Insights in working with Indigenous businesses

By Vickie Whitehead
Jun 16, 2022
Photo credit: scyther5/iStock/Getty Images

Working with Indigenous businesses is becoming more common for companies in BC that may want to:

  1. Increase their diversity by hiring more Indigenous people;
  2. Engage in real economic partnerships, joint ventures and/or ownership opportunities; and/or 
  3. Increase Indigenous procurement in their supply chain.

Here’s my personal experience working as a Cree Métis accountant, along with some ways that you can start working with Indigenous businesses.    


Indigenous: Refers to Métis, First Nation, and Inuit peoples.

First Nation: Refers to a band of Indians as defined in the Indian Act. There are over 630 First Nations in Canada, 203 in BC alone. 

In the 1990s, I worked at the federal government, at what was then called Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. I was in my second year of obtaining my accounting designation and I was hired to review the audited financial statements of one-third of the First Nations in BC. I travelled to communities when there were financial difficulties identified in their audit, to work with the First Nation on creating their five-year financial plan.  

Each time I visited a First Nation, I heard their story and learned about their history, their needs, and the wrongdoings of prior and existing governments. I was well-trained, well-educated, and understood the government processes, but I learned there was a real gap between what I thought I knew, what I thought they needed, and what they actually needed to achieve financial sustainability.

There have been some positive changes since then, mostly as a result of First Nations in BC that legally fought and won court cases regarding rights, title, and treaty rights, as well as human rights. Many non-profit organizations have formed, including AFOA BC and the FNFMB,  who worked with the Federal government to make needed changes to various financial legislation. 

These have led to changes in business arrangements between the profit sector and Indigenous communities. For example, impact benefit agreements are evolving into true partnerships. Some First Nations see economic prosperity as a way to exercise financial sovereignty and a means to close the socio-economic gap that may exist for their members. Accordingly, over the past 25 years, entrepreneurship has increased exponentially for First Nation owned corporations, social enterprises, and Indigenous individuals.   

With this in mind, here are some ways that you can prepare your company to work with Indigenous businesses:

Truth and reconciliation 

As a business in Canada, reconciliation should be on your agenda, as well as how it could be reflected in your corporate culture. A starting point is to enact Call To Action 92 (Business and Reconciliation) from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. This call to action is to “commit to meaningful consultation, building respectful relationships, and obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before proceeding with economic development projects.”

Further demonstrating that reconciliation is a business responsibility, questions such as, “How are you enacting reconciliation in your company?” are beginning to show up on requests for proposals and interviews. If reconciliation is done correctly, it can engage staff and management in important conversations.

Define your value 

Here are some questions that your organization can ask to define your value proposition:  

  • What are you bringing that is of value to the Indigenous business?
  • Is it of value now or in the future?  
  • What other value can you add?  

Some newer or growing businesses may need support for business management, or could benefit from mentoring, while others are well established and do not require those supports. Before offering support, familiarize yourself with the business and their needs through your discussions first, to determine if these supports are appropriate or required – if they aren’t, your offer might be perceived as paternalistic.

Do your research 

Before reaching out to a business, get to know them. For example, a First Nation corporation can have a CEO, CFO, board of directors, and report to a Chief and Council who act on behalf of their membership. Some First Nations businesses are run out of a First Nation administration office. There are many variations in this structure based on what works for a specific First Nation. Learn about the business through their website, Indigenous Services Canada, and other sources. An Indigenous businesses owned by an individual may have a separate office, they may work from home, or may not be affiliated with their First Nation.

It may take some time

Some companies go wrong in thinking that because they have worked with one First Nation, they understand them all. This is not the case – there is variation in values, experience, administration, availability, and goals and objectives, and these variations show up in business decisions. 

In the case of a First Nation corporation, depending on if the work is done on-reserve or in their traditional territory, others may need to be consulted and provincial rules may not apply. Other factors that may affect your business relationship are: taxation, location (on-reserve or off-reserve), upcoming elections, land designations, and/or environmental acts, all of which take time and effort to understand.  

These are just a few ways to start thinking about working with an Indigenous business. Approaching this relationship from the perspective of learning, listening, and understanding first will go a long way in helping you reach your goals. 


Vickie Whitehead, CPA, CGA, CAFM is the director of Indigenous Services at Crowe MacKay LLP. Based on her 22 years of industry and government of Canada experience, Vickie works with her clients to help them achieve success in their sovereignty goals, specifically in the areas of trust creation and management, board governance, and financial management.    

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