Entrepreneurship as Reconciliation

Entrepreneurship as Reconciliation

By Lauren Hicks

September 30th, 2021 was the first official National Day of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, approved by Parliament days after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed the discovery of 200 potential burial sites – likely of children – on the former site of a residential school in Kamloops, BC. In the weeks that followed, another 751 unmarked graves were discovered by the Cowessess First Nation just east of Regina. In total, since this time last year, over 1,800 unmarked graves have been located across the country – but the Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates the actual number to be closer to 3,200. Canada’s history is one stained by colonialism, mistrust, and the violent oppression of Indigenous peoples and Nations. Today, and everyday, it is vital that all living in Canada learn about Indigenous cultures and histories while critically engaging with the meaning and importance of reconciliation. 

For many, reconciliation is a hard concept to understand as its definition is often based on both individual and community contexts. There are, however, a few agreed upon elements of the term, including that it’s a process involving the education and awareness of the Canadian public, including “new formulas” for co-existence. Although in different forms and ownace’s, the process of reconciliation is therefore the joint responsibility of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples across the country. Indigenous individuals and communities have already done incredible work in the space of decolonization through knowledge sharing with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike, but an exciting medium for reconciliation has begun to garner attention – entrepreneurship.  

Understanding Reconciliation & Social Innovation: 

Reconciliation is not a uniquely Canadian concept, but rather a global process many historically colonial states are currently undertaking. Adopted by the general assembly in 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples outlines the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of all Indigenous peoples across the globe. Many countries, Canada and Australia included, use this declaration as well as nation-specific documentation as a framework for their work towards reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was founded following the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement in 2007, Canada’s largest class-action settlement in history. The Commission was founded to help facilitate reconciliation among former students, their families, and their communities. In addition, the TRC’s final report outlined 94 Calls to Action that urged the Government of Canada to right the wrongs of the atrocities experienced in residential schools, simultaneously acting as a watchdog of Canada’s ongoing journey towards reconciliation.

In her graduate school thesis Shyra Barberstock, Indigenous entrepreneur and expert on social innovation, defines reconciliation as “building respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada through greater understandings and awareness of Indigenous cultures and history”. She then goes on to explain that in the Canadian context, there are common themes that emerge from the research on the process and implementation of reconciliation strategies. They include: 1) Recognition of Indigenous rights as a prerequisite for reconciliation; 2) Reconciliation cannot occur without justice, and reparations, and accountability for Indigenous rights violations; 3) Reconciliation is a process and land claims negotiations, while significant, are only part of this process; 4) Reconciliation will take time and it requires awareness, engagement, and education of the Canadian public; 5) Reconciliation requires new ‘formulas’ for co-existence of differences within the State. 

Within these common themes, Barberstock explains, we can draw many parallels to the process of reconciliation and the definitions surrounding transformative social innovation. She goes on to clarify that the elements that make up reconciliation (education, engagement and awareness via new formulas, i.e. decolonizing processes) are the exact same as the process of societal transformation through social innovation. Ultimately, Barberstock argues that “when Indigenous entrepreneurs use social innovation to create unique business models that incorporate decolonizing processes, societal transformation will occur in the form of reconciliation”. In practice, and depending on the context, this could take many forms – anything from an Indigenous founder using their product to decolonize thought surrounding Indigenous culture through cultural awareness, to a tech company that utilizes Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing to structure their operations and projects.

Indigenous Social Innovation as Reconciliation: 

Today, over 1.6 million Indigenous peoples and over 600 Indigenous communities reside across the country. Indigenous-owned businesses – all 56,000 of them – contribute over $30 billion annually to Canada’s collective GDP. What’s more, Indigenous peoples are creating businesses at 9 times the rate as non-Indigenous peoples. 

First Nations, Metis and Inuit founders are uniquely posed to operate at the intersections of social and economic entrepreneurship. According to scholar Robert Anderson, Indigenous-owned ventures tend to have characteristics that differentiate them from classical mainstream businesses:  1) An emphasis on communal versus individual ownership; 2) Sharing and group recognition rather than individual recognition; 3) Respect for “mother earth,” Elders, and Knowledge Keepers; 4) A concern about future generations; and, 5) Consensus decision-making. These clear traits of innovation via collaborative community building can be seen as an effortlessly complimentary model to social innovation – a collaborative process to come up with solutions to social problems. 

Beyond innovative business models that prioritize collaboration, community and consensus, Indigenous ventures and their staff often utilize the concept of Two-Eyed Seeing within their operations, explained Barberstock. According to Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall, Two-Eyed Seeing is “the gift of multiple perspectives treasured by many aboriginal peoples and explains that it refers to learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and using both these eyes together for the benefit of all”.  Barberstock argues that this approach is not only complimentary, but essential, to the process of reconciliation as both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples need to see and appreciate each other’s perspectives for a better chance of success.

By utilizing social innovation as a tool for powering disruptive business models and decolonizing processes (i.e. knowledge sharing), Indigenous entrepreneurs are directly challenging the Western ideals of Capitalism – the notion that we are all self-interested members of a society that are only interested in creating benefit and profit for ourselves – and in the process, actively transforming society in the form of reconciliation. 

Bobbie Rose Koe, Dinjii Zhuh Adventures

Based out of Whitehorse, Yukon, Dinjii Zhuh Adventures is an outdoor adventure company specializing in tours of northern First Nations territories, Indigenous knowledge sharing, and community empowerment. Founded by Bobbie Rose Koe, DZA currently offers three services to clients – Indigenous youth trips, community tours, and certified Indigenous guides that are hireable by secondary tourism companies.  

Jean Erasmus, Dene Wellness Warriors

Jean Erasmus is Dene and Cree originally from Fort Chipewyan and now makes Yellowknife her home. She is the co-founder of Dene Wellness Warriors, an organization that exists to educate and inspire people towards a life of wellness through counselling and educational workshops. As a child, she was fortunate enough to experience living on the land with her family.  She later spent 6 years in Indian Residential Schools (IRS) and is a third-generation survivor. Indigenous Services Canada has designated Jean to provide therapeutic services for Residential School Survivors and their families in the Yellowknife area. She is also our Startup Women Advocacy Network representative from the Northwest Territories.

Dawn Setford Iehstoseranónnha, Pass the Feather & Indigenous Arts Collective of Canada

Serial entrepreneur Dawn Setford Iehstoseranónnha is the founder of Pass the Feather, the Indigenous Arts Collective of Canada, and IndigenARTSY.  As a feather keeper, Dawn is sharing her knowledge with Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences through art, conferences, consulting, as well as workshops. The Indigenous Arts Collective of Canada, founded in 2012, was founded in order to preserve and revitalize endangered forms of Indigenous art across the country. As a compliment to the above businesses, Dawn also runs IndigARTSY – an online marketplace for Indigenous artists to share and sell their work.

Jeff Ward, Animikii

Based out of Victoria, British Columbia, Animikii is an Indigenous technology company founded by Jeff Ward. Utilizing social innovation through Indigenous technology, the Animikii team offers web design and software development services to potential clients doing exciting work for Indigenous peoples. The team prioritizes Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing in all operations and projects.

Mallory Yawnghwe, Indigenous Box

Founded by Mallory Yawnghwe out of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Treaty 6 Territory, Indigenous Box is a subscription box and corporate gifting service that promotes Indigenous entrepreneurship. The curation and amplification of high quality, meaningful products through a wide array of offerings creates opportunities for new and established Indigenous businesses alike to reach new customers and enter new market spaces. 

Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow, Birch Bark Coffee Company

Founded by Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow, Manitoulin-based Birch Bark Coffee Company roasts organic, Fair Trade coffee that is SPP certified, grown and produced by farmers that are Indigenous descendants. Beyond their educational, culturally significant packaging, Birch Bark Coffee also donates a portion of all profits towards the purchase and installation of a water purification unit for an Indigenous home in Canada – bringing much needed attention to the ongoing boiled water advisories that impact Indigenous communities across the country. 

Sharing resources, support, and expertise is an invaluable way specialized support organizations across the entrepreneurial ecosystem are empowering Indigenous founders to start or continue on their impactful journeys to societal transformation. 

NACCA (National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association)

NACCA  is a network of over 50 Aboriginal Financial Institutions (AFIs) dedicated to stimulating economic growth for all Indigenous people in Canada. The AFI network has provided 50,000 loans totaling $3 billion to businesses owned by First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people. NACCA’s goal is to provide opportunities for Indigenous entrepreneurs and increase prosperity – both socially and economically – for Indigenous people in Canada. 

CCAB (Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business)

CCAB builds bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, businesses, and communities through diverse programming. Since 1982, CCAB has been providing tools, training, network building, major business awards, and national events in an effort to increase the economic prosperity of Indigenous communities.

Pow Wow Pitch

Pow Wow Pitch is a grassroots community of Indigenous entrepreneurs, purpose-built to provide a safe, collaborative, supportive and empowering platform for inspiration, education, mentorship, celebration, and reconciliation through entrepreneurship. Founded by Sunshine Tenasco in 2014, Pow Wow Pitch offers numerous resources to thousands of  Indigenous founders, including: on-demand training, involvement with the Indigenous Entrepreneur Awards, educational materials, mentorship, storytelling platforms and, of course, the famous Pow Wow Pitch competition. 


EntrepreNorth is a project on MakeWay’s shared platform that is focused on empowering Indigenous entrepreneurs to build sustainable businesses and livelihoods across northern Canada. EntreNorth has many offerings, including ideation workshops, business growth programs, and curated funding directories. The team believes Northern Indigenous entrepreneurs can be catalysts of prosperity and drivers of social change within their own communities.


An Okwaho Equal Source and Queen’s University initiative, with funding from the WES Ecosystem Fund for Southern Ontario, Kwe-Biz provides Indigenous-led online and in-person business training and mentorship for Indigenous women entrepreneurs. Whether you’re in the startup phase or have an existing business you would like to grow, Kwe-Biz provides ongoing support.

Raven Capital

Raven Capital is on a mission to provide the capital and expertise for Indigenous entrepreneurs to thrive. They aim to empower Indigenous entrepreneurs and revitalize the Indigenous economy with credibility, accountability, and transparency. They facilitate the flow of capital through impact investing and support the ongoing revitalization of the Indigenous economy in Canada and the United States.

BDC and First Nations University of Canada

BDC is proud to partner with the First Nations University of Canada and Reconciliation Education to offer the 4 Seasons of Reconciliation training, available now at no cost to Canadian entrepreneurs. This unique 3-hour online course promotes a renewed relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canadians through transformative learning about truth and reconciliation. Each short module can be completed at the learner’s pace and provides a mix of learning tools such as slideshows, videos, films, and quizzes.

From coast to coast to coast, Indigenous entrepreneurs are developing innovative, exciting new ways of doing business that are helping to educate Canadians and transform the society we all live in in an overwhelmingly positive way. If reconciliation is a process that requires the engagement of all people, Indigenous founders have been leading the way. Today on the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, and everyday after, it’s time for non-Indigenous peoples to do their part – listen and learn.

Startup Canada urges all reading to explore the topic of reconciliation for yourself, think of small ways you can make a difference through your business, and engage with/support Indigenous entrepreneurs across the country. 

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