In Canada, there are more than 56,000 Indigenous-owned companies. Comprised of three groups—First Nations, Métis and Inuit—this dynamic and robust business community contributes in excess of $30 billion annually to Canada’s economy. According to the Indigenomics Institute, that amount could increase to as much as $100 billion by 2024.

Canada’s financial institutions are increasingly working to connect with these businesses. Our nation’s oldest bank, the Bank of Montreal, has a dedicated team working hard to build their relationships with First Nations communities and is determined to double their Indigenous lending between 2019 and 2025. At the other end of the spectrum, Toronto’s fledgling private lender Bridging Financing Inc. recently launched an Indigenous-focused fund while, across the country, Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (Vancity) takes a holistic approach. This self-described values-based financial co-operative supports Indigenous organizations and First Nations with access to financial services and financial literacy, affordable housing and economic development initiatives. They are just a few of the many financial institutions that see significant opportunity with this client base, the majority of which are small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), spread across all sectors—from traditional mining and seafood to advanced technology services, hospitality and health and beauty products. 

Like other Canadian entrepreneurs, Indigenous companies have been heavily impacted by COVID-19. Disruptions in global supply chains, plummeting revenues and an increasing need for working capital to cover their operating costs are just some of the challenges they’re facing. Those working in tourism, retail, transportation and resource industry supply chains (energy, mining) have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. The shutdown of gaming operations and resorts has also eliminated an important source of revenue and jobs for many First Nation communities. 

Already an economically disadvantaged business community, Indigenous companies also have other unique challenges, many a direct result of institutional and systemic racism. These obstacles hinder growth and make it difficult to sell their goods and services in international markets around the world.

Key challenges

1. Lack of access to working capital. This is the No. 1 issue for Indigenous businesses for many reasons:

  • many don’t have a relationship with traditional banks—something that Export Development Canada (EDC) is actively working to  facilitate with introductions between financial institutions (FIs) and Indigenous companies as part of our Indigenous business plan; 
  • they often face institutional bias because historically, they’re seen as higher risk; 
  • they often don’t have the collateral needed to get loans and operating lines of credit; and
  • even if they do have assets, using them to secure a loan is often not an option for Indigenous entrepreneurs living on reserves.
A ship coming into Nunavut.

 

2. The remoteness of communities. Be it Northern Ontario, Nunavut, Labrador or the Northwest Territories, their remote location can create problems, including: 

  • Shipping goods. This is logistically difficult if there aren’t roads, highways or airports nearby. 
  • Staying connected. A lack of reliable internet service, or no internet service at all, makes communication with customers, suppliers and financial institutions difficult.

3. Lack of access to resources. This includes skilled labour, local suppliers and business and financial support. With a lighter banking presence in rural and remote areas, access to financing and financial advice is often limited.

4. Socioeconomic status. The education levels of Indigenous people are lower than the Canadian average with a small percentage having university degrees. Other factors:

  • High incarceration rates. Indigenous Peoples account for more than 30% of Canada’s federal prison population. Of all women incarcerated federally, 42% are Indigenous. (Ironically, smaller Indigenous businesses are predominately owned and run by women.) 
  • Lower wealth. On average, Indigenous entrepreneurs and Indigenous-owned companies have fewer financial resources and have a smaller base of assets for collateral than non-Indigenous companies. This makes it that much harder for Indigenous entrepreneurs to access the capital needed to grow and sustain their business.
The Inukshuk is a symbol of hope, safety and friendship.

Trusted partners

As Export Development Canada’s (EDC) national lead for Indigenous exporters, my job is to raise awareness of the specific needs and challenges of the Indigenous business community, and to help develop a strategy for serving this market. It starts with building trust and relationships—a process that takes time and patience. One of the biggest hurdles is overcoming the damage of the past.

Indigenous nations have been traders long before the arrival of the first European settlers. Inter-tribal commerce flourished across all of North America and this natural, entrepreneurial trading spirit still exists today. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business and Global Affairs Canada shows that nearly one-quarter of Indigenous-owned SMEs in Canada export to varying degrees—double the rate of Canadian non-Indigenous SMEs. Given that Canada represents less than 2% of the global economy, sustainable growth opportunities often depend on diversification into international markets. Research supports this, showing that exporters are more productive, profitable, innovative and resilient. This makes the Indigenous-owned SMEs’ propensity for selling internationally a highly attractive business model for FIs to service.

Reconciliation

In 2007, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, was finalized. As part of the agreement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was established to study and document the suffering and harm caused by the residential school system and make recommendations on how to try to right the wrongs of the past and begin the healing between Canadians and the Indigenous Peoples.

In June 2015, the TRC released a report that included 94 “calls to action” which provided guidance on corporate obligations to promote reconciliation through Indigenous engagement, community investment, workplace diversity and employee education. Much like our FI partners, as part of our longer-term strategy to be more relevant to Indigenous businesses, EDC is working to adopt a more comprehensive approach to engaging with the Indigenous business community.

How EDC and its FI partners can help

EDC has been reaching out to FIs and businesses alike to better understand the needs and challenges of this predominately young and creative business community. Many of our FI partners have a wealth of experience and frontline knowledge in this space. By sharing insights and taking a collaborative approach, we are able to shape our support for these businesses as they grow, diversify and explore international markets. For example, EDC has begun to adopt FIs’ approach to defining tenor on loans to companies owned by Indigenous communities and their Economic Development Corporations. After all, taking out between 10 and 15-year loans is less of a risk with such stable organizations. 

To become a trusted partner and be more accessible to Indigenous businesses, we need to make sure we work together, with a nation-to-nation approach, to offer products and services that suit these businesses’ needs. Contact EDC’s Bank Channel team to discuss the ways that your FI can use EDC products to support this business community. 

Beyond financial solutions, EDC can also facilitate growth by calling on our international trade ecosystem and partners to connect Indigenous companies with new customers, suppliers and financial institutions.

At the end of the day, the success of Indigenous companies will benefit Indigenous communities and all Canadians. Working together, we can create a win-win situation.

By the numbers

56,000+ Number of Indigenous-owned companies in Canada

$30B+ Indigenous contribution to the Canadian economy

24% Indigenous SMEs export

1.4% Canadian SMES are majority owned by Indigenous 

65% Indigenous business owners rely on personal savings to start a new business

19% Indigenous business owners rely on bank loans and credit to start a new business