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The American Indian Quarterly 29.1&2 (2005) 1-23

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Relating Practice to Theory in Indigenous Entrepreneurship

A Pilot Investigation of the Kitsaki Partnership Portfolio

In Canada and elsewhere around the world, Indigenous Peoples are struggling to rebuild their "nations" and improve the socioeconomic circumstances of their people. Many see economic development as the key to success. This is certainly true for Indigenous people in Canada (the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit, collectively called Aboriginal or Indigenous people). Among them, participation in the global economy through entrepreneurship and business development is widely accepted as the key to economy building and nation "re-building." As elaborated in the next section, the demand is that this participation must be on their own terms for their own purposes, and traditional lands, history, culture, and values play a critical role. There is an intriguing symmetry between the modernity of the desire for global business competence and competitiveness and the insistence upon the distinctive importance of cultural heritage in developing new enterprise. The way that the two superficially contrasting concepts of innovation and heritage are combined in the field of Indigenous entrepreneurship has been expounded by Hindle and Lansdowne.1

Recognizing the challenges they face in attempting to compete in the global economy on their own terms, Indigenous people are increasingly developing enterprises in the form of partnerships of all types among themselves and with non-Indigenous enterprises. As both a form and a context of business organization, the partnership or alliance model is particularly fraught with the need to blend the old with the new, heritage with innovation. This study is a preliminary investigation of the Kitsaki initiative of the Lac La Ronge Indian band. In it we: [End Page 1]

  • explore several ventures involved in the partnership, asking key operatives for their opinions about the factors that explain success and failure;
  • distill the explanations into as few, all-embracing factors as possible;
  • relate the findings to the emerging theory of Indigenous entrepreneurship, with particular reference to the suggested paradigm of Indigenous entrepreneurship developed by Hindle and Lansdowne (2002);
  • project the results of the investigation into suggestions for a more structured program of future research.


Aboriginal Economic Development in Canada—Problem and Response

The current socioeconomic circumstances of the Aboriginal people in Canada are abysmal. According to 1991 census data, 42 percent of Aboriginal people living on a reserve received social welfare, while only 8 percent of other Canadians did.2 Unemployment among Aboriginal people stood at 24.6 percent, almost 2.5 times the national rate of 10.2 percent. The on-reserve rate was even higher, often well above 30 percent and approaching 90 percent in isolated communities. Housing conditions tell a similar tale, with 65 percent of on-reserve and 49 percent of off-reserve Aboriginal people living in substandard housing.

As bad as these current employment levels are, the prospects for the future are worse. According to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (RCAP 1996), the Aboriginal population will rise by 52 percent (compared to 22 percent for non-Aboriginal Canadians) between 1991 and 2016. During the same period the working-age Aboriginal population will increase by 72 percent, compared to a 23 percent non-Aboriginal increase. Based on these figures, the Royal Commission looked to the future. In fact, it looked to two futures. One flows from the continuation of the status quo—a future where Aboriginal peoples' socioeconomic circumstances remain at their current, abysmally low level in comparison with those of the broader Canadian population. Under this scenario the annual economic cost of the underdevelopment of Aboriginal people is expected to rise to $11 billion in 2016 from $7.5 billion in 1996, to say nothing of the tremendous human cost. [End Page 2]

The other RCAP future is one where "something" is done to bring Aboriginal socioeconomic circumstances up to the Canadian average. This "something" is economic development. This...