Commerce students explore Indigenous partnerships

Posted 2021-08-30
Students at UBC Sauder School of Business are learning about Canada’s Indigenous communities in an innovative way: by imagining and then designing a business proposal in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups work together as partners.

COMM 390 is an upper-level business writing course that teaches students how to plan, research and write professional business proposals. Designed by UBC Sauder full-time lecturer Elizabeth Bowker, students research and reflect on the Indigenous experience through a business lens.

“Students are expected to come up with a feasible idea for a profitable business partnership with a First Nation,” says Bowker. “Through the learning process, they increase their knowledge of Indigenous communities while learning about Reconciliation through economic development.”

Three students offered to share a little bit about their learning journeys.

Tina Chen’s sustainable energy project

Tina Chen grew up in Maple Ridge and remembers learning about First Nations culture and history in school, but she was unfamiliar with Indigenous entrepreneurship until she enrolled in COMM 390.

Through her research, she learned that certain remote First Nation communities rely on diesel generators as the primary source of power. Intrigued by the opportunity to create a solution that offered clean energy, she studied the market before proposing a low-carbon, renewable power source for a Nation in Yukon.

“We’ve seen these partnerships close the socioeconomic gap between corporations and Indigenous communities since they generate substantial profits while being mutually beneficial and respectful of the Nation’s vision,” explains Chen.

Chen recommended a run-of-the-river hydroelectricity project that would be 100 per cent owned by the Nation in order to provide employment opportunities for the local community. Her report also detailed how profits from exporting surplus electricity could generate revenues and long-term financial prosperity for the Nation for generations.

“There’s so much potential in Indigenous and non-Indigenous joint ventures,” says Chen. “We’re seeing examples of bigger business collaboration in Canada, such as the Squamish Nation and Westbank condominium project in Vancouver’s Kitsilano. And it’s more collaborative than some of the projects we’ve seen in the past.”

Kiran Day’s investment advisory services project

Kiran Day is a Finance major aiming to work in the banking sector upon graduation next year. He researched the Indigenous economy in Canada and learned about Indigenous trusts – financial instruments used to hold and manage funds obtained from business activities and claims settlements. He began to think about how Canadian investment advisors could provide investment advice to First Nations to manage trust assets.

His project proposed a business partnership between a major Canadian bank and the National Aboriginal Trust Officers Association (NATOA), a national charity that provides resources and information to Indigenous communities concerning their trusts.

“The driving force behind my proposal is mutually beneficial relationships,” says Day. “I decided to focus my project on NATAO as a partner because of its deep knowledge of Indigenous trusts and its acute focus on Reconciliation principles.”

Banking professionals would offer their financial expertise across the nation’s industry sectors, as well as facilitate investment and wealth management and provide personal finance workshops with the partnering First Nation.

Day, who grew up in Australia and the U.K. before coming to Canada for university, enjoyed learning about Indigenous culture and was particularly impressed by the values-based approach to decision-making.

“I learned how important it is for Indigenous communities that their investments respect their values and not just provide economic returns,” says Day. “I also learned that if done correctly, business relationships can be long-lasting and create wealth, job creation and other benefits for Indigenous communities while being profitable for their business partners too.”

Leading peer-to-peer learning

Jeff Sutherland is a member of Ktunaxa Nation who took the course and also served as a peer advisor to his classmates.

“I wanted to provide a safe space for people to come to get a better understanding of the business landscape and Indigenous experience,” says Sutherland. “Peer advising was a super positive experience. People came with great questions and we had introspective conversations.”

Stepping into the role of advisor gave Sutherland a deeper understanding of how Indigenous relationship-building should be approached.

“Indigenous Peoples have been doing business for generations, we are an economic people. But when our land was taken away from us, we were removed from the economic landscape because our economic systems were tied to the land,” explains Sutherland.

“By engaging in joint ventures, it can create opportunities to return to a prominent place within the economic landscape and allow for Indigenous Peoples to regain lost sovereignty.”

Creating conversations around relationship-building

The students found their research and class discussions revealed valuable insights that they could apply to their daily lives and the business world.

“This course will stand out significantly for me throughout my degree,” says Day. “There’s a growing interest around the world in environmental sustainability and investors are discovering that you can have sustainability without sacrificing profits. At the same time, the Indigenous economy in Canada is growing, so I think there will be more opportunities to partner and build sustainable businesses.”

Chen agrees that focussing on sustainability can create a strong foundation for business in general.

“This project taught me that First Nations values, especially nature and the environment, are highly prioritized in business,” says Chen. “I think that’s something that we can learn from as business students and future business professionals.”

For Sutherland, who is spending his third summer working as a student economic advisor for Ktunaxa Nation’s Council in Cranbrook, COMM 390 reinforced his passion for business and relationship-building.

“This course broadened my perspective of what it means to be a modern Indigenous person and the different ways that I can offer an Indigenous voice.”