(Photo: A ceremony outside the entrance of the Senate.)

 By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com

An inquiry launched May 3 by independent Saskatchewan Senator Marty Klyne aims to bring attention to Indigenous-owned and -controlled businesses across Canada.

Klyne identifies as Cree Métis and is a member of Little Black Bear’s Band of Cree & Assiniboine Nations. He says that through a series of success stories shared in the Senate, he wants the private sector and Canadians at large to understand the impact Indigenous businesses have on the Canadian economy and be aware of the social contributions they make both locally and nationally.

A recent report from the National Indigenous Procurement Working Group indicates 50,000 Indigenous-owned companies in Canada contribute up to $30 billion each year to the economy.

A report undertaken by the Senate Prosperity Action Group in 2021 highlighted a 2030 performance target of Indigenous businesses contributing $100 billion to the Canadian economy.

According to Senate procedure, an inquiry is to draw attention to a particular matter and does not result in a vote or the Senate expressing a formal opinion.

Klyne says the Senate inquiry will help answer Call to Action number 92 from the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the legacy of Indian residential schools.

Call 92 states, in part, “Meaningful consultation, respectful relationships and obtaining free, prior and informed consent; (and) ensuring there is equitable access to jobs, training and education opportunities in the corporate sector and that Aboriginal communities gain long-term sustainable benefits from economic development projects.”

Klyne says he wants the inquiry to generate interest among colleagues in the House of Commons and within government “where there are opportunities to invest and legislate in ways that will support and encourage Indigenous businesses and entrepreneurs.”

Heather Bear, fourth vice chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) in Saskatchewan, is all for government stepping up and providing more opportunities for Indigenous entrepreneurs.

“I would love to see long-term sustainable projects and contracts that are set aside for First Nations, but it also has to be in a way that understands and accommodates some of the challenges that First Nations entrepreneurs and the business folks have,” said Bear.

Among those challenges, she points out, is the inability to use land on reserve as collateral.

She adds it is important that Canadians understand that Indigenous entrepreneurs are far more than the gas stations and casinos they are known for.

Bear is familiar with Klyne, calling him “knowledgeable” and noting he helped in the past to facilitate some of the work done in her First Nation of Ochapowace.

Klyne is presently a director on the board of File Hills Qu’Appelle Developments Ltd. He is former president and CEO of Saskatchewan Gaming Corporation, Regina Regional Economic Development Authority, and SaskNative Economic Development Corporation; and he’s former chair of the National Indigenous Economic Development Board.

While Bear says the Senate could advocate for Indigenous businesses, she also notes that organizations like FSIN already do that, working directly with their grassroots, tribal councils, chiefs and citizens.

“Collectively the FSIN has had a wonderful model and a good example of sophisticated mechanisms for revenue, resource sharing, amongst all the nations. We’ve been occupying the field…for decades,” she said.

She adds she “opens the door” for the Senate to have those conversations with FSIN and other Indigenous organizations.

“We have a huge stake and a huge part to play when you talk about business,” said Bear.

Klyne says that as part of the research process for the inquiry, his office and other senators’ offices have been conducting interviews with chiefs, economic development corporations, and small business owners to hear their perspectives on running Indigenous businesses.

He encourages chiefs and anyone involved with Indigenous-owned or controlled businesses to contact his office to learn more about the inquiry and to share their stories.

Klyne’s inquiry follows two years after the Senate Prosperity Action Group’s report, which was spurred by the economic impacts of the measures taken to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The report set out new strategies to build stronger partnerships and have more engagement with underrepresented groups, such as the Indigenous population.

Klyne says his inquiry is not a follow-up to the report, but he expects the work of the Senate will draw attention to one of the historical findings of the report, that “Indigenous commerce has not been empowered to thrive at the same level as non-Indigenous commerce, including because of rights violations and discrimination.”

“Leaders in Parliament, including senators, can help point the way towards enhanced prosperity and more wealth creation by simply highlighting where and how Indigenous businesses are flourishing,” he said.

Klyne would like to see the exposure through the Senate encourage Canadians to engage with Indigenous businesses, whether through purchasing goods and services, helping with expansion through investment and partnerships, or “breaking down barriers and pushing back against systemic racism with greater opportunity in the corporate sector, or simply by being a friend and ally.”

He is also hopeful that these sessions will have an impact on young Indigenous people who “can see a clear picture of themselves succeeding in business. And (if they) have access to fair opportunities, I believe they can achieve their dreams and bring greater prosperity to their communities and our country.”

The Senate inquiry calling attention to Indigenous-owned and controlled businesses in Canada could continue into the fall as a number of senators have expressed interest in speaking, says Klyne’s office. Otherwise, it would end when the current parliamentary session concludes.