national priority. Canada is home to a rising Indigenous population of 1.4 million. Only about 40 per cent of Indigenous adults have graduated high school and about the same percentage are unemployed. Beyond this, many face discrimination, poverty and deplorable living conditions on reserves.

Fostering a robust Indigenous business sector capable of creating sustainable economic opportunities for its people is clearly in Canada's best interest. And the majority of Canadians recognize that.

Related to greater resources to support Indigenous business owners, the survey found:

  • 73 per cent of Canadians want the private sector to step up to help Indigenous entrepreneurs take their businesses to the next level.
  • 81 per cent agree that corporations should include Indigenous businesses in their supplier networks whenever possible.
  • And 71 per cent believe actions, such as training and mentoring to help Indigenous business owners, should be a long-term strategy for Canadian corporations.

The number of Indigenous businesses has grown steadily since 2000. This emerging sector is well-positioned to deepen its economic footprint.

Indigenous entrepreneurs have established businesses in every province and territory across a range of industries – including natural resources, construction, manufacturing, retail and service sectors. This is according to a 2016 Environics survey of Indigenous business owners commissioned by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB).

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In terms of financial performance, three-quarters reported earning a profit while 72 per cent expressed optimism that their businesses would generate revenue growth.

Indigenous business owners also value innovation. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of the entrepreneurs surveyed reported introducing new services, new processes or new products in the previous three years.

Still, Indigenous entrepreneurs face unique challenges. They need greater access to qualified Indigenous employees, skills training, investment, technical and business know-how and mentoring.

One of the most pressing challenges is the urgent need for skills-training initiatives. Fully two-thirds of Indigenous business owners cite difficulties in finding qualified Indigenous employees.

Who better to provide these resources than private-sector companies with specific knowledge of the skills, financing and technical resources required for success?

Canada's private sector needs to prioritize Indigenous entrepreneurs. Our experience is that everyone benefits when business strategies are based on inclusiveness.

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Many corporations are already engaged in supporting Indigenous businesses as a matter of policy. These initiatives are impressive and impactful. But broader efforts are needed.

The fact that a large majority of Canadians want Indigenous entrepreneurs to succeed also sends an important message of hope and fuels our optimism.

As we celebrate National Aboriginal Day, it's gratifying to see Canadians understand what we have known for a long time: the Indigenous business sector has much to offer its people, the economy and society generally. With the right resources, the opportunities are limitless.

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