A new $50-million fund has been established to help aboriginal business and entrepreneurship, and some of Canada's top chief executives and business leaders have already expressed interest in getting involved, former prime minister Paul Martin said Wednesday.

Loans are being distributed through private equity firm CAPE Fund Management and the initial reaction to the idea from Canada's biggest companies has been positive, said Martin, who spearheaded the project with his son David.

"This is not charity, this is investment," he said. "It provides a financial return but it also provides a social return, which is the principal thrust of what we want to do here. "I simply said to [business leaders] that the youngest and fastest growing segment of our population — the descendants of our first peoples, the First Nations, the Metis and the Inuit — are being denied access to mentorship, they're being denied access to opportunities, they're being denied access to entrepreneurship, and we've got to do something about that."

'First Nations want to be active participants in Canada's economy.' —Phil Fontaine, Assembly of First Nations

Investments are expected to range between $1 million and $7.5 million, and preliminary discussions have already begun with some potential candidates. The fund's managing director, Peter Forton, said the fund reflects an emerging era of socially responsible investing.

In a statement, Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine said the fund represents an "incredible opportunity" to create and promote economic independence for First Nations peoples.

"First Nations want to be active participants in Canada's economy and the CAPE fund will help us achieve that goal."