The Evolution of the Modern Aboriginal Entrepreneur

For many centuries, pre-contact Aboriginal economies were grounded in natural resources — hunting, fishing, and agriculture. The land provided then, as now, the materials needed to fashion shelter, clothing, decorative art, games and tools—in short, all that is required for human survival and recreation. Aboriginal economies were a matter of harvesting, sharing, treaty-making and trade.

Contact with European peoples did not change the familiar pattern. Aboriginal people adapted their considerable skills and practices to the new economic and political opportunities. In the Nineteenth Century, depletion and deprivation of resources—a result of imported diseases, settler populations and colonial policies—compelled Aboriginal people to adapt. This was an era of intensified treaty-making, and of an improvised, mixed economy of farming, hunting, government rations, and sporadic participation in the mainstream wage-labour market.

Canada’s Indian Act systematically frustrated the economic vitality of Aboriginal communities, inspiring First Nations people to establish the first political organizations in the years following World War I. Aboriginal soldiers who had fought the menace of German imperialism in Europe returned to Canada to fight for their treaty rights, confronting the imperialism at home. The Canadian war economy was meanwhile shifting from agriculture to resource extraction, a development which brought little benefit and much risk to Aboriginal people.

Canada’s wealth was growing, but First Nations were becoming ever more impoverished. Something had to be done, and something was.

Beginning early in the Twentieth Century, Aboriginal people fought for recognition and respect of their treaty and inherent rights. To advance the battle, Aboriginal people became lawyers, politicians, scholars and activists. And increasingly they became entrepreneurs.

In the early years of Aboriginal economic advancement, the focus was on repudiating the Indian Act and securing a share of the wealth.

The battle was fought in the courts and political system, and led to hard-won victories. The Constitution Act of 1982 acknowledged Aboriginal and treaty rights, and mainstream businesses began to allocate a fixed percentage of jobs to Aboriginal people, sharing a percentage of profits, with communities in the form of royalties and dividends.

Once the courts had underscored Canada’s fiduciary duty, including the duty to consult, the logical next step was the self-government agreements of the 1980s forward. With these agreements came the economic infrastructure of the contemporary Aboriginal economy. This infrastructure included Aboriginal-run finance and venture capital lending institutions as well as Economic Development Corporations (EDCs, to invest capital in business ventures and economic expansion), Aboriginal financial and management certification standards, Aboriginal-owned trusts, and a Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business to foster sustainable business relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Businesses.

In this stage, economic strategy has evolved from the idea of sharing the wealth to instead generating the wealth ourselves! Aboriginal entrepreneurs are increasingly determining the direction, pace and character of economic development.

According to the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, there are now more than 37,000 Aboriginal people in Canada who own a business. Aboriginal entrepreneurship has exploded in the past three decades, growing thirty-eight percent in the past twelve years alone. Ours is a time of extraordinary change and opportunity, as well as of exceptional complexity. None of the changes has occurred by accident: Aboriginal people have driven the change, knowing that the fulfillment of our cultural, political and economic aspirations requires us to assume control over our own affairs.

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