Métis Economic Development with Purpose by Joe Desjarlais

Last week I had the chance to attend a business conference with a number of Metis and many from First Nations in Penticton. In actuality, the purpose of economic development represents much more than ‘deal making’. Sustainable business exchange flows from the affirmation and coexistence of storied peoples with vital communities and living traditions in Canada.

First Nations chiefs, Metis leaders, professional support staff, consultants, education institutions, business owners and many others all converged on the Penticton Convention Centre for 3 days of intense interaction at the Aboriginal Business Match 2014. I walked among the exhibitors and witnessed an amazing number of encounters. The artwork and carvings of the artisans reflected the immense diversity of peoples present. The images point the way toward resurgence of indigenous ideas amidst the world of business.

In addition to witnessing effective business networking in action, I personally came away from the conference convinced that it represented a renewed phase of positive community formation that is also reshaping the Canadian fabric. Many of these aboriginal groups, including Metis, are poised to take their Ec/dev to another level. This event was at its core a mutual sharing of ideas, where non-aboriginal business leaders were immersed in the teachings and ways of life of indigenous peoples.

Words like ‘nation building’ and ‘economic development,’ rather than being tokenized, were framed in relation to a profound sense of relationship building, community protocol and knowledge exchange. The conference organizers and sponsors in my view worked to equip and release aboriginal business leaders and those who do business with them to make deals with the purpose of realizing renewed peoples, cultures, and vital communities and nations. These themes came out loud and clear.

I was reminded that compartmentalized approaches and ‘artificial’ solutions and initiatives based around ‘compliance’ by others have largely failed aboriginal peoples in the past. In business circles, we often hear slogans that promise ‘success’ if only aboriginal people integrate into prevailing, ‘inevitable’ structures, ignoring choice and consent. The language of ‘certainty’ we often hear about by politicians to appease stakeholders has not allowed Canadians to approach Metis and First Nations honestly. Expert advisors and other stakeholders have often justified a dependency language and ‘positions’ that undermine historical relationships. For generations, images that dominated Canadian society and its public discourses mostly worked to dehumanize. Stories have been told about Metis and First Nations in a way that limited how they act, their ability to shape the world around them.

The reality is much more complex. The more I learn about expressions of my own Metis identity in history for example, the more I realize that this includes a variety of views and opinions over time and in different regions as Metis were responsive to their cultural, social, economic and political environments. Theirs was a living tradition with dynamic encounters. Increasing numbers of stakeholders recognize that there is a historical relationship and many cross-over ideas grounded in the idea of nation-to-nation relationship and a fiduciary obligation. At the conference, one Chief stated boldly that “we are in a tremendous period of nation building.”

A transparent political climate is what sets the tone for good business. As for Metis people, community, provincial or national leaders can no longer come to these events and seek to do deals and consolidate power and resources without functioning as ethical, accountable or transparent leaders on behalf of all Metis people, businesses and communities. As well, governments can no longer justifiably limit Metis people, businesses and communities in unhealthy power relationships on one hand, and then seek to participate in similar Ec/dev events. It is also increasingly difficult for corporations to deny these contextual realities in their own policy.

We are all witnessing another kind of history unfolding from the margins in BC that is shifting the terms of the relationship between First Nations, Metis and Canada. It’s about a way of understanding each other and a way of interacting with each other. More companies are coming on board because the ongoing denial or marginalizing of a shared history in Canada is no longer a viable option. The reality is that Metis people and communities will coexist more equitably in this country and Ec/dev will work to this end or against this end. Ideas around ‘exchange’ are shifting back to reaffirming Metis people’s relationships to each other, the trust factor, as well as their values and connections to the land.

The participants of the recent business conference were left with the idea that Metis and First Nations insist on partnering in the economic future of this country, leading to a full measure of the exchange. Exchange is where each learns what is important to the other. The economies, the political and legal systems and the histories of aboriginal people and communities do matter. They always have mattered.

As the result, lasting community development and real ‘success’ are assured and Canada as a whole is strengthened and affirmed. The BC Metis Federation anticipates major growth in capacity to accompany this shift in perspective.

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