Pandemic impacts Indigenous businesses across Canada

Waterloo alumnus leads national Aboriginal council that supports Indigenous businesses adapting to the COVID-19 economy

Tabatha Bull (BASc ’00), CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, is Anishinaabe and a proud member of Nipissing First Nation near North Bay, Ontario. She connected with fellow Waterloo alumnus Megan Vander Woude (BKI ’12, MA ’13) to talk about the Indigenous economy, and the impact COVID-19 is having on Indigenous communities across Canada.

You work for the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB). What does that organization do?

Our main purpose is to bridge the gap between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal businesses in Canada. Through tools, networking and programs, we help to grow the Indigenous economy, which also benefits the Canadian economy. We need to get to a point where Indigenous communities are not just tick-boxes on a consultation list, but active players in a project, and that they are able to benefit economically, preferably with an equity position.

Procurement, for example — some of our major corporate leaders set a target that 5 per cent of their spending will go to the Indigenous economy. That has a direct impact on the wealth of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, and allows them to contribute more back to the Canadian economy.

We need to get to a point where Indigenous communities are not just tick-boxes on a consultation list, but active players in a project...

There are more than 50,000 Aboriginal businesses in Canada, and they exist in all sectors — forestry mining, oil, gas, jewelry and fashion design and IT. According to our research, the Indigenous economy contributes $31 billion to Canada’s GDP. Through procurement, investment and other support, they could contribute $100 billion.

How is the pandemic affecting Indigenous businesses and communities?

We have seen coronavirus cases in some Indigenous communities, and we hope strict quarantine measures can contain them. Many Indigenous communities are far from urban centres, and because of their remoteness, lack of clean water, housing shortages and the already inadequate health-care systems, the virus could take a major toll.

We know that older people are at higher risk, so it is imperative that we remain vigilant, especially in Indigenous communities where our Elders and Knowledge Keepers are critical in passing down stories, languages and reviving cultures.

We recently conducted a brief survey of Aboriginal businesses and the findings were bleak. Almost four of five (79 per cent) respondents said their business revenue has decreased by 30 per cent or more. Over half (53 per cent) said their business revenue decreased by 75 per cent or more. Over a third (34 per cent) are no longer generating sales.

The recent downturn in oil and gas prices will disproportionately impact economies in the Prairies and a prolonged downturn could be detrimental to the great number of Aboriginal businesses that directly participate in or support the fossil fuel sector. We have already seen large Aboriginal companies that have had to lay off half of their staff due to COVID-19.

While there was considerable federal funding to help keep businesses afloat, we know that only a small percentage of Aboriginal businesses access financing from traditional financial institutions, so Aboriginal business needed another source of funding specific to their needs. In March, we sent a letter to the Prime Minister, along with five other national Indigenous economic organizations asking that they ensure that they provide funding through the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA) and the network of Aboriginal Financial Institutions (AFIs) that already serve Aboriginal businesses. On April 18, 2020 the federal government announced $306 million in funding for Aboriginal business that would flow through NACCA and AFIs across Canada. This was a significant first step, but we know that this funding will only support 6,000 businesses, so additional measures will be necessary.

Is CCAB deploying any new initiatives to help Indigenous businesses through COVID-19 and its effect on the economy?

Our number one priority is to get information from our members so we can be a voice for Aboriginal business and ensure the government understands, and can meet, their needs. We are doing that by keeping the lines of communication open through surveys and weekly conference calls.

We also want to ensure that Aboriginal businesses have all the information they need to get through this pandemic with their business intact. We are providing information to them at, through weekly newsletters, and through the Canadian Business Resilience Network.

Right now, the federal government is calling for the business community to help with medical supplies and personal protective equipment, so we are working hard to make sure Aboriginal businesses that have the capability to retool their operations can join these medical supply chains. We have already seen companies like E-supply, a Certified Aboriginal Business, offering office supplies to Indigenous communities at cost to staff who are working at home. Another Aboriginal member, Shared Value Solutions Ltd., is going to be producing and distributing hand sanitizer.

Reconciliation starts with learning and understanding the real history of Canada. But there's also power in everybody's wallet, in our everyday purchases and in our investments.

How can Canadians support the Indigenous economy, and what role does that play in Reconciliation?

Reconciliation starts with learning and understanding the real history of Canada. But there's also power in everybody's wallet, in our everyday purchases and in our investments. For example, there’s an amazing Indigenous-owned company called Cheekbone Beauty. A portion of their sales support First Nations education and Shannen’s Dream, and her lipsticks are named after inspiring Indigenous women. Birch Bark Coffee is another example — they source their coffee beans from small Indigenous producers, and a portion of their sales provide water treatment kits for homes in First Nation communities. You can buy online from both of these companies.

Another thing to consider is your investment decisions. Are your investment dollars going to companies that support Indigenous communities or seek to continue their path to Reconciliation? Today, there are many firms committed to sustainable investing — investing from an environmental perspective — but we can look at investing from a Reconciliation perspective too.

Models show Cheekbone Beauty lipsticks

Cheeckbone Beauty is an Indigenous-owned company with lipstick colors inspires by Indigenous women.

What will happen as we grow the Indigenous economy?

Our goal to increase the participation of the Indigenous community in employment and procurement opportunities creates more wealth, autonomy and empowerment. There is enormous opportunity for Indigenous communities to increase business acumen and create capacity through industry projects. When Indigenous communities are managing wealth instead of managing poverty — a cornerstone of socio-economic prosperity — then all of Canada benefits. It is important that we all continue to demonstrate the ability and capacity of Aboriginal business in order to succeed in the global supply chain of industry procurements. Working together to grow a stronger Indigenous economy means a stronger Canada.