Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada issued its final report and Calls to Action in 2015, widespread interest in the idea of “economic reconciliation” has emerged. Governments and corporate Canada voiced their commitment to advancing these recommendations. But without a meaningful understanding of Indigenous worldviews and experiences, Canadian organizations will ultimately fail to address “business and reconciliation” which is number 92 in the Calls to Action that organizations are beginning to advance through channels such as Indigenous procurement.
According to the University of Alberta, the term “Indigenize” and “Indigenization” is used as the act of administering culturally aligned practices of Indigenous worldviews and customs with non-Indigenous processes. It is the process of “making something Indigenous” or making space for diverse Indigenous customs and beliefs systems for the purposes of progressing current systems and structures toward reconciliation.
In an anonymous interview Michelle Kealey conducted for a study done at the University of Regina’s Levene School of Business, a First Nation chief explained how “the first priority of a partnership is stewardship, and economic development is the second. All of the jobs could be given to a community in the partnership agreement but if there is no stewardship for wellbeing and the environment around us is ruined or our resources run out, then we have not moved forward.” Economic reconciliation is about doing business along these lines.
One critical avenue for change includes corporate procurement practices, especially in the public sector. Without specific criteria to enhance participation of Indigenous businesses in procurement, conventional procurement policies limit the opportunity for Indigenous people to be successful in obtaining (public) contracts. Now is the time for governments at all levels to advance procurement policies that create space for Indigenous worldviews and that explicitly aim to support Indigenous self-determination and economic inclusion as a measure of “business and reconciliation.” First, to demonstrate how to Indigenize conventional procurement, the following approaches should be considered when creating policies that are consistent with economic reconciliation.
Project planning and market feasibility
Advanced engagement and understanding the conditions of current Indigenous labour markets and capacity is needed to effectively exploit opportunities to Indigenous businesses. This means preliminary sharing if information with Indigenous communities to advance business readiness or considering which projects are most appropriate as a “set aside.”
Set asides are considered as contracts that are withheld from competitive bids and either procured as a sole-source agreement or as an “Indigenous-only” competition. As part of the planning process, feasibility studies can be done to understand the Indigenous market landscape, to scope specific pieces of work within a project to enhance Indigenous participation and market attractiveness and align procurement activities with current Indigenous market conditions and capacities before moving into the request for proposal (RFP) and tendering phases.
Enhancing participation and mitigating policy risks
Advanced engagement creates awareness of future opportunities and increases access to procurement contracts by allowing time for Indigenous organizations to be business- and partnership-ready.
Barriers associated with contracting requirements and trade-policy implications such as high-valued bid-bonds and threshold limitations have been identified by Indigenous businesses participating in public procurements. Contractual mechanisms such as master service agreements, pre-qualifications, Indigenous-only competitions and Indigenous benefit agreements can mitigate risk. These tools can support open conversations and bring more flexibility to negotiating and awarding work to Indigenous people by streamlining the contracting process.
There is significant opportunity to demonstrate leadership. Goals should be achievable and well understood. Objectives must also consider the need to create good, well-paying jobs and the importance of enhancing an organization’s knowledge of Indigenous worldviews or historical truths. Externally, specific procurement goals may consider a target number of contracts to be awarded to Indigenous businesses. This is also about capacity building.
Procurement evaluation criteria
Evaluation criteria is another function with great opportunity to influence positive social impact and be considered more broadly when advancing economic reconciliation. Examples that demonstrate commitment to Indigenous business development and growth include Indigenous labour, employment equity and succession planning; evaluating the number of Indigenous people in leadership and professional positions; and community impact.
Other criteria should consider the organization-wide commitment to reconciliation. In other words, does the organization demonstrate commitment toward truth and have meaningful relationships with Indigenous people?
Non-Indigenous businesses that mandate learning opportunities such as Indigenous awareness training, anti-racism training and blanket exercises are more likely to contribute to a safe working space for Indigenous people when the majority of workers are not Indigenous. Another example of organization-wide commitment could include health-care benefits specific to Indigenous healing and customs.
Measuring community impact is also important. Community investment and partnerships aimed at building relationships (such as co-op students, job fairs, science camps or technology workshops) and active engagement with Indigenous communities and businesses yield positive results. Organizations must establish agreements with Indigenous communities that support independence, community investments and socio-economic development.
Finally, a minimum 51 per cent ownership stake, as well as clauses that focus on employment, revenue sharing and minimum pay requirements contribute to meaningful partnerships and mitigate the notion of what some Indigenous leaders refer to as “rent-a-feather” arrangements.
Rent-a-feather is a term used by the Indigenous business community to describe tokenistic arrangements with third-parties to advance success of the third-party with minimal to no benefit to the Indigenous partner. Indigenous ownership and joint ventures require reciprocity.
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If stewardship and trust is established as the foundation, then mutual benefit is feasible. Fifty-fifty cost-sharing is insufficient, as the outcome does not necessarily contribute to community-wide economic development and labour market participation. It needs to go beyond mere economics.
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This emergent way of evaluating true partnerships is exactly what it means to think about Indigenizing economic relationships. Such processes enable growth through collaborative mechanisms that also enhance economic conditions for settler enterprises and Indigenous organizations alike. Such efforts are more powerful than spoken commitments to maintaining a specific amount of Indigenous labour through temporary contract work that fails to offer meaningful career pathways and advancement opportunities.
Established Indigenous procurement policies being advanced by governments might suggest a commitment to reconciliation. Without genuine engagement with Indigenous Peoples, these efforts will continue to fall short of meeting their objectives. Effective change requires an approach that makes space for advancing long-term Indigenous economic growth and prosperity.
This requires a focus on five strategic principles.
First, Indigenous procurement policies must be mandated in public policy to bring consistency across all policy environments and economic systems.
Second, inclusion and engagement with Indigenous representatives at the decision and policymaking table is a must for development of procurement policies. These policies should be flexible in nature and reviewed on an ongoing basis through the lens of Call to Action number 92 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada final report.
Third, genuine relationships with Indigenous economic development associations and tribal councils must be built. Not just for the purposes of project engagement or out of a duty to consult, but to truly engage with and understand Indigenous worldviews about economic prosperity, social economic constructs and the environment, for instance.
Fourth, accountability is top down and bottom up. Organizational changes require leadership from the top throughout the entire procurement environment, but it also requires accountability from Indigenous communities, organizations and stakeholders.
Finally, there needs to be a way to show the effect of these policies back into communities.
Measurable indicators toward economic reconciliation must be defined. Indigenous procurement policies must have specific measures and accountability mechanisms for economic reconciliation, not just procurement targets that can inadvertently contribute to “rent-a-feather” structures that do not consider the community or its economy or social constructs.
Indigenizing the procurement system from top-to-bottom can influence an output of positive change for Indigenous independence and participation in economic activities. This is a matter moving forward with Indigenous peoples, and not just putting a target on public contracts in the short term.