May 8, 2020
By Heather Exner-Pirot
You’re the first person to fill your new role, as Senior Indigenous Advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture. What attracted you to the role?
I’m excited that the Ministry of Agriculture, and other ministries, are starting to create positions such as this one. Inviting Indigenous voices in and having us around the table is key to Indigenous engagement and relationship strengthening and building.
I was really attracted to the role after learning about their true passion and intentional ask – it was clear this position was not just a check box for the Ministry. They want to do and be better, want to strengthen their relationships and build a successful Indigenous engagement framework that will create opportunities for First Nations and Métis people in the agriculture sector.
I also have some personal knowledge and experience in the sector. I grew up in a rural community and had family members and friends working in agriculture. We were surrounded by it. Within a 10-mile radius of my home, there was crop growing, cow/calf operations, dairy farms, community sheep pasture, hog farming, elk farm and berry farms. The best part of our area was the amazing hunting grounds, but the agriculture was great too.
The responsibilities and the roles of this new position are in my wheelhouse. Any time I can journey alongside others in increasing cultural awareness, education and understanding, I’m in. It’s what I love to do. I look forward to the opportunities ahead and sharing my voice in the planning, policy, programming initiatives and strategies within the Ministry of Agriculture.
You also own your own consulting company, Converging Pathways. What pushed you to start up your own company, and what has it taught you about business?
We launched the company in 2014. My business partner is non-Indigenous, a young man who is an executive in government. We realised that one of the biggest barriers to building relationships between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people was a lack of understanding about our shared history. Racism and misconceptions really comes down to a misunderstanding of our culture. So, we wanted to break down barriers and ignite hearts to create a better future for our children and grandchildren.
Our philosophy is to honour and acknowledge the past, and then bring it to the present, and finally harness it for the future, to come together in relationships between Indigenous peoples and all Canadians. We are fortunate to have many people in our circle and one of our dear friends and a mentor, Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, Ambassador of Reconciliation Canada uses the term Namwayut (Kwak’ wala language) which means “We are all One” – regardless of colour, creed, language, or race. This is how we live our lives and it is the overarching theme of how we conduct business with Converging Pathways in everything we do.
I’ve learned a lot in every position I’ve had, but having my own company has heightened and highlighted to me that everyone’s voice around the table is important. And we probably won’t go in the right direction if we don’t have those voices.
Also, giving people the necessary skills to do the business side of it, and to create employment, is so important. We’ve learned a lot, including walking alongside First Nation and Métis communities, Elders, youth and Chief & Council through some big projects. Inclusivity is so important.
How do you think we can attract more Indigenous women into the business sector?
I come from an academic background, and one thing I’ve seen grow are programs and services for Indigenous women entrepreneurs. If you look at what post-secondary institutions are doing in business faculties and schools, you will find much more Indigenous and women-centred content. Indigenous women’s post-secondary numbers are rising exponentially and Indigenous women are leading more and more in business, government, communities and families.
Equally, the labour market is focusing more and more on equity, diversity and inclusion. People are recognizing the need to have diverse voices around the table, seeing it as highly desirable and necessary for economic development. In my view, Indigenous women, all women, are transforming the Canadian labour market.
In terms of business culture, Indigenous women have an innate desire to follow their passions. We are already a very matriarchal culture – our women manage the households, the finances, the children, and help community members; we’re just not getting paid for that in most instances. But the foundation is there and the opportunities are there. In business when you ask Indigenous entrepreneurs, whether male or female, who was their greatest mentor, a good portion respond that it was their mother.
I will add that while there are endless opportunities, and women have been on the front line of change in our communities, we need to create safe spaces for women entrepreneurs. We have a lot of stories in our backgrounds and some of them are not good. So offering a safe space is very important. The inequities, challenges and issues that women face as they strive to fulfill the responsibilities of a job can at times, be very difficult.
You’re now working on a PhD in International Development. What is the focus of your studies?
My Master’s degree was in leadership and management with an Indigenous focus – corporate governance, strategic planning. The biggest barrier in leadership and management between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people was the barriers that exist in understanding, communicating and building trusting relationships. I’m working on my PhD in international development, I focused on human capacity to create safety, nurture honesty and vulnerability and be patient enough to listen and rise from the integrity of our beings to build trust and relationship. As a result, this breaks down barriers and improves relationships and increased opportunities for Indigenous peoples.
As part of that, I’m looking at what other indigenous groups are doing in different parts of the world, to document best practices. How are we collectively changing the future together for our children and grandchildren?
Where do you see the most opportunity for Saskatchewan’s Indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses, both in agriculture and in general?
I see the growth in finance, education, and professional careers as unlimited, and these tend to be higher paid fields for our entrepreneurs.
In agriculture, anything around soil, water and air quality protection is so important to our people. We protect Mother Earth. We can contribute to developing a strong and sustainable agricultural sector on and off reserve. We need more Indigenous people, young people, to come in and create and fill those sustainable agriculture opportunities. Saskatchewan has the largest Indigenous agricultural land base in Canada. I believe post-COVID, there will be opportunities for First Nations and Métis people to grow in this sector, and access to more capital to create long term sustainable businesses, and governments will have a role to play in assisting this process.