What Indigenous businesspeople in Toronto think about a district of their own

A plan to create an Indigenous business district in downtown Toronto is drawing reaction from Toronto’s Indigenous business community.

Some see district as a chance for reconciliation and community-building

Paul McLeod, who gives skills training to Indigenous entrepreneurs, is excited about the possibility of an Indigenous business district in downtown Toronto. 'When we're helping each other, we build an economic base,' he said. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

A plan to create an Indigenous business district in downtown Toronto is drawing reaction from members of Toronto's Indigenous business community, with many lauding the idea as a chance for reconciliation and community-building. 

The plan, launched by city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, would see the area around Dundas and Jarvis Streets set aside for Indigenous businesses, artisans, gatherings and food.

"I love Toronto. You walk through Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal.... and you get a sense and a flavour of the culture, the food, the business," said Jean Paul Gladu, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) and one Wong-Tam's partners in the initiative. "We [Indigenous people] don't have that here in Toronto."    

He imagines a vibrant area of restaurants, Indigenous architecture and art galleries, with Torontonians of all walks of life meeting and mingling with the city's Indigenous business owners.

The intersection of Dundas and Jarvis Streets is earmarked as a possible location for the Indigenous business district. (Google maps)

A leg up for entrepreneurs

Details of the project, which is supported by the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, are still being hashed out, but Gladu is certain it would include an incubator to help businesses take root.

It's the kind of thing that Paul McLeod, marketplace co-ordinator for the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, thinks would make a big difference.

McLeod, who teaches skills to people new to the business world, is well-versed in the challenges faced by Indigenous entrepreneurs.

Jean Paul Gladu, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, is working with Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam on developing the business district. (Submitted to CBC)

"A lot of them don't know how to write a business plan. A lot of them have been through a lot of intergenerational trauma over the years. So we have to focus on developing the business plan and helping them establish a plan that suits their vision," he said.

It took McLeod three tries to get his own business, a communications company, up and running. He said a special district with built-in support would have meant a lot to him when he was starting out.

"It would have been easier, and it would have enabled me to set up in a community of my own peers," he explained. "I had to get away from my culture in order to establish my business."

Business owners weigh in

At least one Indigenous business owner in Toronto isn't sold on the idea. Pow Wow Cafe owner Shawn Adler wonders if the district is the best way to promote Indigenous business in the city. 

"It comes potentially from good intentions, but it's kind of like putting us on reserves again," he said. "To me it seems more natural for people to open businesses wherever they see fit."

Adler, who's earned accolades serving what he calls Indian tacos, wonders whether efforts aimed at promoting Indigenous business might be better channeled.

"To concentrate more on Indigenous education might be a good start … just cultivating a way for Indigenous people to feel that business is something good to go into," he said.

Adler also added that the idea is complicated by the diversity among Indigenous people themselves. 

"There's so many kinds of indigenous people across Canada. We're not all the same." 

Still, he's interested in seeing how the concept develops. "Maybe there's a way to do it that would be appropriate."

Chef Shawn Adler, whose restaurant serves Ojibway-style Indian tacos in Toronto's Kensington Market area, is unsure about the idea of an Indigenous business district. (Amara McLaughlin/CBC)

Steven Bolduc, owner of Aboriginal Printing Corporation in downtown Toronto for the last eight years, says he's all for the idea, calling it "an opportunity to bring Aboriginal businesses closer to the customer."

He said it marks a change in the wind, both in how the city regards its Indigenous community and in its willingness to protect small business.

"People are realizing that small business is so significant to society, culture and economics. It's something that has to be further nurtured," he said. "I think it's going to break down preconceived notions and stereotypes, create more welcoming and cohesive community."

Tapping economic potential

Gladu estimates there are currently between 42,000 and 45,000 Indigenous businesses in Canada, a number his organization says continues to grow.

"Indigenous people in this country are so misunderstood," he said. "Canadians need to understand that last year alone we contributed over $30 billion to Canada's GDP, about $12 billion of that coming from our Indigenous businesses."

Gladu, who co-founded the Indigenous Place Making Council, called making room for Indigenous people in Toronto "a tool for reconciliation."

"It's important that we can get together and celebrate our success and share that with other Canadians. Business is such a good way of doing that because we can build our economy," he said.

Wong-Tam has yet to introduce the concept to city council, telling CBC Toronto that it will likely take years to develop the idea.

Meanwhile, Gladu says the momentum behind the project is growing.

"We're talking more and more," he said. "It's going to take a multitude of players to make this a reality."