The history of Canada’s Indians is commonly written off as a long march backward, documenting their loss of dominion over a continent and its resources. In fact, it is a delicate chronicle of a people on the leading edge of genocide, altering their way of life so that they might endure. At first, they had to buck the white man’s system to survive; then some of them tried to overthrow the system to create their own power base. Now, they are learning to work within that system—and the results could be startling.
Nowhere on earth has a modern state come to reasonable accommodation with its indigenous peoples, accepting them as full citizens and yet recognizing their sovereignty. We have a chance of doing just that, and the new group of Indian leaders across the country is pushing hard to make it happen. What they want politically is to negotiate for the constitutional right of self-government, becoming accountable to their own people instead of to an inefficient and costly Indian Affairs department. “They receive welfare to keep them passive as opposed to funding to help them build a new life,” says Alan Pratt, legal adviser to the Assembly of First Nations. “There is a new group of sophisticated and passionate leaders in the Indian community who made their presence felt during the recent constitutional conferences. They made a significant impression with their well-reasoned and pragmatic approach, and never lost sight of their ideals.”
The political push has started already; about 30 federal ridings have been identified as targets where the native vote could exercise a swing effect in the next election. But the Indians’ economic impact is more difficult to measure.
Last week in Winnipeg the National Indian Business Association held its annual meeting, and more than 300 delegates turned up. NIBA already has 650 members—native businessmen running everything from country stores at reservations to major real estate developments. One of the latter is Ron Derrickson of Kelowna, B.C., who recently joined the board of Calgary’s Northland Bank. Steve Brant, NIBA’S executive vice-president, says the association acts as “a voice for native businessmen, to help them access the key players in both the private and public sectors.” Derrickson, who is a chief of the Westbank
Indians, contends that the Indians’ main hurdle is “to regain their confidence, to accept self-discipline and to resolve the problems characteristic of running a business without giving up too early.”
Favorable news for the future of Canada’s Indians is that Murray Koffler, one of the country’s best-connected and most enlightened philanthropists, has taken on the chairmanship of the Canadian Council for Native Business. Kof-
fier, who built Shoppers Drug Mart into a $l-billion drugstore chain (before selling to Imasco for $40 million), intends to devote a lot of his time and considerable energy to helping build a bridge between Canada’s private business sector and Indian entrepreneurs. To spur him on, David Smith, the minister responsible for small business, has budgeted $345 million under the Native Economic Development Program.
“It’s important,” Smith said in announcing the grant, “to keep in mind
the first rule of business, which is the element of risk. Native ventures assisted by this program will, of course, be subject to such financial risks, but the development of entrepreneurial skills among aboriginal people is the key objective of our investment strategy.”
It’s too early to know whether this ambitious exercise will work, but some Indians aren’t waiting to find out.
Typical of the new breed is Doug Cuthand, a 37-year-old Cree from Saskatoon who is president of Sinco Developments, a growing conglomerate owned by 46 Saskatchewan Indian bands. With profits not due to be distributed until its sixth year, the company continues to plow back its earnings into its working capital and now employs 117 people, 110 of them Indians. Annual sales are about $6.5 million. Cuthand estimates that the mere fact of employing and training that many natives who were previously out of work amounts to a saving in public income support programs of nearly $2 million. Employment opportunities with Sinco are growing at 174 per cent a year.
The Sinco group of companies includes a trucking line with 25 trailer units operating in the uranium mines of North Saskatchewan; a security service run by Rob Irving, an Indian who spent 20 years in the RCMP; a national consulting operation for Indian bands setting up community services; a real estate subsidiary; and oil exploration. “Our unwritten agenda,” Cuthand says, “is to get control over our own resources instead of just receiving royalties.” He estimates that eight reservations in Saskatchewan have commercial oil pools. An independent airline, a public relations firm and a satellite communications network are other areas he is exploring. “Despite the generally depressed economy,” he says, “Sinco has demonstrated the promises inherent in its initial concepts.”
Last year, to test his managerial skills, Cuthand called in Thorne Stevenson & Kellogg, the Toronto-based management consultants, to study his operations—and they couldn’t suggest many improvements. “What we’re attempting is to foster stable semi-independent profit centres by shielding them from the additional costs inherent in the developing Indian economy,” says Cuthand, sounding as crisp as a Harvard MBA. “But when we’re bidding on any job, we know that it’s not good enough to be equal. We have to be better.”
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