Canadian economy can't succeed if the Indigenous economy fails

Illustration by Tracy Walker


Enjoying the spectacle of Jody Wilson-Raybould cleaning the floor with the Prime Minister? Guess what corporate Canada: you’re next. Anybody doubting this needn’t look further than the 275 straight court cases Indigenous peoples have won, stopping many resource projects in their tracks.

The new rule of business in Canada’s resource economy is: No Indigenous buy-in, no dice. Buy-in doesn’t come cheap. It means a radical departure from business as usual practices. That means more than just a few token jobs. The table stakes are meaningful equity ownership, control through executive and governance bodies, employment, involvement in environmental planning and, critically, sourcing. Canadian businesses and governments need to be much better partners and customers of Indigenous businesses.

While there are some inspiring examples of this already at play across the nation, it is a cold reality check that of the 25 largest infrastructure projects under way in Canada with significant Indigenous impact, 22 of them have 0% Indigenous ownership, according to a review by Corporate Knights and ReNew Canada. A major barrier to getting Indigenous equity buy-in is lack of access to financing. One wonders how much further ahead our country would be had our bankers spent as much time finding solutions to the lack of Indigenous access to capital as they have chiding the government over pipeline delays.

Cold reality check is that of the 25 largest infrastructure projects under way in Canada with significant Indigenous impact, 22 of them have 0% Indigenous ownership.

The good news is we are not starting from zero. Indigenous groups already have equity ownership in power projects that provide one-fifth of Canada’s electricity generation. And TD has pegged the Indigenous economy at over $30 billion, or about 1.4% of Canada’s$2 trillion economy. But given that Indigenous people represent 4.9% of the Canadian population and have significant property rights, it is a national scandal that they are sharing in less than one-third of Canada’s economic bounty.

We will know we have made progress when the Indigenous economy is at least in proportion to the Indigenous population, which would be about $100 billion in today’s dollars.

This should be Canada’s number one economic objective, as there is probably nothing else that would boost the broader economy as profoundly. It is heartening to see companies in sectors with traditionally fraught relations with Indigenous peoples now pioneering promising new models of commercial partnership including significant Indigenous equity ownership and procurement. Governments can take note, especially on Indigenous procurement. Total federal procurement spend with Indigenous businesses is just $63 million per year (0.3% of the total $20 billion federal procurement budget) as compared to $1 billion of procurement from Indigenous businesses by just three energy companies.

It will not be easy and it will take time to rebuild the trust, so we cannot afford to rush. But we must begin with the fierce urgency of now.

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