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Fostering Indigenous Inclusion in Business and Entrepreneurship

UCalgary’s Indigenous Strategy to be released on National Aboriginal Day
By Doug Ferguson
Indigenous Strategy community consultations with Reg Crowshoe and David Lertzman

Near his laptop computer, David Lertzman keeps a small pouch blessed by an Indigenous elder.

Medicine pouches were given to University of Calgary representatives tasked with creating a new campus-wide Indigenous Strategy. “It’s a physical representation of my solemn vow to do this work wholeheartedly and with integrity,” says Lertzman, an assistant professor at the Haskayne School of Business.

The pouches, which contain items associated with Indigenous spiritual well-being, were blessed by Reg Crowshoe, an elder and former chief of the Piikuni First Nation, who is a member of the university’s senate and the Indigenous Strategy Steering Committee.

Partly sparked by the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the abuse of Indigenous children in Canada’s residential schools, a range of people from academics to elders are taking part in the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy initiative. Their goal is to create “an inclusive campus — to ensure Indigenous people are well represented across the campus as learners and teachers, and as community partners,” says Shawna Cunningham, a Métis, who is a co-chair of the university’s Indigenous Strategy Working Group.

Chris Fry, BA’10, MSc’14, a member of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation near Whitehorse, Yukon, is excited about the potential opportunities the strategy will create for people like him. He completed some of his courses through Haskayne as part of his master’s program in Sustainable Energy Development.“

I like that Haskayne is very adaptable in terms of creating programs that are relevant to the future business market. I think they’re a leading business school in Canada,” says Fry.

Lertzman agrees that “as a business school, Haskayne is in a unique position to really make a contribution and distinguish ourselves,” yet adds it is too early in the development of the Indigenous Strategy to say what this will be.

The university-wide process was launched March 2016 by Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Dru Marshall. During the fall semester, input was gathered from a broad range of people, including more than 1,500 people externally, as well as many on campus, using a series of community dialogues and an online survey.

This input will be reflected in the content of the strategy, says Cunningham, who is also the director of the university’s Native Centre. “It is anticipated that the strategy will be officially launched on National Aboriginal Day,” on June 21, she says.

As an external relations advisor with Shell Canada, Fry helps with negotiations between the company and Indigenous communities. He sees an important role for Indigenous people as business negotiators and entrepreneurs.

Hollywood stereotypes ignore a sophisticated First Nations business tradition of peaceful, consensus-based decision-making that created Indigenous trading networks across North America for thousands of years. This system of mutually beneficial inter-tribal relations later formed the basis of the fur trade with Europeans, helping to create Canada.

But the heavy-handed paternalism of federal measures such as the Indian Act led to the stifling of Indigenous entrepreneurship, says Lertzman. “These policies were not designed to encourage any flourishing of local economy,” he says. “If anything, they were designed specifically to disempower Indigenous people and make their communities less viable.”

Fry says there is a growing revival of an independent business spirit within modern-day First Nations. “I think a lot more Indigenous people are looking at creating revenue streams for their communities, and starting businesses,” he says.

Such people have much to offer their fellow Canadians, says Lertzman, a non-Indigenous person who has been ceremonially adopted into several Indigenous communities. “Some of the most brilliant entrepreneurs I’ve met are Indigenous people,” he says.

“I’ve learned a lot from working with Indigenous peoples, not just about business, but about myself. Not only have these lessons made me more effective professionally, they’ve made me a better person, and provide fundamental principles for sustainability and ethical leadership.

“We could double our cultural brainpower, triple or even quadruple it, bringing together the best that different cultures have to offer. It’s those differences that make our agreements so much more powerful and strengthen our collective creativity.”