As international indigenous leaders gathered for the World Indigenous Business Forum (WIBF) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, this August, a common theme emerged: Indigenous people across the globe are facing similar challenges when it comes to participating in the economy. They also share common values, such as their connection to the land and commitment to sustainability, which influence their approach to economic activity.
“Indigenous people want to prosper, but at the same time place a high value on cultural identity and the environment,” says Rosa Walker, a member of Peguis First Nation in Manitoba and president and CEO of the Indigenous Leadership Development Institute Inc. (ILDI).
Many of today’s challenges – such as climate change and rising inequality – require a shift in the way business is done, and indigenous voices can be part of the solution, believes Walker.
The idea for engaging indigenous leaders was born when Walker participated in the World Business Forum in New York City in 2009. At the time, she was surprised that she couldn’t make out any other indigenous people in the crowd of about 5,000 delegates, she says.
The realization that indigenous people were not involved in the discussion sparked the desire to create a forum for talking about indigenous issues, says Walker. She and her team approached the World Business Forum and created a partnership for launching the WIBF.
“We wanted to focus on the economy and economic development, share our experiences and learn from one another, so that we’re not left behind,” says Walker.
Andrew Carrier, ILDI chair of the board, says by bringing indigenous leaders together, the forum creates and promotes unique learning and networking experiences for global indigenous business, corporations, leaders and youth. “International speakers from various sectors of the economy and many corners of the globe share their thoughts and ideas for creating proactive and positive partnerships,” he says.
Milton Tootoosis, chair of the WIBF Saskatoon planning committee and ILDI board member, says that in addition to learning from one another, the events also present an opportunity to “engage the non-indigenous population.
“We want to bring non-indigenous leaders to the table to share a common vision and move forward together. We can’t do it alone,” he says.
Tootoosis, who is from the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Treaty Six Territory, sees holding the event in Canada as a historic occasion, especially since it follows the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose calls to action include that the “corporate sector in Canada adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework and to apply its principles, norms and standards to corporate policy and core operational activities involving indigenous peoples and their lands and resources.”
In Saskatchewan, which has a considerable and growing First Nations and Métis population, Tootoosis has observed a “renaissance, where indigenous people are reviving and rebuilding their culture and value systems,” he says. “There has been evidence that our ancestors were self-sufficient, they shared what they had, they traded far and wide. Their economic system, which was very different from today’s system, worked well for them.”
This changed with the introduction of the western economic model, says Tootoosis. “Indigenous people have been marginalized – and still are. They face racism and discrimination, not only here, but throughout the world.”
Walker says there are many commonalities among the challenges faced by indigenous people. “We’re discovering that as indigenous people, we have so much in common, not only in our relationships with governments and corporations, but also our relationship with the land,” she explains.
An economic system where indigenous people can thrive, termed indigenomics by Carol Anne Hilton, a recognized leading First Nation’s business entrepreneur of Nuu chah nulth descent, has to be built on sustainability, says Tootoosis.
This message needs to be amplified, especially in light of recent oil spills and extreme weather events, he believes. “People need a reminder that we cannot continue to exploit our lands and pollute the air and water at this rate. If we don’t address these issues through sustainable development policies, we are in big trouble,” says Tootoosis, who, as a new grandfather, worries about future generations.
The positive note from the WIBF is that indigenous people everywhere are working on improving their economic livelihood, says Tootoosis. “It sends the message that indigenous people are here and want to do business from an indigenous perspective, on our terms.”
A sense of optimism is also what Gilles Dorval, the City of Saskatoon’s director of aboriginal relations, takes away. “Hosting the event was really a joint effort of the community at the grassroots, academia, government and corporate levels,” he says. “Everyone came together, sharing in the passion for empowering and supporting indigenous communities and creating a climate of inclusion,” he says.
This collaborative effort and enthusiasm also left an impression on the international delegates, says Dorval. He received the feedback that many returned home enriched by the knowledge of promising practices and lessons learned.
The image that stayed with Dorval was the flags of WIBF delegate countries being carried to Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a 6,000-year-old indigenous gathering site on the outskirts of Saskatoon. To him, they represent a symbol of promise, of moving forward together in partnership, not only with indigenous people from across the globe, but also with non-indigenous neighbours, local governments, corporations and academic institutions.
Building a Legacy
Since the inaugural World Indigenous Business Forums, which were held in 2010 and 2011 in New York City, USA, WIBF has been hosted in Sydney, Australia 2012; Windhoek, Africa 2013; Guatemala City, Guatemala 2014; Honolulu, Hawaii 2015; and now Saskatoon.
Created by the Indigenous Leadership Development Institute Inc., WIBF works with local partners to leave a lasting legacy. In Guatemala, for example, participants signed the Guatemala Protocol Agreement and created the Global Network of Indigenous Entrepreneurs.
In Saskatoon, WIBF is leaving a legacy with the Saskatchewan World Indigenous Festival for the Arts, or SWIFFA (swiffa.ca). Another impact will be achieved through an entrepreneurial youth grant funded by Ernst & Young, which will be available in perpetuity.
The upcoming WIBF events will be held in Santiago, Chile, in October 2017 and Auckland, New Zealand, in October 2018.