Indigenous trade show aims to connect business, labour in First Nations communities

Indigenous communities from as far away as Arizona gathered on a trade floor show in Sudbury for Aboriginal Business Match, an economic development event held in Canada and the U.S.

Aboriginal Business Match draws representatives from across the continent

Sudbury hosted Aboriginal Business Match, an event to help connect Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs with business opportunities. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

Indigenous communities from as far away as Arizona gathered on a trade floor show in Sudbury for Aboriginal Business Match, an economic development event held across Canada and the U.S.

Aboriginal Business Match aims to connect Indigenous communities and companies looking for business, training and employment opportunities.

Katrin Harry, a managing partner with Raven Events, who organized the trade show, described it as a "technology-facilitated trade show" to connect communities and companies and create opportunities for business

Harry said 22 communities, five Indigenous organizations, and 45 companies participated in the event, with partnerships running the gamut from training and employment, joint ventures, resource projects and direct business through sales.

"There was one small entrepreneur on the trade show floor who has a product that's essentially bannock in a bag," Harry said.

Harry said there's more than just sales at stake on the trade show floor.

"Business development creates revenues. Revenues create self-determination," she said.  

"Self-determination is essential for healthy communities. And so the business that is done on the trade show floor facilitates social change."

'Lessons learned' can lead to more business opportunities

Vivian Naponse, the economic development officer for Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, which co-hosted the event, said it was an opportunity to showcase the development happening in Indigenous communities.

"It's a sharing of what we do in our communities and to bring the good things that are happening," Naponse said. "We know that there's a lot of unfortunate circumstances that our communities are in."

Naponse alluded to challenges including addiction, mental health and barriers to education.

"We share a lot, so I think that's a good thing because then we can look at lessons learned on what worked, what went wrong and how we can improve on things moving forward."

Naponse said attracting businesses to Indigenous communities can bring about other opportunities for residents.

"In our particular community, we are building a business park. So there's an opportunity to have those dialogues with various companies that may want to locate in the business park or even do other types of business with Atikameksheng."

Vivian Naponse, an Economic Development Officer, for Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, said the ABM event is an opportunity to showcase what First Nations communities are about. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

American First Nations represented

Henry Silentman, from the Navajo Nation in Arizona, one of the largest Native American territories in the U.S., told CBC News his community wants to connect with other Indigenous communities in North America.

Silentman works in the Economic Development Division, which represents small businesses and enterprises looking for business opportunities and partnerships.

"We want to network to learn more about some of the struggles they have, and see if we can find opportunities we can exploit," Silentman said.

Elaine Young, who also works in economic development for the Navajo Nation, said they've been looking to bring the event to their economic summit in Flagstaff, Arizona in April.

"We come from a very traditional and cultural background," Young said. "And with that, we've been able to share a lot of our experiences and also have the opportunity to meet the [corporations] that are wanting to do business with the Indigenous community."

Young said they spoke with one company at the trade show interested in the Navajo Nation's agricultural industry, one of 14 "tribal industries" throughout the territory.

Elaine Young and Henry Silentman, from the Navajo Nation in Arizona, are looking to bring the trade show to their territory in 2019. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

Past events 'a tremendous success' 

Companies are also looking to be get a head start on relationships with Indigenous communities.

Karl Zwirner, a territory manager with McDougall Energy, which is a branded wholesaler for Imperial Oil Canada with the Esso Network, said working with First Nations is an "absolute priority" for his company.

"Many communities and individuals, they're being very progressive and they've basically made the statement, 'We're open for business,'" Zwirner said.

"They're interested in sustainable industries and McDougall Energy has really put that at the forefront of our outreach, to engage and to develop something that is mutually beneficial."

Zwirner said the company has been involved with the trade show for several years, starting in British Columbia.

"We just noticed tremendous success in developing relationships that eventually turn into business opportunities."

With files from Robin De Angelis.