Kamloops Indian Residential School survivors and sisters, from left to right, Doreen Kenoras, 74, Sadie Kenoras, 79, and Camille Kenoras, 82, listen during a Tk’emlups te Secwepemc ceremony to honour residential school survivors and mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, in Kamloops on Thursday, September 30, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School earlier this year. Photo by DARRYL DYCK /THE CANADIAN PRESS
Opinion: Research shows that First Nations communities alone contribute $17.5 billion a year to the economy. Estimates show that, with the right investment and growth, Indigenous Canadians have the potential to add a $100 billion annual boost to the national economy.
Harold Calla | October 23, 2021
Canada recently recognized Sept. 30 as the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Previously, Indigenous peoples recognized it as Orange Shirt Day. The day created an opportunity to both look backward and look forward.
Truth is found acknowledging the wrongs of the past and their ongoing impacts in the present day. Reconciliation is achieved by looking forward. The truth can be challenging to understand, especially if you grew up in a generation where much of Canada’s history with Indigenous Peoples was not taught in schools.
To paraphrase musician Gord Downey: Indigenous peoples were those people we were taught our entire lives to ignore.
The truth regarding the economic evisceration of First Nations in this country is the story of the destruction of vibrant pre-contact Indigenous trading economies by firstly becoming dependent on the fur trade, and then being halted altogether with the Indian Act of 1876.
The Indian Act prevented our governance systems from evolving and blocked participation in the mainstream economy, while the rest of Canada continued to evolve and grow its governance and economy. The goal was extinguishment and denial of rights to avoid having to recognize under Canada’s own legal concepts Indigenous existence as self-governing nations with functioning economies. Indigenous peoples were stopped from getting a good primary education, studying at university, and becoming professionals.
The reserve pass system, which required status Indians to get permission from the Indian Agent to leave reserves, severely restricted — sometimes due to pressure from settler competitors — the ability to trade goods or crops. All reserve land was controlled and owned by the Minister of Indian Affairs, not the band, and traditional territories were taken through unfair treaties that left only postage stamp-sized reserves. An additional move to systemically exclude First Nations from the economic mainstream was to prevent them from hiring a lawyer to fight these and other prohibitions. So, First Nations lost the ability to develop their economies over seven generations.
Many Canadians now see First Nations as an exercise in managing poverty. It should not be this way. The road to economic reconciliation begins a journey of seven generations back to prosperity including ensuring that Indigenous people have access to properly funded education and STEM learning and that educational institutions prioritize the education of Indigenous commerce, engineering, and tradespeople.
Business and government must focus on Indigenous recruitment in business, engineering, and finance, at all levels of the organization, from entry level to the executive to the boards.
There is a pool of Indigenous talent and leadership, but according to the government of Canada, Indigenous people hold just 0.3 per cent of board seats among the 403 corporations that disclosed diversity information, and just 0.2 per cent of senior management positions. While Indigenous people make up almost five per cent of the total population of Canada, they are around 20 times under-represented in leadership roles.
The governments of Canada and B.C. passed the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples legislation in 2021 and in 2019, respectively. They now must develop an action plan in consultation and co-operation with Indigenous peoples.
The First Nations Financial Management Board (FMB) made submissions to the B.C. Action Plan, calling on B.C. to better marry the social and economic aspects of the Declaration to truly enable First Nations to exercise their rights to self-determination. There can be no movement forward without economic reconciliation, without sharing the power, control and right to self-determination that has been kept from Indigenous Peoples in Canada for far too long.
What is the potential of economic reconciliation?
FMB research shows that First Nations communities alone contribute $17.5 billion a year to the economy. Estimates show that, with the right investment and growth, Indigenous Canadians have the potential to add a $100 billion annual boost to the national economy.
Exclusion is hurting all of us. For more than a decade Canada has seen much of its natural resource wealth locked up due to failures of government and industry to successfully work in partnership with First Nations on its development. If we continue with minimal Indigenous business capacity, how will industry and government manage to build successful partnerships with First Nations?
Former senator and head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Murray Sinclair said reconciliation will not occur so long as one side sees it as a question of rights, and the other side sees it as an act of benevolence. Reconciliation is not about benevolence, but about partnership and equality.
I call on all British Columbians to look at reconciliation as a process to better marry social and economic disparities, and truly enable First Nations to exercise their rights to self-determination, so that all of Canada can benefit, together.
Harold Calla is Executive Chair of the First Nations Financial Management Board and member of the Squamish Nation with experience in international business, as a negotiator in the areas of economic development, land management and finance.