The cultural differences between corporate interests and the values of First Nations communities was a hot topic of discussion at an Aboriginal entrepreneurs conference in Ottawa this week.

John Kim Bell is a senior advisor to Brookfield Renewable Power.

Sitting onstage and surrounded by other business leaders, he says the Indian Act has made many First Nations unwilling to risk their finances when it comes time to do business.

Bell says that’s a strategy that doesn’t pay off in today’s world where risk equals reward.

He says Aboriginal groups fall into three categories.

There are those who have managed to start up businesses independently without the help of outside partners.

Bell points to the creation of Air Creebec, in the James Bay region, as one example of this type of business.

On he flipside, he adds there are also First Nations that need to partner with existing firms to make a business happen.

This is how a lot of procurements actually take place.

Bell says the advantage of this approach is it gives bands access to outside experience in how to run a business.

However, he cautions outside partners aren’t risking their capital to be “good guys” but are mainly interested in turning a profit.

Lastly, Bell says there are those First Nations that have little financial capacity and need to bring in outside investment.

He adds in today’s world of business you need to think beyond borders and this is why people need to start talking about the communities that define them.

For instance, Bell says only 16 per cent of First Nations people in Ontario actually live on reserve according to the latest census numbers.

“What if 84 per cent of Toronto or Ottawa left that area,” he asks? “You’d have no capacity at all, the economy would collapse.”

A delegate from the floor said she feels one of the main areas that needs to be addressed is the cultural divide that separates corporate Canada from First Nations communities.

Edith Loring-Kohunga of Victoria says she agrees businesses are on the hunt for partnerships.

But she adds their overall goals are different than those of First Nations communities.

“We think about relationships, where businesses and corporations, many times, think about the money, the bottom line,” she says. “So I think it’s really important that if we’re going to be moving more and more towards partnerships that we’re really looking at how are we going to create a culture, a mixed culture, when very often they’re about two different things.”

Bell says the best strategy is not to wait for big companies to come to you but to initiate projects on your own.

He says many corporations are open to project-ideas from the local level and First Nations will also be able to impact regulatory regimes more effectively though this process.