Doing Business with Aboriginal Peoples
It’s an interesting time to be contemplating business ventures in Canada that include Aboriginal peoples. Technology advances have brought the internet to all but the most remote of Aboriginal communities, resulting in a knowledge of the outside world that didn’t exist even a couple of decades ago. That’s been a game changer; access to information is a powerful and transformative force. Along with that comes the awareness of the outside world of the traditional way of life of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people and their rights to access and use of their territories. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and subsequent Supreme Court decisions, ensure that development of industrial projects in Canada must now involve affected Aboriginal peoples.
Two of the main reasons you may find yourself wanting to do business with Aboriginal people are: 1) involvement with a large project on “Crown Land” like a resource extraction project; or, 2) planning a business venture in an area near to Aboriginal communities. In these cases (and there are many more) you would be well advised to embark on your interaction with Aboriginal people with care and respect. An experienced Aboriginal Business Consultant can help you plan your approach and interactions to maximize opportunities, minimize delays and avoid mistakes.
Aboriginal Peoples in Canada include First Nations, Métis and Inuit. There are hundreds of Nations and bands across the country, each with their own territory, history and cultural practices that date back centuries or millennia. There are at least 59 indigenous languages, and many more dialects, spoken in Canada. The significance of the aforementioned is that the term “Aboriginal Peoples” refers to a very diverse and heterogeneous group of people, and it is extremely important to recognize this when contemplating a business venture that involves them.
It is also important to recognize the historical and legal factors that are critical to doing business with Aboriginal peoples.
Most people in Canada have read or heard news report of the Supreme Court of Canada’s (SCC) decisions over the last few years that have defined and clarified Aboriginal rights and the obligation of governments to consult and accommodate. For the most part, these cases arise from section 35 of the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms (1982) which recognized and affirmed the existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal people of Canada. The Haida decision (2004) established that “The government’s duty to consult with Aboriginal peoples and accommodate their interests is grounded in the principle of the honour of the Crown, which must be understood generously.”
Many of these cases have originated in British Columbia, because most of the province is not covered under the Treaties that were made in the late 1800s in other parts of Canada. However, these SCC decisions are having wide ranging impacts across the country and development of projects in treaty territories today is not “as it has always been done.”
The question remains, so what does the legal and historical challenges of the past have to do with doing business with Aboriginal peoples today? Simply put, this history forms the basis for present and future business dealing with Aboriginal people, and is essential background knowledge.
Embarking on a major project, like resource extraction, offers rich opportunities to make positive business connections with Aboriginal people. Industrial projects on Crown Land will certainly be within the traditional territory of one or more First Nations. This means that it is the Crown’s duty to consult with and potentially accommodate any First Nation whose interests may be affected by infringement on their Aboriginal or Treaty rights. While the Crown’s duty cannot be delegated to companies, it is advantageous for project proponents to engage in meaningful consultation with affected First Nations. Project risk can be reduced by avoiding costly legal challenges and project delays, while maintaining access to lands and resources.
Many First Nations are working hard on economic development to increase their economic self-sufficiency and that of their members. Opportunities for companies to do business with First Nations include:
- Partnerships and Joint Ventures – Creating Aboriginal businesses and developing their people’s entrepreneurial capacity.
- Employment – Aboriginal people are the youngest and fastest growing population in Canada, and a valuable source of employees, particularly in remote areas.
- Skills Training – Companies who invest in training and capacity building of Aboriginal people through skills training programs build strong relationships with these communities.
If you operate a business, or are contemplating starting one in a town with a nearby Aboriginal population, it is critical to be aware of the benefits of having excellent relations with the Aboriginal community. They will be your customers and employees.
The following are some basic principles that can form the nucleus of a plan to engage with Aboriginal peoples and begin to create meaningful relationships that will help to build business opportunities so that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can prosper together.
Respect. Treat people with respect and there is an excellent chance they will return the favour. Respect is an important aspect of traditional Aboriginal culture, and it is a vital component to relationship building. Be aware that Elders within the First Nations communities hold a high level of esteem within their respective villages/bands.
Engage early and engage often. If you are contemplating a project, it is never too early to begin connecting with Aboriginal peoples who may be affected – all of them. This is best done early in the planning process; no one appreciates surprises.
Be present. It’s been said that 80% of success comes from just showing up. Demonstrate your interest in building relationships by supporting the community. Find opportunities to engage with people, attend cultural activities, places, trade shows and job fairs.
Get to know them. Most non-Aboriginal people have never visited a reserve or an Aboriginal community. Anyone truly interested in working with Aboriginals needs to personally understand how these people live, work, and play. Travel to the territories you are interested in, get a sense of the land, the connection and respect of the people for it. Drop into Aboriginal businesses, visit, shop and learn.
Have patience. A wise man once said “Go slow to go fast”. Aboriginal people respect the effort it takes to build relationships. Remember, most projects being contemplated on Aboriginal lands are long term. The worst thing a person can do when contemplating a business arrangement with Aboriginal people is to deliver a draft agreement at the first meeting.
Seek professional help. There are experienced Aboriginal Business Consultants who can help you when you need it. It is worth the investment.
Be authentic.Relax and enjoy yourself. Be open to learning. And have some fun.
A good attitude, a respectful approach and knowledge of Aboriginal and Treaty rights in Canada will get you a long way when doing business with Aboriginal peoples. Make sure you have the required expertise though, whether on staff or as part of your professional support group. Start your engagement process early in your project to avoid misunderstandings and delays.
You have the opportunity to experience a very different way of life and a different way of doing business than you have probably seen before. While there are challenges, rich rewards are available to those that approach doing business with Aboriginal peoples with an open mind and an open heart.