Indigenous Businesses Contribute $1.6 Billion To Region’s Economy, With Women Leading The Way

Charlene Combdon, owner of Rock Solid Diesel in Grand Falls-Windsor, NL. Image: Submitted

For Charlene Combdon, the Mi’kmaq owner of Rock Solid Diesel in Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland, starting a business was about paving her own future and creating opportunities closer to home for members of her community.

“I didn’t want to be the person who is continuously working for other corporations and companies and I’ve always been that person to be my own boss…and to build my own path, so the only way to do it was to take that leap of faith and start the company,” she said in an interview.

Combdon is part of a growing number of women in Atlantic Canada who are leading growth in the Indigenous business community.

A recent report by the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council (APEC) that was commissioned by the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs Secretariat (APCFNCS) showed that on- and off-reserve Indigenous businesses contributed $1.6 billion in revenues to Atlantic Canada’s economy in 2016, with 137 per cent growth in revenue since 2012.

A survey in the report found that more women-owned business respondents (70 per cent) experienced increased sales over the last three years than men-owned businesses (50 per cent). Women-owned businesses were also more optimistic about sales growth for the next three years, with 81 per cent of them expecting a sales increase, compared to 68% of men-owned businesses.

John Paul, the Executive Director of the APCFNCS, says the report shows that the businesses are overcoming various barriers and that there’s a continued need for targeted services, especially for Indigenous women.

“The sheer volume of businesses and the amount that we are contributing as businesses to Atlantic Canada…as well as the growth of Indigenous women entering the business world and doing startups, you know, those numbers have grown substantially over the last five years, which is an anomaly relative to the non-native sector and I was very pleasantly surprised,” he said.

The women enter various sectors, ranging from crafts to tourism to construction. Paul says this demonstrates “the entrepreneurial spirit of women in our communities as real leaders in our community in the business sector.”

“They appear to want to make a better life for their families and they see business as a real avenue to build revenues and build that opportunities for themselves and their families.”

There are approximately 850 Indigenous businesses in Atlantic Canada paying $296 million in wages to around 11,700 employees, 40 per cent of those being non-Indigenous people. Most of the businesses pointed to hard work and effort, good reputation, quality of work, good client base and customer service as reasons for their success.

APEC senior policy analyst Fred Bergman says the businesses are in different sectors, including IT, professional services, agriculture, forestry and fishing, wholesale and retail, among others.

Some of the growth came from new businesses, while some were the result of the indirect impact of major projects, he said. Some communities, like St. Mary’s First Nation in Fredericton and Madawaska Maliseet First Nation in northern New Brunswick, among others, have a lot of economic activity coming from their power centres.

But Indigenous businesses located on-reserve often face challenges to access funding. The Federal Indian Act makes it difficult for members of a community to use land as collateral, or to buy and sell land.

Many Indigenous businesses struggle to get financing

Bergman says the study found about 28 per cent of Indigenous businesses were turned down for financing due to insufficient collateral. In comparison, a 2017 Statistics Canada survey shows only about five per cent of all businesses in Canada were turned away from financing due to the same reason, he said.

For businesses located off-reserve, collateral is less of an issue, but they often face funding challenges due to a lack of credit experience or history.

“What we end up seeing is a lot of Indigenous businesses end up relying on credit cards to start their businesses because they have difficulty getting a regular loan so maybe they have to borrow from a credit card, but is that a low-cost option in terms of interest rate? Probably not,” Bergman said.

“We’ve seen some examples of that from the survey that we can compare to other information to suggest they do have more difficulty in terms of borrowing or facing higher costs of borrowing. And that becomes a bit of a barrier to starting a business, so it’s clear that access to equity and capital or financing … any of those options tend to be more difficult for Indigenous businesses.”

Combdon experienced something similar when starting her business.

“When you visit large financial institutions such as banks, they’re not willing to lend you the amount that you’re looking for because you have no credibility to show because your business isn’t established yet. So I had to go under personal for the first how many years,” she said.

She overcame those challenges by establishing relationships with the Business Development Bank of Canada and Community Business Development Corp., both of which funded her, and sought advice from groups like Ulnooweg, which provides loans and business services to Indigenous entrepreneurs in Atlantic Canada.

She said the mentorship and advice she got from Ulnooweg was “very important.” She says there aren’t many Indigenous support groups for businesses in Newfoundland and that was a “roadblock” for her.

And although she has worked in the transportation industry most of her professional life, as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry, her challenges go beyond financing and mentorship.

Challenges for women in male-dominated industries

“Just by being a female alone and reaching out to the companies in the transport industry, our own… it was a challenge to get somebody to take me for what I was worth,” she said. “I actually, at one point in time, called a potential customer and he was very hesitant. So I challenged him to give me a chance and he did. And he’s been a customer ever since and now we’re able to laugh at that.”

Her company opened in 2013 with just a truck and trailer. Now it provides a mobile, 24-hour emergency diesel truck and tractor repair service, as well as maintenance and repair service at its garage. Its client base has grown to 200 companies, serving the likes of Day & Ross Freight in Moncton, and it expanded into a 4,800-square-foot building with a four-bay garage last year.

APEC’s report says there are several opportunities to support growth if Indigenous businesses, including through the adoption of the First Nations Fiscal Management Act, First Nations Land Management Act, or First Nations Housing Market Fund to improve access to collateral and financing; by providing financing for community-based and private entrepreneurs; and for the Indigenous community itself to buy viable land outside their reserve, like the Glooscap Landing Development Project in Nova Scotia, to create power centres.

The report also proposed more federal and provincial government procurement from Indigenous businesses, as well as government support for export promotion and land acquisition.

“A lot of the provincial governments right now in Atlantic Canada typically don’t have a definitive procurement strategy for acquiring services from Indigenous businesses,” Bergman said.

In addition, Canadian corporations also have a lot of room to grow their partnerships with Indigenous businesses. They can provide mentorship, networks and business development advice, among other things, Bergman said.

The report also proposed promoting the application of the Atlantic Growth Strategy to Indigenous communities and developing a lending program for women entrepreneurs.

“What we’re saying is there should be sessions held between various government departments and agencies with Indigenous communities and businesses and making them aware of the strategies, how it’s working, what’s involved, and what are all the programs that governments have that Indigenous businesses and communities can apply for or be eligible for, and kind of, know the rules, because some of this stuff is fairly complex when you’re applying for funding,” Bergman said.

Paul and Combdon say there is also a need for programming targeted towards Indigenous women that are delivered by Indigenous women themselves.

“It’s so that they do appreciate all the challenges of family and business life and so on, and be very sensitive to their needs and what it is that people or a program can actually do to help,” Paul said. 

Combdon is expecting more Indigenous women, with men supporting them the way her mechanic husband does for her, to grow their businesses in the future.

“To me, an Indigenous woman is a very strong woman. We’ve had many things to overcome through the years…I think we’re going to see more and more Indigenous women grow because we’re building more awareness for the Indigenous women circle and it’s important to support one another,” she said.

“Every time I speak at a function, it’s something that I speak from the heart about, is how indigenous women should continue to build their own empire and as Indigenous women, we have men who stand by our side and support us.”