Kelly Lendsay is the President and CEO of Indigenous Works and an Edwards alumnus. He is a proud Canadian Indigenous leader of Cree and Métis ancestry and is based in Saskatoon.

Thrive asked Kelly Lendsay to author an opinion piece for our readers on growing the employment of Indigenous people for the success of all nations.

Sitting Bull once said, “Let us put our minds together and see what we can do for all of our children.” 

I’ve always felt this Indigenous thinking principle resonated with the spirit of inclusion. It is about creating economic and social opportunities and harmony for all people.

The economic imperative was first underscored in the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996. It contained 434 recommendations and demonstrated the importance of Indigenous partnerships to ‘close the gaps.’ In 1996, closing the gap meant a $7.5 billion return to the economy.

In 1997 while I was at Edwards, we published the Impact of the Changing Aboriginal Population on the Saskatchewan Economy: 1995-2045, which is still one of the most widely cited sources on the implications of Aboriginal demographics and the economy in Saskatchewan. Closing the gap in Saskatchewan translated to $1.4 billion GDP based on 25,400 new jobs and an average GDP of $25,456 per person. 

Fast forward to the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report in 2015. Recommendation #92 asks the corporate sector and their leadership to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The commission calls for meaningful consultation, long term sustainable opportunities from economic development projects as well as education and training for managers on the history of Indigenous people, intercultural competency, human rights and anti-racism.

While we have made progress in addressing gaps, the change is not fast enough. In October 2017, Indigenous Works released a report called Researching Indigenous Partnerships: An Assessment of Corporate-Indigenous Relations. This national survey of 511 medium and large size firms reported three key findings; i) 85% of Canadian businesses are disengaged ii) the average Engagement Index score was a dismal 13% and iii) only one in four (28%) recognized the TRC Corporate Calls to Action. For the majority of companies, Indigenous engagement is not on the radar. 

A notable exception was the resource sector. They had the highest engagement scores, with firms like Syncrude, Cameco and Suncor boasting track records in the 20-40 year range.

There is a business case for increasing corporate-Indigenous partnerships and relationships.

The Indigenous population is now 1.5 million (4.9%) and is the fastest growing workforce in Canada. A report by TD Economics titled Estimating the Size of the Aboriginal Market in Canada showed that "the combined total income of Aboriginal households, business and government sectors" had grown from $12 billion in 2001 to an estimated $24 billion in 2011. When TD revisited these figures in 2015, they found the market had grown again, to an estimated $27 billion in 2016 with a forecast of $37 billion by 2027.

We are on our way to closing the economic gaps.

There are more than 250 Indigenous renewable energy projects underway with some of the largest wind farms and solar parks in Canada—all on native lands. Another more recent example is the Mi'kmaq-owned partnership in Nova Scotia’s Clearwater Seafoods—a billion dollar venture. Locally, Whitecap Dakota First Nation has taken their unemployment rates from 60% to 6% over a 20 year period. These communities are rebuilding their nations, designing new partnership solutions and generating economic and employment opportunities. This is good news for all Canadians and the Canadian economy. 

Indigenous Works is sparking conversations and an action agenda to increase engagement, accelerate employment, and advance research and innovation for stronger partnership development between Indigenous-owned enterprises and corporate Canada.

The backbone to our systems approach is the Inclusion Continuum, a seven stage model to becoming an employer of choice. Indigenous Works helps employers’ benchmark workplace strategies and practices to address organizational competencies needed to achieve increased engagements and relationships with Indigenous people, businesses and communities.

Companies need to build their knowledge of Indigenous communities and grow their cultural competencies in much the same way that an international company would engage with new country markets. We are doing the same thing, at home in our backyard, in Canada. 

We also just launched our latest nation building initiative this year: Luminary: Advancing Indigenous Innovation for Economic Transformation, Employment and Well-Being.

Together with over 140 partners this important blue ocean initiative will grow the Indigenous innovation eco-system. Our Luminary partners are in the process of co-creating a five year strategy intended to address significant socio-economic gaps and economic opportunities.

In closing, increasing corporate-Indigenous partnerships and relationships in ways which bring economic prosperity, jobs and well-being to Indigenous communities will help all Canadians. Together we will be fulfilling Chief Sitting Bull’s vision to come together to see what we can do for all of our children.

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