When recent PhD graduate Ketan Goswami set out to study First Nations and Métis entrepreneurs in the Canadian prairies, he originally planned to focus on resource scarcity and institutional inequalities.
But as he met Indigenous Saskatchewan business owners, their stories of resilience and determination inspired him to instead explore the positive aspects of their journeys. He discovered aspiring role models who have been able to survive and thrive despite the challenges.
‘Survivance’ seeds success
Current entrepreneurship literature argues entrepreneurs are driven by opportunities to make profits, like those in Silicon Valley, or by necessity to combat poverty. Neither category neatly captures the unique motivation of these self-employed Indigenous entrepreneurs.
Goswami found they were more driven by survivance, a term coined by Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor. It describes survival as a motivation for action, with a notion of resistance or opposition to institutional inequality displayed through an active presence and storytelling.
“All these Indigenous entrepreneurs are very educated. They aren’t operating these businesses just to subsist or make a livelihood; they’re also making a statement,” Goswami said.
“They’re saying, ‘We still exist. We’re still here. We’re not gone despite all the policies, which are meant to erase our culture, our ways of life.”
Problems unique to the prairies
Goswami’s work first acknowledges the longstanding systemic racism barring Indigenous entrepreneurs’ basic business needs: accessible roads, clean water and internet service.
He also cites research showing that in terms of community wellbeing across Canada, Indigenous communities in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba fare worse than their counterparts in British Columbia and Ontario. This is due to geographical factors causing a lack of access to customers through urban centres and populations like Vancouver and Toronto, and historical factors, including the timing, context or absence (for instance, in British Columbia) of signed treaties.
While institutional support and federal funding may be available for community- or band-based Indigenous entrepreneurs, businesses operated by Indigenous individuals don’t find similar support, with systemic racist attitudes also hindering their access to commercial opportunities.
“It is sometimes easier for an immigrant to come in and quickly start or buy a business than an Indigenous person,” Goswami said. “I heard people share they would rather sell [a business] to an immigrant than an Indigenous person, based on a stereotypical assumption that even if they’re educated, they don’t know how to run a business, so that’s an additional level of disadvantage.
“If you are willing to start a business, which, by itself is extremely difficult, you still have to operate in an ecosystem where your suppliers, your buyers, are still holding these stereotypes against your business,” he said. “That makes it difficult for you to grow your market.”
Strategies for strength
Yet, Indigenous entrepreneurs persist, nonetheless.
To combat the liabilities of everyday racism, micro aggressions and inter-generational trauma, and to balance the sometimes-conflicting business philosophies of the Indigenous and Western/European worlds, Goswami discovered a consistent use of reclamation, cultural practices, education and humour.
Among the Indigenous entrepreneurs “wearing their Indigeneity as a badge of honour” is Jennifer Dubois. Dubois owns and operates Miyosiwin Salon Spa in Regina.
Her decision to brand her business as “Miyosiwin,” the Cree name for beauty, is significant.
“Given the context where Indigenous identities, beliefs and languages have been stigmatized, it is an important aspect of regaining and reclaiming pride in her distinct Indigenous identity, despite the price to be paid in displaying something historically marginalized,” Goswami said.
Dubois, the 2021 recipient of the Women Entrepreneurs of Saskatchewan Indigenous entrepreneur award, offers services employing cultural sensitivity and respect, honouring First Nations beliefs that hair is sacred.
It is a practice she is proud to teach and share in a business where she attempts to employ and train Indigenous stylists and estheticians, providing work placements to young Indigenous adults to help broaden her talent pipeline.
A fire at a neighbouring business in 2018 left extensive damage to Dubois’ salon. Yet it wasn’t long before her social media posts reflected the humour Goswami saw exhibited by Indigenous entrepreneurs repeatedly. Alongside an image of firefighters on the scene, Dubois proclaimed her business “voted hottest salon,” while a subsequent post joked that her establishment was now “100 per cent smudged.”
“It may sound trivial, but humour is one effective coping strategy,” Goswami said. “Jokes about a situation reduce some of the day-to-day stress and help in relieving some trauma they experience.”
When mixed martial arts and self-defense instructor Shana Pasapa, founded Power Our Women (POW), she had very few Indigenous mentors. She relied on the cultural teachings and ceremonies she learned growing up on White Bear First Nation to deal with her questions of belonging. She continues to invoke the Indigenous medicine wheel to find balance as an entrepreneur reconciling the differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous business philosophies.
Inspired by the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, her business has provided more than 5,000 women with self-defense training and “honours the matriarchs” of her cultural roots and heritage.
Hope for the future
Among Ross’ credits is his production of the short film Keep Going My Daughter, which was selected to screen at Hot Docs in 2019. The story is told through letters a young couple writes to their daughter since before she was born, sharing their dreams as a new generation of Indigenous parents still healing from the traumas of colonialism. It reflects an optimism shared by many entrepreneurs Goswami met.
“I would ask what gives them hope and they would tell me it was focusing on the future generation,” he said.
Soon to be an assistant professor at Warwick Business School in the U.K., Goswami feels privileged to still be in touch with many of the entrepreneurs he met, following their journeys and the achievements of their children on a day-to-day basis.
“I’m seeing what that future generation is accomplishing. There’s so much richness in what they are building. It gives them, and observers like me, a lot of hope.”