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Historically, aboriginal women have faced many unique challenges. When European colonizers arrived in Canada in the 1600s, aboriginal women held well-respected roles in their society. But as the influence of Europeans intensified, these women gradually began to lose their identities. Sadly, many aboriginal communities assimilated to European culture and began to marginalize their women. Even after Canadian women were officially recognized as individuals in 1929, female aboriginals continued to be oppressed and denied equal rights. Official “status” was often denied until the introduction of the Indian Act in 1985.

Even towards the end of the 20th century, a legacy of hardship, abuse, and a lack of access to opportunities plagued much of the female aboriginal community. However, today it’s a different story. More and more aboriginal women are now overcoming these challenges and finding success in the business industry.

Business savvy

Many aboriginal women have started community newspapers, successful cafés, restaurants, catering businesses, and organizations that focus on personnel management, manufacturing, graphic design, and even construction. In the past decade, the success of aboriginal women has made a positive impact on their families and also improved the quality of life in their communities. The value of higher education is no longer going unnoticed.

According to a study by the National Centre for First Nations Governance, although there are fewer female (aboriginal and non-aboriginal) entrepreneurs than male, women’s entrepreneurship increased by over 200 per cent between 1981 and 2001, compared to a mere 38 per cent rise for men. In the same duration, the number of self-employed women grew by 406 per cent. (And yes, the number is supposed to look that awkwardly huge!)

Statistics Canada reports that in 2011 there were approximately 160,895 aboriginal-status women in the labour force that possess a post-secondary certificate, diploma, or degree. 13,855 females were aged 15–24, while the majority (144,325) were 25–64. Organizations such as Status of Women Canada and the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) are making it possible for First Nations women to fully participate in the economic, social, political, and cultural ventures of the country.

Christine Tienkamp has worked as a self-employed business plan consultant for three years. Raised in a small Métis community in Saskatchewan, she also presently works part-time as a designated professional accountant in a medium-sized accounting firm. After graduating from the business administration program at Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST), she landed an entry-level position as an accountant and was encouraged to join the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association (AFOA).

“The AFOA has chapters throughout Canada and has been instrumental in providing tools and resources for accountants who are aboriginal or working in an aboriginal organization,” says Tienkamp. As a business leader, Tienkamp says she must ensure she is continually networking and expanding her connections. “My self-employment work is primarily writing business plans for new businesses, so I am continually meeting new people and much of my work comes from recommendations of others,” she says.

She admits that when she first started her career, the lack of aboriginal women in her industry seemed almost unsettling. She now feels encouraged by today’s influx of First Nations women entering accounting and finance managing positions.

A whole big world out there

Ariana Wabie, a public relations student at Humber College, is optimistic about her future in the business industry and agrees full-heartedly with Tienkamp. Eager to get involved in a career related to event management, Wabie advises: “The best way to expand yourself and your mind is to make yourself uncomfortable. That’s when you really get to experience life in the long run. There’s a whole big world out there and, yes, it’s great to go back to your community and always remember your community because that’s a part of you, but to experience the world broader in general will open your mind up so much more.”

She thanks her mother for giving her the courage to find an ambition and chase it. “Being in Toronto, a big city, and getting to experience all of it and the opportunities afforded to me is pretty incredible, from where I started to where it’s going now,” says Wabie, referring to her rebellious adolescent years when she was kicked out of high school for not attending classes. Her mother encouraged her to move to Garden River, a reserve on the outskirts of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to work for an organization called Turtle Concepts. There, she earned her necessary credits to graduate high school by organizing and partaking in empowerment workshops for people—including many aboriginal people—of all ages.  

She has since traveled to over 150 communities across North America, her favourite being Déline, NWT, a small fly-in community in the Arctic Circle with a whopping population of 565. However, it’s important to note that “First Nations are really, really pushing education now,” says Wabie. “They want their youth and women in particular getting their education, and then hopefully taking what they learned in school ... back to their communities to apply it there.”

Grants, scholarships, and opportunities

Continuing education, however, can be costly. Wabie recommends looking into grants and scholarships geared towards aboriginal students as early as Grade 11 and 12. She says she applied for a post-secondary education-in-training bursary and was awarded $1,000 toward her tuition. NWAC offers similar scholarships, and Tienkamp suggests looking into bursaries from Cameco and Sasktel if you plan on attending college or university in Saskatchewan.

Tienkamp is most proud of her decision to enrol at SIAST and to subsequently pursue her CMA. “I didn’t even realize in Grade 12 that I could have attended university,” she says. “It just didn’t seem like something that kids from the community did. I don’t know if it was a societal thing or likely monetary, but things have certainly changed since I graduated in the early 90s.”

Indeed, both Tienkamp and Wabie have noticed a surge in aboriginal communities’ interest in higher education and the ability to run successful businesses.

“[The] most rewarding thing is knowing that I am helping people reach their dreams; they are changing their lives by starting a business,” says Tienkamp. “I love working with new business owners because they are excited about starting a business, not afraid to work hard, and keep moving forward regardless of what others say. Most people dream of starting their own business but only a handful will have the determination to actually see it to fruition.”

Therefore, the future looks bright for aboriginal women continuing to run with and leading aboriginal business initiatives.

Photo: davidf/iStock