Change Makers: An interview with the Executive Directors of the Saskatchewan First Nation Economic Development Network and Saskatchewan Economic Development Association

This year, for the first time ever, the Saskatchewan Economic Development Association (SEDA) and the Saskatchewan First Nations Economic Development Network (SFNEDN) partnered to have an Economic Development Week proclaimed by the Government of Saskatchewan. It will take place May 8-13, 2017.  We sat down with Verona Thibault, the Executive Director of SEDA, and Shaun Soonias, the Executive Director of SFNEDN, to discuss economic development in Saskatchewan and the importance of partnerships.  

What does economic development mean to you?

Shaun Soonias: For the SFNEDN, economic development is a critical step in First Nations sovereignty and inclusion in Saskatchewan’s economy. First Nations have over the last number of decades assumed responsibility for social development in our communities (i.e. child welfare, health, sports and recreation, etc.) with great success and improved outcomes for our communities.  The natural progression is managing the financial and economic health of our communities through economic and business development.  This will foster increased participation of First Nations in the economy from employment to economic development.

While this is a fundamental requirement for First Nations socio-economic wellbeing, it is also an important and necessary requirement to the security, health, diversity and vibrancy of Saskatchewan’s economy overall.  With Saskatchewan’s non-Aboriginal population aging and retiring from the workforce, along with the anticipated labor shortages across a number of traditional and emerging sectors, our young and fast growing First Nations population is the perfect “home grown” solution to these critical labour shortages.

Simply put, the real Saskatchewan advantage is our citizens, and the sooner First Nations are participating fully in the economy the sooner our economy will strengthened and insulated from the economic instability that has become a common threat to our province.

Verona Thibault: I view economic development today as a continuum that embraces all sectors of the community – industry, education, health and the local environment.  It is essentially a process of building strong, adaptive economies with strategies driven by local assets and realities.

The discipline of economic development has evolved continuously over the past 100 years and we now tend to accept that there is no single strategy, policy or program for achieving success. Communities and First Nations each have unique development goals, implementation strategies, funding resources available, geographic and political strengths and weaknesses.

It is exciting see that we are coming full circle back to honouring the foundational principles of sustainability and local economies which originated with our Indigenous peoples, and integrating them into the global society and markets of this century.

Are there different strategies for economic development on-reserve versus in other communities?

SS: First Nations are unique in the sense that most business and economic development taking place tends to be a community-driven initiative rather than individual entrepreneurs.  While it is important to support and acknowledge that individual First Nation entrepreneurs are starting businesses at a much higher rate than non-First Nations, government funding and legal settlements are often structured to support community economic development.

However, this is a choice driven by values as well as circumstance.  First Nations are close knit communities, often isolated geographically and until recently socially.  We have retained and continue to revitalize our language, culture, values and traditions and have applied our values to our businesses.  All of Saskatchewan’s First Nation Economic Development Corporations (EDCs) have community members as their shareholders with dividends targeted at supporting community priorities and further economic growth and diversification.

First Nations have been settling issues around land and Treaties through Treaty Land Entitlement, Specific Claims, Annuity Claims and Impact Benefit Agreements among others, which have injected large amounts of money into our communities.  This has allowed for the unprecedented growth of urban reserves in Saskatchewan for the purposes of business development as well as rural lands with natural resources and commodities.

VT: Success in economic development and the specific strategies required to accomplish it will look different from place to place, be it a municipality or First Nation. There are as many definitions of economic development as there are communities in Saskatchewan. Each one has its own opportunities, challenges, identities and priorities. However, leadership is consistently identified as a predicator of success and that applies to both municipalities and First Nations in my mind.

You recently launched a joint certification process for Professional Community and Economic Developers of Saskatchewan.  This is in contrast to separate Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal certifications at the national level.  How does this contribute to reconciliation in the province?

SS: Saskatchewan has made huge progress in race relations.  We are being taught about the Treaties in the classroom, government, business and industry are training their staff in First Nation, Métis and immigrant culture, there are more community events that share Indigenous culture, food, music and art and both the conversation and relationships are changing for the positive in Saskatchewan.

But in the absence of cross-cultural education the conversation can still be strained and the SFNEDN and business leaders know from experience, that a warm introduction, comfort, confidence and cultural competence is good for business.  So it is critical for people entering into the economic sector be just as familiar with First Nations history and culture as it is for police officers, social workers and teachers.  Our collaboration with SEDA is an effort to ensure that the understanding, knowledge, comfort and cultural competency required to develop a positive business relationship is a core value and expertise that we can say we have implemented to great success in Saskatchewan.

VT: Collaborating with SFNEDN provides an open door for Saskatchewan professionals and leaders to learn from each other. Cultural competence is a key step on the road to reconciliation and as provincial organizations, it is our responsibility to lead by example.

SEDA recently adopted governance policies supporting the TRC’s [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] 94 Calls to Action.  We will be encouraging our members to explore the Calls to Action and to seek ways of supporting them individually and collectively.

What are some success stories you’ve been seeing with Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners working together for mutual economic benefit?

SS: Saskatchewan has some great stories across a range of business and partnerships, far too many to list here.  From food security, Flying Dust First Nation’s Riverside Market Garden who sells to a number of grocery chains in Saskatchewan, to resource development, Muskowekwan Resources Ltd. and Encanto Potash Corporation development of a potash mine, to power generation with Cowessess First Nation’s wind turbine producing 800kW of power with a 20 year power purchase agreement with SaskPower, to a myriad of construction partnerships between First Nations and Saskatchewan’s mines, we have a growing diversity and sophistication in our businesses and  the relationships that foster their growth.

A strategy foundational to our economic development is education and training as well as partnering with mainstream business and industry to gain expertise, training, networks, financing, safety ratings and clients.  Along with our individual efforts in education and economic development, partnering with our non-First Nation business friends towards shared interests, goals and aspirations with all Saskatchewan citizens is creating opportunity for First Nations to excel in business, reduce unemployment, increase Saskatchewan’s tax base, and spend billions more in the Saskatchewan economy. Critically, a lot of Saskatchewan’s Business Associations are beginning to educate their members, foster positive relationships and identify ways in which we can collectively support Indigenous economic growth in Saskatchewan.

VT: The 50+ urban reserves in Saskatchewan speak to current benefits and future potential for partnership.  Local economic strategies that do not take into account surrounding communities and First Nations dismiss important opportunities. Communities banding together under common interests with similar goals have a greater chance of success than individual efforts. It is simply good business.

What do you want to see for Saskatchewan’s First Nation and municipal communities in the next 20 years?

SS: Ultimately it comes down to ensuring a positive, healthy and vibrant relationship between First Nation and municipal communities. We are all citizens of Saskatchewan and will all benefit from a healthy relationship and economy.  All of the statistics say First Nations offer one of the greatest resources to Saskatchewan’s future economic well-being from employees to investment in business.  We must collectively capitalize on this opportunity as it will set Saskatchewan apart in our success, cultural respect and understanding as well as our economic integration and diversification.

VT: To build on Shaun’s comments, I suspect the majority of non-Indigenous residents are unaware that Saskatchewan is leading the country in the areas of TLE, urban reserves and Indigenous EDC’s.  We have a solid foundation on which to build and successful models such as the community-owned Economic Development Corporation (EDC) that are transferrable to non-Indigenous communities. SEDA encourages municipalities to invest in their own future via models such as the EDC that have potential to return earned revenue to the community. Self-reliance is therefore a common goal I see for both municipal communities and First Nations as we move forward and clearly there is an opportunity to learn from each other in this regard.

In terms of the next 20 years, it is no secret that I desire to see a knowledge-based labour force that is able to work from their home community or First Nation, for employers or customers anywhere in the world. This will take a concerted effort on the part of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to accelerate effective province-wide connectivity and provide contemporary skills training in an ever-changing and mobile global marketplace.