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Canadian aboriginal business owners and entrepreneurs are progressing and profiting like never before. Although aboriginal issues have been made quite prominent by Canadian and international media as of late, more businesses across the country are expressing interest in working with aboriginal leaders and communities.

The exponential growth of aboriginal businesses (at about five times the rate of self-employed Canadians overall) is proving to be beneficial for those ambitious businesspeople looking to partner, collaborate, and succeed with other organizations. In light of this, many non-aboriginal businesses are creating corporate social responsibility and sustainability plans, which aim to brighten the future and increase the success of aboriginal businesses.

Since the 1990s, the number of modern aboriginal businesses in Canada has grown significantly. A mere 25 years ago, there were about 6,000 aboriginal organizations in the country; a 2006 census revealed that there are now over 37,000 businesses owned and operated by First Nations, Métis, and Inuit individuals.

The perks

Between then and now, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal leaders have learned that collaboration plays an important and arguably essential role in the freeing of aboriginal peoples and communities from government and corporate control. It also helps all parties gain various tax advantages and access to better equipment and business supplies.

The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, for example, is a national organization with the mission to harbour sustainable business relations between aboriginals and Canadian businesses.

According to the company website, its nationally recognized Aboriginal Business Mentorship Program is a highly effective and instrumental relationship and network-building platform that nurtures through peer mentorship—business skills and abilities and best practice approaches that are used by aboriginal business leaders. The organization has also been known to annually award young entrepreneurs (under the age of 35) for their business endeavours, including one prize of $10,000.

Aboriginal businesses near Canada's oil sands are flourishing as well. Kelli Stevens, senior communications advisor at Suncor Energy Inc., says that while aboriginal communities are able to benefit from increased local economic activity, the focus is on improving sustainability by expanding the pool of qualified contractors and suppliers in areas crucial to the business.

But what exactly does sustainability mean?

For Suncor, an organization that specializes in oil and gas, sustainability is a word the company holds dear to its core.

It won't surprise you when I say that we understand and are well-aware that our operations are located in the traditional territory of many aboriginal communities across Canada, says Stevens. She believes responsible development and sustainability mean taking into account aboriginal interests, and Suncor is interested in developing their traditional and current uses of land and resources. She adds, obviously companies like ours create both opportunities for and impact on communities, and Suncor would like to maximize the opportunities and minimize the negative impacts.

In 2012, Suncor implemented the Aboriginal Economic Collaboration Strategy, which aims to increase partnerships with aboriginal leaders, businesses, and communities across the nation. And like Suncor, many companies are adhering to new policies that contribute to the sustainability of aboriginal communities. Initiatives range from respecting rights and traditions, sharing in economic success, communicating regularly and openly, understanding environmental impacts, and supporting social well-being.

With over 150 aboriginal partnerships, Suncor has contributed over $2 billion towards aboriginal businesses and communities since 1992, $1 billion of which has been spent since 2009.

Ultimately, it would be hugely ideal (with the collaboration strategy) if we could see more aboriginal entrepreneurs and communities and their businesses being successful, says Stevens. And one of the ways we've done that is looking at different business incubators.

For example, Suncor recently announced its support for a community-driven business incubator on the Tsuu T'ina First Nation near Calgary. Two Tsuu T'ina women approached the company hoping to support local entrepreneurs. Today, the number of entrepreneurs has tripled and according to Suncor's website, it's funding a faculty member from the Banff Centre Indigenous Leadership Program to help build a business plan for the incubator.

Who else is joining the charge?

Many large banks and financial institutions offer similar programs that target aboriginal businesses and entrepreneurs. The Royal Bank of Canada, Scotiabank, and the Bank of Montreal all provide specialized services to aboriginal organizations.

Stevens says that establishing aboriginal business communities is just the smart thing to do. Aboriginals know the customs, the environment, and the needs of their communities, so they are obviously going to provide the best services in the area if they are empowered to do so.

It wasn't until a few years ago that aboriginal awareness training programs were introduced to Suncor, among other large companies. Generally, only a few key players within an organization are trained to work directly with aboriginal communities. Stevens says that in 2012, Suncor thought, "why focus on just a few key people in the company when we want aboriginal business to become so much more of an important part of what we're doing? We need more people who are aware of the unique experiences of aboriginal people in Canada." The Aboriginal Relations team now regularly runs aboriginal awareness training to all employees.

According to a 2007 study for the National Centre for First Nations Governance: Take notice of the growing tide of young, qualified, and talented First Nations professionals and businesspeople ready and willing to do business. Consider what this alone can do for your bottom-line. Then, consider how First Nations involvement can diversify your business activity ... Corporate Canada is about to be hit by a wave of opportunity never seen before.

According to Stevens, if aboriginal business and community-driven economic development happen, it's going to mean healthier aboriginal communities—social, spiritual, physical well-being all around. And that's not just because of the economic factor, but it's also because they're given opportunities for leadership, entrepreneurship, and partnership.

Facts and figures

According to a 2011 aboriginal business survey by The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, self-employed aboriginal people can be found mostly in Ontario (23%), British Columbia (22%), or Alberta (18%). The lowest concentration is in the Atlantic provinces (5%) and the territories (3%).

Aboriginal-owned businesses are quite popular in service-based sectors, including education, scientific and technical services, and social services (28%). Other busy industries include construction (18%) and oil and gas (13%).

The majority (85%) of aboriginal-owned businesses are geared toward their local community or their home province or territory (73%) to sell their goods and services. About 50 per cent of businesses have clients in various provinces or territories, and some even do business in the US (26%) and outside of North America (18%).

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