First Nation's potential stake in Sens purchase is 'reconciliation in action,' experts say
Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg could gain equity share in NHL team — and help pave way for downtown arena
If a financial partnership between Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg and one of the groups bidding to buy the Ottawa Senators materializes, it will mark more than just a win for the NHL team and its fans.
Experts say it could also signal a new era of economic clout for Indigenous communities in Canada after far too long on the sidelines.
Earlier this week, CBC News confirmed that the First Nation near Maniwaki, Que., had been approached by a business group led by Los Angeles-based producer Neko Sparks and rapper Snoop Dogg and met with them Monday morning.
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"Hopefully we'll see how this goes in the next couple weeks," Chief Dylan Whiteduck told CBC, adding that representatives from Kitigan Zibi planned to meet with at least one other group vying for what's widely expected to be a 10-figure deal to purchase the franchise from the family of Eugene Melnyk, who died last year.
"I think there's a great opportunity for our nation and our community to become strategic partners, and we're not closing the door on any groups at this point in time," he said.
"To be quite frank, it's about time. I think there's been a lot of opportunities where First Nations and Native Americans across North America could have been strategic partners with sports developments."
According to JP Gladu, former president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business and current principal of Mokwateh, a private consultancy firm that specializes in facilitating similar partnerships, both sides stand to benefit significantly, particularly if the new owners plan to move the team to a new arena at LeBreton Flats.
The Algonquins of Kitigan Zibi are part of an outstanding title claim filed in 2016 that encompasses a swath of central Ottawa, including LeBreton Flats.
It's to showcase to Canadians that the level and sophistication of Indigenous business in this country is growing.- JP Gladu, Mokwateh
"I think this is a real opportunity for Indigenous communities, particularly Kitigan Zibi, to be able to develop further depth and breadth in business, and I think this is also a wonderful opportunity to flex economic reconciliation in action," said Gladu, a member of Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek on the eastern shores of Lake Nipigon.
"Having the Indigenous people on side certainly is going to weigh in favour of getting the work done in an efficient way," he said. "It's going to be one less regulatory hurdle that a company's going to have to go through when they've got the landholders and rights holders onside."
Focus has changed
Not long ago, the conversation around Indigenous culture and professional sports tended to focus on offensive team names and logos, Gladu noted.
"Now we've got a place where we're [potentially] having an Indigenous-owned major sports team, which is incredibly exciting," he said. "It's to showcase to Canadians that the level and sophistication of Indigenous business in this country is growing."
Just this week Major League Soccer announced the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation are among the owners of an expansion team in San Diego.
There are recent precedents in other sectors of the economy, notably last year's $1.12-billion agreement giving 23 First Nations and Métis communities a minority stake in seven Enbridge pipelines in the Athabasca region of northern Alberta, heralded by that province's former premier as a "historic, game-changing deal."
Gladu noted that while Kitigan Zibi's potential equity share in the Senators remains a secret, the economic benefits could be huge.
"Certainly this is going to create an opportunity for the community to grow into that role, and as well leveraging debt to increase their participation," he explained.
"As you bring in more revenue into the organization, that certainly is going to bode well for the community as it increases — hopefully — its ownership over time."
'The genie's out of the bottle'
University of Ottawa professor Veldon Coburn, who researches and teaches Indigenous politics and is a member of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn, said Indigenous participation in professional sports has traditionally been limited to "window dressing" such as tribute nights where players wear Indigenous-designed practice jerseys.
While he believes Kitigan Zibi's equity stake in the Senators will likely be limited, Coburn said the fact that they're being invited to contribute is still significant, and could have a ripple effect.
"Economic development and ownership ... is not something that has been open to us," Coburn said. "The genie's out of the bottle and we can't really look back."
"This is just a stepping stone," Whiteduck agreed. "We've been pushed aside for way too long, and it's time to have our place on those lands that want to be developed."
WATCH | Some of the reaction in Kitigan Zibi:
Gladu said he, too, sees Kitigan Zibi's potential involvement in the Senators purchase as a positive sign for future equity partnerships involving First Nations.
The successful bidder — and potentially their First Nation partner — could be announced as early as Friday.
"Our country's changing rapidly with regards to Indigenous participation in projects, and this is a fantastic example," Gladu said. "I don't think it's going to be too far off where we start to see other deals like this in North America."