Solid Foundations: An Interview with John Keewatin

By Heather Exner-Pirot

This month we interview John Keewatin, a member of the Key First Nation and owner of Key Concrete Services, a 100% First Nations-owned business located on Whitecap Dakota Reserve and English River Business Centre.

HEP: Tell me about Key Concrete. How did you get started?

JK: I got started in 2008. A friend was working at Whitecap building houses and the contractor needed someone to finish the basements. At the time I was working for another concrete company as an employee, and I did the work on weekends. The money was great. I was making more on the weekends than I was from wages during the week. That got me thinking about starting my own business.

I started out with a minivan, a power trowel and a wheel barrel. Just the bare minimum tools. Then in 2009 I decided to really make a go of it. I made a business plan and I got loan with SIEF (Saskatchewan Indian Equity Foundation) for about $30,000 and bought some more equipment. It was still minimal – I’m always trying to keep my overhead low.

I started picking up clients and it worked out well. And I’m still in business today. We’ve grown and I’m hoping we will continue to grow.

HEP: What does it mean to be a First Nations-owned business? Do you find there are challenges as well as advantages?

JK: Being a First Nations business is not very different from a non-First Nations business. It takes a lot of hard work and determination to succeed.

Unfortunately one of the obvious challenges of being a First Nations business in Saskatchewan is the stigma of racism. I have encountered racism on many levels throughout the 10 years I have been in business from both First Nations and non-First Nations peoples. But I stopped letting it affect me; it made me more determined to succeed and prove them wrong with the hard work and diligence from myself and my crew.

Another challenge I have faced is trying to market my business to First Nations businesses and communities. I would like to have the opportunity to bid on work for First Nations businesses and communities, and I would like to see a database of First Nations businesses to be accessed by all First Nations peoples. I strongly believe that we should all support each other in any way we can.

One benefit of being a First Nations business for the employees, if they qualify, is the income tax exemption. Another benefit I am looking forward to participating in is the new City of Saskatoon procurement program, which gives us the opportunity to bid on city projects.

HEP: What was your motivation for setting up on reserve – at both Whitecap and at the English River Complex?

JK: Obviously the tax benefits. I actually live at Whitecap. It’s very affordable, it’s a safe community to live in, and it’s quiet. My home office is on Whitecap.

English River has supported me in the past. I’ve done work with Tron Power and have had contracts at the English River Business Centre. I fuel up there, and that’s where my yard is. I support First Nations businesses whenever possible. I believe in supporting each other and helping each other out.

HEP: Do you try to hire Aboriginal employees? Are you able to find enough employees for your needs?

JK: We’re not a big crew, but 100% of my current employees are First Nations. I always try to hire First Nations people. It comes down to if I have the work and if I can find the guys. So it’s not that I exclude non-First Nations people, just that I try to get First Nations.

HEP: Who or what has been the biggest help to get you going as a 100% First Nations-owned business?

JK: Honestly, the person who has helped me the most has been my accountant. Getting me on track, getting me recognized as a 100% First Nations owned business to the government; he’s been the biggest help.

I have found there hasn’t been that much support for helping me establish a First Nation business. It’s a grey area with the CRA (Canada Revenue Agency). It wasn’t cookie cutter – there was no set process. And Square One had nothing specific for Aboriginal businesses for example.

To set up a business as First Nations-owned there are a lot of rules to be followed. Not that many people know about them and it took a long time to get it figured out, especially with the CRA, to get to the point where there are no more questions asked. It was not straightforward.

HEP: What advice would you give to young First Nations entrepreneurs just starting out?

JK: You are going to have to work hard, but make sure to balance your work life with your family life. The biggest advice I have is to set your business up properly with the CRA and be aware of all the expenses that you have. And when you set up your business account, set up a tax savings account for GST and PST. Put it in there and leave it in there. Also, set yourself up as an employee. Don’t treat your business account as your personal account.

I’ve had to learn a lot of things the hard way.

You can learn more about Key Concrete Services and support a First Nations-owned business at  http://keyconcreteservices.ca

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