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A pair of baby moccasins made by Quemeez. The company was started by Sunshine Tenasco and was eventually invested in by ‘Dragon’s Den’ investors. (Quemeez/Facebook) For Canada’s indigenous people, entrepreneurship is already woven into the social fabric of the community, but support, resources and funding to foster that spirit still have a long way to go.

“A lot of the job programs that are created today are ones that often contribute – not intentionally – to the ongoing colonialism process,” says Duncan Kennedy, managing director of indigenous entrepreneur-focused accelerator Indigenext . He points to the example of a community learning program for an area where a pipeline is being built.

“Great you’ve got a job for a couple years, but then you can’t stay in your territory, there’s only one pipeline that gets built,” he says. “(But) ecotourism in your territory is an amazing opportunity, shellfish is an interesting opportunity… you can stay and work in your territory.”

According to the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, there are 43,000 indigenous entrepreneurs in Canada amongst a population of 1.4 million. With only four in ten indigenous adults having graduated from high school, and unemployment amongst indigenous people hovering around 40 per cent, entrepreneurship presents a solid alternative to the job program route.

Kennedy, who grew up in Prince George, B.C. and is of mixed Scottish-Métis ancestry, believes “reconciliation through innovation” – the idea that giving entrepreneurial indigenous people access to mentorship, funding, and resources – can change their life, and ripple out to the community.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Sunshine Tenasco, an Anishinabe serial entrepreneur from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, Que. Tenasco says she never really considered entrepreneurship an option before launching Quemeez, a baby moccasin company. She brought her concept to Dragon’s Den , where several of the show’s investors bought in.

“People from my own community didn’t think that it was doable and these millionaires did,” she says. Now she’s trying to bring that message to her community.

Tenasco has since launched Her Braids , a line of beaded pendants where a portion of proceeds go to clean drinking water for First Nations communities, as well as Pow Wow Pitch , a Dragon’s Den -like competition where indigenous entrepreneurs pitch their concepts at the largest pow wow in Ottawa for a chance to win mentorship and a $5,000 micro-loan.

“The ripple effect of one person succeeding will affect the entire community,” she says. “So even if it means you employ yourself, eventually you’re going to grow and you will give back.”

Not so straightforward

There are some unique hurdles faced by indigenous entrepreneurs. “If you need a loan and live on a First Nations community, there’s no collateral so banks have a harder time lending you money,” says Tenasco.

According to a report commissioned by The National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA) and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), the number of Aboriginal Financial Institutions has grown to 50 across Canada. The BDC has been one of the most sturdy links for indigenous people looking to fund business endeavours. Its Indigenous Entrepreneur Loan offers $250,000 for existing businesses and up to $150,000 for start-ups, regardless of whether their operations are on or off reserve, and refunds a portion of the interest paid to a registered charity of the entrepreneur’s choice.

As of March 2018, the BDC has committed more than $300 million across 550 indigenous clients throughout Canada. And it’s continuing to grow, says Monica James, Manager of Indigenous Banking (Eastern Division) at BDC, especially when contrasted with the portfolio in 2013.

“The indigenous population is growing at a rate faster than any other rate in Canada,” she […]

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