The term partnership carries many meanings to many people. It is used to describe relationships, including both personal and business. I have used it for both, and most do. In this context, I sought to explore the term partnership in the context of business, and more specifically with Indigenous business. I also was asked and welcomed the challenge to tackle the concept of “rent a feather” or “marketing agreement company” from this perspective. Bring it on.
First, what is an Indigenous business? What differentiates it from a normal business? Is it based on Indigenous ownership? Corporate structure or ownership type? Majority ownership by Indigenous Peoples? Indigenous management and control, for example, governance and authority? Let’s not go down that rabbit hole and save it for another time.
Let’s say Indigenous business is simply majority or 51 per cent Indigenous-owned. Personally, I don’t like that definition and think it’s a low threshold. I believe that what should define the strength or “Indigeneity” of Indigenous business is what value it delivers back to the community through economic and socio-economic impact. Otherwise, it’s just a business. Procurement needs to reflect this better.
In preparing to write this, I got an opportunity to reflect on my experience—almost 17 years directly in the mining industry, two years in First Nation economic development, and four years in construction. Indirectly, over a decade of civil society and community service. All directly engaging or managing Indigenous business and almost all were engaged in some sort of partnership.
Those partnerships came in all shapes and sizes, and more importantly, gave me an opportunity to talk to respected Indigenous leaders in this space; Edmund Bellegarde, CEO of FHQ eCommerce, and former Tribal Chief and CEO of FHQ tribal council, Nick Crighton, executive director of the Indigenous Manufacturers and Contractors Network, and Milton Tootoosis, chief economic reconciliation officer at Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority (SREDA). In retrospect, I wish I could have talked to more, because there is no shortage of inspirational leaders in this space, and their message should be heard. Thank you to these mentors and leaders for sharing their knowledge with me. Ninanaskomon.
So what is a good partnership and what are some of the hallmarks or tenets?
Partnerships need to be founded in reciprocity, a balance of mutual benefit and respect. No truly successful relationship persists when this does not exist. Partnerships need considerable investment into the relationship upfront, and ongoing, not just in fiscal terms, but also in terms of humility and understanding. Get to know each other. Do your due diligence openly and honestly, and in the case of Indigenous partners, try to understand the truth or historical context.
The relationship should be grounded in sustainability and not be politically motivated or influenced and it should be clear how it delivers value to each partner and to the communities it serves. Good governance and servant leadership with reference to “nation building” and the Harvard Project on Indigenous Governance and Development are consistent hallmarks. These must be grounded in accountability, transparency, and wealth creation (community versus private).
These partnerships needs to be relational and not transactional and viewed from an abundance mindset. Information should be shared equally, and effort should be made equally, while respecting that it might not always be a relationship of equals.
Things are changing in the world of Indigenous partnerships. There are trends, good trends that honour the balance of information and effort. There is more structure and honesty. Partnerships are being engaged from a lens of reconciliation and economic reconciliation. Many of the hallmarks already mentioned are being integrated and operationalized. Partnerships are less likely to be viewed as fast cash, pure business opportunities, leverage, market growth and diversification; and are more likely to ensure equitable opportunity and share in the wealth.
There is no shortage of examples of these types of progressive partnerships—Meadow Lake Tribal Council, Lac La Ronge Indian Band, File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council, Whitecap Dakota and other communities and tribal councils. What is the common thread? All have elements of what I have described here, all have a depth of their Indigenous participation and management. Capacity is being built and reconciliation is being achieved.
Another positive trend—groups are talking more publicly about what is not advancing healthy partnerships. The “rent a feather”, transactional or marketing agreement relationship as a form of partnership—those relationships which look to only value political leverage where mutual benefit is not realized—is becoming less common.
The allure was clear. There are easy, or fast cash, opportunities for communities who constantly deal with extreme poverty, but as time persists, there isn’t a real or realized sustainable development, and the benefit is not reciprocal or balanced. Often, these relationships don’t offer capacity development—a strong basis for sustainable development for the Indigenous community.
It’s not just about the transaction but how Indigenous people are developing the skills, and leadership competencies to confidently assume greater degrees of confidence, and advance business sophistication.
The basis of good partnership is relational with mutual benefit. It is sustainable and reciprocal, and there is an element of respect for the historical context and how communities and Indigenous people were put in a place of abject poverty and are desperate for reconciliation. We (they) do not expect a handout and have a profound appreciation for those who show up with a hand up.
The world is moving away from “rent a feather” partnerships as communities develop more sophistication and capacity and want what’s fair. If your business is in partnership with an Indigenous group or tribal council, or is considering entering into one, I would like to suggest that you be progressive and evolve as so many have, or you may risk falling to the back of the pack as we understand the spectrum of what delivers the most equitable value to all partners, industry, our province, and our economy.