I am happy to see Canadian native issues remaining on the forefront of public discussion despite the idiocy coming from some Chief’s, activists and politicians who have jumped onto the whole “Idle No More” movement. While the “Idle No More” crowd is demonstrating great discontent, they really are proposing utterly nothing in the way of solutions to current problems on reserves across Canada, in fact the “Idle No More” bunch has not even really accurately been able to point to the source of the problems. We hear buzz-words and see indignant rage but we really see nothing of merit coming from the demonstrations and illegal blockades being fostered by this movement of activists.
The only thing the thinking public at large really shares with the “Idle No More” movement is the knowledge that current conditions on native reserves are simply no longer acceptable. Productive discourse is quickly lost with most activists as they bleat out loaded terms such as “genocide” and “assimilation”. We can’t reason with stooges who are threatening such actions as “shutting down the Canadian economy” or “activating warriors” either. To get productive discussion on native issues one has to shut out the white noise from the self-serving activists such as Chief Theresa Spence and the ever self-serving Pam Palmater and speak with rational people.
One of the main contributors to native misery is dependency. Dependency damages the pride and sucks the self-worth from an individual and is the chief factor in the outrageous rates of suicide, substance abuse and domestic abuse. There are few ways to destroy a human more effectively than to make them feel directionless and without purpose and dependency fosters and maintains both of those destructive feelings with terrible efficiency.
For most reserves, a person who is tired of depending on the welfare of others does not have the simple choice of going out and seeking a job in the pursuit of personal independence. Most reserves are not near major centres of employment and unless a person has close connections to the Chief and Council on a reserve, they likely will not find employment with the band itself. If reserves and individuals are ever to see fiscal independence and sustainability it will have to be through creative free enterprise. Only through development of reserve based businesses will we see at least some easing of the dependency that is a factor in the vast majority of reserves in Canada.
Simply stating that free enterprise will free reserves from dependency is not enough. Starting and maintaining a successful business is a difficult and potentially terrifying exercise for people native and non-native alike. Natives entrepreneurs face some challenges that non-natives do no have to deal with and I suspect that many people do not realize. Many government grants have been almost blindly thrown at reserves in the hopes of kindling active enterprises but the failure rate of those ventures has been catastrophic for a number of reasons.
Fiscal independence alone is not what is needed on reserves. If money alone could ease things, the Samson Louis-Bull reserve in Alberta would be doing great due to decades of massive oil and gas revenues. The town of Hobbema on that reserve is awash in social discord, poverty and gang violence giving it one of the highest murder rates per-capita in North America. Reserves need fiscal independence but they need the independence built from within in a participatory manner. That builds the pride and social structure that leads to social stability.
Native reserves are loaded with ambitious and creative citizens who would love nothing more than to start a business. There are countless ideas and concepts that would take off if given the proper chance and with the proper support. Many keep thinking that the only support required for such things is in the form of a government grant. The issue is much more complex than that but there are solutions and the payoff for everybody can be great if we can remove some of the roadblocks to native enterprise.
Last fall I attended the second annual Aboriginal Entrepreneurial Conference and Trade Show in Ottawa. In a shameless plug for the family business, I am including a picture of myself manning the booth at our conference display (if you ever need a good deal on ammolite gems, send me an email). The conference was an excellent networking opportunity for everybody and there were some excellent breakout seminars full of information on how to create successful native ventures. There was a great deal of informal discussion among those of us in attendance too and the subject of the special challenges to native businesses came up often. I am going to list below some of the prime hindrances to native enterprises and how we must remove them.
Bureaucracy and Corruption
While bureaucracy and corruption are two different things, I am including them together here as both of those things are tightly tied in native politics and business.
Red tape has killed countless ventures since the beginning of time. In native politics, corrupted red-tape has been brought to a whole new level of art-form. Parasitic members of the Indian Industry from lawyers to band employees to federal employees to council and chiefs to all sorts of consultants have been drawn like flies to poop as they see opportunity to line their pockets through the bureaucracy of reserve business applications. When a reserve citizen wants to start a venture, applications suddenly become mountainous. Consultants seem to spring from the woodwork who offer to ease the paper process when they actually have every interest in expanding the process while bleeding the applicants dry. It is almost standard practice in many (not all by any means) that the Chief and Council will be paid if not outright, then through token salaried positions to them and their families. Many many ventures of great promise have died before even beginning as their founders lose hope in the maze of corruption and bureaucracy that gets dumped upon them. To refuse to play the game is to have applications forever dumped on yourself and a never ending stream of demands for more studies and reports at great cost. To rebel on the more corrupt reserves could even mean losing one’s house if the Chief and Council are annoyed and unprincipled enough.
The prime employer on reserves has been the band itself for decades and decades. Bureaucracies can only grow as band employees generate ever more regulations and forms to try and justify their positions. If any municipality ever had to deal with the overmanagement of a native band, every business in the municipality would go broke within months. Even non-corrupted reserves still choke and kill ventures with their overbearing processes.
Cleaning up the corruption on the band management level begins with transparency. The reason that many of the Chiefs in Canada are up in arms right now is because Harper is bringing in transparency legislation that will expose many of their inept and often corrupt practices. These legislations must pass and self-serving people such as Chief Spence and her band manager/common-law husband must be exposed to the membership of the reserves. When the corrupt are dislodged, streamlining of band management and process can happen.
Indian affairs is loaded with all sorts of bureaucrats who strangle ventures as well. Every level of native management from band level to federal departments needs to be examined and cleaned up. Until that happens, business development will continue to be stunted on reserves.
Chief Clarence Louie is without doubt one of the brightest and visionary of Chiefs that Canada has seen in generations. Louie’s management of his Osoyoos Band has been incredible in both the changing of band attitudes to the pursuit of successful business ventures. To be fair though, Louie has enjoyed a geographic advantage that many other reserves do not have. Osoyoos is accessible and has a great climate. We can’t expect isolated Northern Canadian Reserves to be able to set up vineyards, wineries, casinos and golf courses as Osoyoos has. This does not mean that those reserves have no opportunities though.
Modern communications now provide incredible new opportunities for isolated reserves. Products, services and attractions can now be marketed in ways that were outright impossible only 15 years ago. Many reserves are placed next to some of the best hunting and fishing areas in the world and native guides for such activities are incomparable in their skills and local knowledge. Many people are more than willing to pay a great deal of money to experience natural activities on reserve lands. Hiking, camping, photography or simply experiencing local culture can draw many people and provide all sorts of local jobs on reserves. The means are now there for reserves to reach out to the world and show what they have.
Genuine native artisan products are always high in demand and reserves boast many incredible artists. Now middle-men and distributors can be cut away as products can be marketed online and shipped directly from reserves to customers.
There are doubtless many more creative ideas and ventures than I can think of that are now potentially feasible on reserves and I am sure many reserve citizens are ready to move on them. It will take training and time though. Simply having access to the internet does not mean a person knows how to utilize it to aid in their business. Literacy programs such as the Harper one and conferences such as the one I attended last fall are the sorts of things that will lead to more reserve citizens taking advantage of the opportunities that modern communications now provide them with.
We need to expand education for aspiring native business people with a more practical curriculum. Liberal Arts are fine and dandy but they won’t teach a person how to manage a promotional website, how to create a business plan or how to effectively market in general. These critical things need to be taught through mentoring and conventional education.
It has to be noted that educational efforts still have to be tailored carefully to take the special circumstances of people from isolated reserves. We can’t simply take somebody from a small and isolated community and drop them into a university in an urban area. The social adjustment could very well destroy the efforts of the individual to get an education as they retreat to the reserve dejected and defeated. While some individuals could integrate perfectly fine in such circumstances, some others will need a differing program. Distance education utilizing the internet provides great options to help with this too. While specially designed programs and the logistics may make these educational efforts costly, the benefits will far outweigh that if we see some independent businesses beginning to set up and remain sustainable on reserves.
There is a term I often use called “crabbing”. It is part of an analogy where if you use a bucket to keep crabs in. One crab on it’s own will climb out and escape. If you have multiple crabs none will escape as whenever one tries to climb out, the others will pull the ambitious crab back down to themselves. This syndrome is not at all unique to native reserves but it is more acute due to them often being small and tight knit communities with unfortunately a myriad of socioeconomic problems.
An ambitious person’s efforts can often make less ambitious person uncomfortable as it exposes their own shortcomings to themselves. This often inspires a person to try and drag the person back down to their level. Any successful business person native or non-native will relate about the naysayers who they had to overcome when they began their venture. Many people had to change their social circles to avoid being brought down before they got going. This option of change is simply not available to reserve citizens where social standing is very important and it is not as if there is a number of social circles to choose from. The people bringing the ambitious down are not bad people, they are just troubled people. No native business person is going to shun the family and friends for the sake of their venture so help in coping with some of those challenges for the aspiring business person is vital.
This whole challenge is complex but very real. The simple words “So what, you think you are better than everybody now?” can be terribly cutting and defeating. It will take a cultural shift that celebrates individual success in order for this challenge to fade and that may take generations. For now, native business people need to be coached and encouraged and learn to shake off the naysayers. It is tough but it can be done.
Another challenge comes from off-reserve and it often stems from non-native activists who seem to equate reserve independence with assimilation. These people seem to want to keep these little isolated reserves like zoos where things never change and some sort of hunter gatherer society will re-emerge and thrive if we just keep pouring enough money at it. I saw this attitude greatly as activists stacked hearings for the Mackenzie Valley NEB and Joint Review Panel pipeline hearings. These union funded urban dwellers would wax on about how an influx of money and workers into the Northern communities would destroy culture. I assure you, poverty and dependency are destroying culture on reserves far faster than prosperity ever could.
Lets be clear; the natives of old were among the most independent and self-sustaining people on the planet. It took tough, creative, hard working people to thrive in Canada’s environment hundreds of years ago. The perpetuation of dependency is not how that native strength of independence and culture is going to thrive. Modern times are here. There is a new way to personal independence and it does not mean one is shunning their culture, they are simply evolving. Successful native business people are not “apples”, they are simply creative hardworking people. The outsiders insisting on shielding native reserves from modern concepts must be ignored. Latte-lapping academics and hipsters really don’t know a hell of a lot about reserves no matter how many letters are next to their names on their business cards. Just as going to Mardi Gras for a weekend does not teach one what it is to be Cajun, attending a Powwow or occasional sweat does not imbue much insight to day to day reserve living.
Lack of property is the main and critical hindrance to many native businesses. Due to communal property on reserves, native entrepeneurs can’t build the collateral required as easily as non-natives do. Unsecured credit is difficult for anybody to aquire and it is pretty much impossible for an ambitious native who has never had a job opportunity in order to create a credit rating. Credit is needed for seed capital as well as operating funds. Ordering supplies and making payroll are things that require short-term credit in even the most thriving of businesses. Native business people are terribly handicapped by this circumstance.
One way around this has been through partnerships with interests off reserve. This can work well but is often still hindered by challenges from bureaucrats both on and off reserve. Negative experiences with band business ventures has made many businesses shy away from dealing with reserves over the years too. It will take time and examples of success in order to see more trust build and relationships grow in more joint-ventures. For larger ventures though, partnerships are an excellent route to go as outside interests not only provide funds, they provide experience and mentoring as well. We need to open the path to more of these relationships.
For smaller operations such as artists or lone guides, partnerships are not really an option though the need for financing and training are just as acute as with large ventures. Government backed loans and grants can help but they have a terrible default rate with native ventures unfortunately. The best model for native small business owners would be the acquisition and growth of their own net fiscal worth so that they can build collateral to fund their ventures. Few things inspire an entrepeneur better than putting their own hard earned nest egg on the line for their business. Sure, some people will lose at times. That is the hard nature of business. Some will thrive too and that is what makes it worth it. Blank cheques never lead to future independence.
The activist element and the parasites in the Indian Industry oppose property rights for natives fervently. That opposition alone makes it clear that it is the way to go. Individuals need empowerment on reserves and only through the ownership of property that they have full title to dispose of at will will we see sustainable reserve life grow. Pride and personal estates can grow through property on reserves just as they do off reserves. We need to win the battle to instill those rights for reserve citizens though and it is going to be hard fought.
There is a world of potential on native reserves. These reserves can thrive and prosper if we can shed the myths and trash from the supporters of this status-quo of misery and poverty. Ignore those howling about mythical treaty rights violations or entitlements due to the actions of ancestors. Set aside the activists and the self-serving Chiefs who want to maintain their personal fortunes. Free enterprise on reserves is not a panacea but if allowed to thrive it will at least ease the dependency on some reserves while eliminating it on some others. There are some steps that will need to be taken before this can happen though and I hope that the public begins to discuss, examine and then pursue these changes that we need.
I have been rather rough on some and should clarify; not all band Chiefs, councils, bureaucrats, consultants and employees with Indian Affairs are inept or corrupt by any means. There are some very dedicated people working as hard as they can in all of those categories. Their efforts far too often are encountered by the inept and corrupt who do infest their circles however.