After almost a year in his job as Export Development Canada’s national lead for Indigenous exporters, Todd Evans says there’s still much to be done to connect, collaborate and support this dynamic and engaged community as they grow their businesses internationally.

In order for this to happen, Evans says it’s paramount that EDC, Canada’s export credit agency, earns the trust and respect of Indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses, who have been growing significantly over the past decade and deepening their economic footprint in Canada.

“My goal is for Indigenous companies to think of us as a trusted partner. This doesn’t happen overnight. We need to build awareness and credibility, so the community knows who we are and what we do. This is what I hope for. We also need to raise awareness within EDC, too. Understanding how history and culture is embedded in the operations of many Indigenous companies is a key part of that awareness within EDC.”

With 23 years under his belt working for the Crown Corporation, including as director of economic analysis and forecasting and the corporate research department, Evans relishes the opportunity to network with Canadian Indigenous organizations, partners and businesspeople. The role was created after a gap was identified following a thorough departmental review in 2018. Consultations with the Indigenous business community, along with the services of BDO Canada’s Indigenous practice, were called on to help develop an Indigenous business initiative. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted some of his work, Evans—along with EDC colleague and women-in-trade lead Jennifer Cooke—continues to forge ahead on creating an in-depth Indigenous national strategy for EDC. 

“Before COVID-19 hit, I was doing a lot of travelling to meet with different organizations and attending conferences to get the lay of the land. It’s all about making connections,” says Evans. “Now, I’m conducting most of my outreach over the phone. I’m also speaking directly to Indigenous companies to understand their challenges.”

Inukshuk landmark along the Newfoundland coastline

Key organizations that EDC is working with include:

  • the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), which builds connections between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Peoples and businesses through programs and national events to grow a new economy based on respect and shared prosperity;
  • the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC), which works with business and government partners to help market the Indigenous tourism industry in Canada to the world;
  • National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA), a network of 58 Aboriginal financial institutions (AFI) that supply developmental lending directly to Indigenous entrepreneurs and communities.

With recent national surveys showing support and broad recognition by Canadians for Indigenous-led and operated businesses, other Canadian companies are keen to invest in this robust business sector and to partner on new opportunities. In Canada, there are about 56,000 Indigenous-owned companies, which contribute more than $30 billion annually to the economy. Additionally, between 2014 and 2017, the Indigenous tourism industry grew 23% to $1.7 billion. 

“We all know that the tourism industry is getting hammered because of COVID-19. One-third of all international visitors to Canada come here for an Indigenous experience. This is a big driver for Indigenous businesses, which has important spinoffs for the broader tourism sector.”

One of Evans’ main priorities is to foster relationships with Indigenous business stakeholders, including government agencies, Band Council officials and financial institutions, to educate them about EDC and to form partnerships. 

“We’ve been able to help connect and refer financial institutions to Indigenous companies and suppliers. It’s still early days, but we’ll continue to work on this. I’m very hopeful.”

While Indigenous businesses face many of the same challenges as other Canadian companies in terms of access to capital, cash flow management, skills training and lack of exporting and regulatory knowledge, Evans says the way they operate shows some key differences.

“Indigenous entrepreneurs have strong core values and are closely tied to their community, which helps support jobs and sustainable economic development locally. Given Canada’s history, we have to understand this dynamic and be more aware of the cultural and historical background. There’s more we can do. I’m not talking about special treatment, but let’s level the playing field by making sure our financial and knowledge products meet the needs of Indigenous businesses. If not, then how can we make that happen,” Evans says.

Originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, Evans is proud of his Mi’kmaq culture, a First Nation whose traditional territory, Mi’kma’ki, covers much of Atlantic Canada, from Gaspe to Newfoundland. Normally, at this time of year, Evans would be participating in powwows—social gatherings to celebrate Indigenous culture—dressed in full regalia as a traditional dancer. 

I miss it a lot. Being a powwow dancer is a way of life. It’s a commitment, and for me personally, it’s also about being a role model for younger people. Seeing friends at powwows, like the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival in Ottawa and Miawpukek (Conne River) in Newfoundland and Labrador, is the highlight of my year.

For now, Evans is concentrating on building bridges and studying various segments of the Indigenous business community, including women and youth entrepreneurs and international trade and tourism.

“As companies start to recover from the impacts of COVID-19 and restructure their operations, many will look for new markets. This trend won’t go away and is an opportunity for EDC to support Indigenous businesses looking for new sources of long-term sustainable growth.”

EDC is currently reviewing its existing risk management and financial products and services, as well as the expansion of the EDC Business Connection program, to tailor them for an Indigenous audience. To address the current needs of businesses during the COVID-19 crisis, we can help by providing access to various loan programs, working capital solutions, credit insurance, advance payment insurance and protection against currency fluctuations.