British Columbia

Squamish Nation Trust breaks down barriers for Indigenous entrepreneurs

In a warehouse tucked away on the heavily-industrialized shores of North Vancouver, the sounds of forklifts, stone blades, and shop vacuums, spill over into the nearby parking lot.

Reports show lack of education and limited access to capital are common barriers to entrepreneurial success

Lisa Peterson holds her Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award inside the Peterson Stone Works warehouse in North Vancouver. (Alastair Spriggs)

In a warehouse tucked away on the heavily-industrialized shores of North Vancouver, the sounds of forklifts, stone blades, and shop vacuums, spill over into the nearby parking lot.

Inside, five tradesmen prepare the final cuts on a slab of granite destined for a West Vancouver mansion. Lisa Peterson, 30, CEO of Peterson Stone Works and member of the Squamish Nation, approves the final product and ensures the delivery leaves on schedule.

"Being Indigenous, and a woman, people often assume I'm a secretary in this type of business," said Peterson. "But I'm the Mamma Bear of this place, I keep everyone motivated and pushing toward a common goal."

Peterson is one of 500 Squamish members — roughly 13 per cent of the population — who own a small business and have received support from the Squamish Nation Trust (SNT), a financial institution that uses Nation-generated revenue to boost entrepreneurship, and help members by providing business loans and business-related education.

Formed nearly 20 years ago using money from a land agreement, a department of the SNT aims to break down barriers that have prevented Indigenous people from starting small businesses, namely a lack of collateral and limited business-related education.

From tattoo artists to accountants, wood carvers and graphic designers, entrepreneurism has skyrocketed in the Squamish Nation, thanks in part to the SNT.

A break down of Squamish Nation businesses. (Alastair Spriggs)

Origins of the Trust

The SNT was formed in 2000 after the Squamish Nation and the federal government settled a longstanding land dispute 

Under the Kitsilano Agreement, which settled the dispute, the Squamish Nation abandoned claim to a piece of land in Vancouver— beneath the Burrard Bridge — traditionally known as Sen̓áḵw, and several other sites in the Lower Mainland, in exchange for $92.5 million.

Over two-thirds of the cash settlement was put in the SNT, and each year, the Squamish Nation invests a portion of the interest in small businesses and business-related education.

Traditional Squamish ‘Welcome Pole’ beneath the Burrard Bridge. (Alastair Spriggs)

When Geena Jackson, a member of Sechelt Nation, started working as a small business officer at the SNT in 2006, she assisted 18 small business owners create business plans and secure funding.

She said it's been heartening to see the interest in small business rise.

"I've witnessed a domino effect of success for people because they feel if their neighbour can do it, then they can do it too," said Jackson.

 "The high numbers mean that more people can get off social assistance, and it really debunks the stereotype that Indigenous people can't be financially successful."

Jackson says the investments boost the Nation's ability to provide members with education and capital, the two barriers that typically impede entrepreneurial success.

A timeline of the Kitsilano Agreement. (Alastair Spriggs)

A community of support

In 2013, Peterson and her husband Nicholas Waltz turned to the SNT for advice when they contemplated starting a business. They had just turned down an offer to purchase 50 per cent of a granite company where Waltz had worked for 10 years.

"We decided that we'd be better off to start our own company and be able to brand it as an aboriginal business," Peterson said.

Jackson helped Peterson create a business plan, win multiple grants from the SNT, and suggested she enrol in the Aboriginal Best Program, a provincial program which focuses on entrepreneurial skills training, and Activ8, a Squamish Nation led marketing course.

Since it launched in 2015, Peterson Stone Works' annual revenue has grown over 300 per cent to $1,3 million per year, and Peterson was awarded the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the B.C. Indigenous Business Achievement Awards in 2017.

Evening the playing field

According to a 2017 report by the Conference Board of Canada, in addition to education, a common barrier that restricts entrepreneurial success in Indigenous communities is lack of collateral.

It's even more challenging for those living on-reserve due to the Indian Act, which prevent property on a reserve from being mortgaged or seized by anyone other than an "Indian or a Band."

That means, even if a member who owns a house on-reserve, they can't leverage it to secure a loan from an Aboriginal Financial Institution (AFI) or a bank.

"It makes being a business owner much more difficult since I can't go against my house to meet the requirements to access a loan," says Brie Birch, a Squamish member and entrepreneur who lives on-reserve and received a grant from the SNT.

Entrepreneurs like Birch, are drawn to the SNT, where any Squamish member can apply for a grant of up to $6,000 — the cap ensures as many people as possible receive funding.

Birch used the grant to assist the startup of Belly Bean Imaging in 2014, a mobile ultrasound business providing 3D/4D imaging to expecting parents.

Brie Birch performing a 3D ultrasound on a client. (Belly Bean Imaging)

The next generation

For Peterson, whose grandmother was a residential school survivor, her motivation comes from acknowledging the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples in the past, and taking advantage of present opportunities.

"It's incredible to see how far Indigenous communities have come in the past generation," she said.

Today, Peterson acts as an alternate trustee on the SNT, and her goal is to inform, teach, and help younger generations access the same entrepreneurial networks and support that she did.

"It's important to inspire the upcoming Indigenous youth because they are the ones who will keep implementing change in our community."

The Renew series about Indigenous Innovation is produced in partnership with the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism. 

Listen to the Renew: Stories of Indigenous Innovation special on CBC Radio Monday, May 20 at 12 p.m. local time, across the country.


Alastair Spriggs is a Whistler-based freelance journalist and photographer with an interest in environmental issues, cannabis, and extreme sports. His work has been published in The Globe and Mail, Vice Motherboard, The Tyee, and The Georgia Straight.