The Sunday Magazine

In many Indigenous communities, business is booming

In boardrooms across the country, First Nations communities are signing mega-deals to bring jobs and billions of dollars to struggling communities.
First Nations are not opposed to development. They want an equity stake and actual control over projects on their ancestral lands. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Business is on the top of the agenda for many First Nations in Canada.

In boardrooms in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and in the offices of First Nations, Indigenous communities are quietly signing deals to develop resources.

Some of these projects are worth hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars. They have the potential to generate good jobs, skills training, revenue and royalties for Indigenous communities.

And, increasingly, those communities are demanding an equity stake — actual control over projects on their ancestral lands.

Chief Corrina Leween remembers when things were much different.

She is Chief of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, Vice Chair of the First Nations Major Projects Coalition in British Columbia, and a driving force behind a First Nations-led hydroelectric project on the Nechako River.

Corrina Leween, Chief of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, in the CBC's Prince George studio. (Niilo Edwards)

In 1952, Alcan dammed their territory to create hydro to power their smelter in Kitimat, she tells The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright.

"Our people were evicted. We were told to leave our ancestors, to make way for industrial development. So, we've been refugees of our territory since that time."

David Sharpe, CEO of Bridging Finance, says signing deals with First Nations for major projects is just good sense.

"We know that with every major project across this land, you must work with First Nations," Sharpe says.

Bridging Finance is an alternative lender on Bay Street with a focus on Indigenous business development. As its CEO, Sharpe has financed housing construction, and oil, gas and renewable energy projects on — and for — First Nations.

"It's no longer that you're going to Bay Street, Wall Street, to get the money first. You're going to the First Nations," he says.  

Sean Willy, President and CEO of Des Nedhe Development, an English River First Nation company, and David Sharpe, CEO of Bridging Finance, an alternative lender with a focus on Indigenous business development. (Talin Vartanian/CBC)

Sean Willy believes these deals are an important part of the road to self-determination.

Willy is President and CEO of Des Nedhe Development, the corporate arm of the English River First Nation in Saskatchewan. He runs a highly diversified portfolio of businesses on English River's traditional lands, and on its urban reserve outside Saskatoon.

Willy is Métis/Dene, originally from the Northwest Territories, and co-chair of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.  

"First Nations, such as ours in Northern Saskatchewan, have understood that the path to self-determination lies within economic development," he says.

"You cannot forge your community on government revenues alone."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.

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