A short history of Social Enterprise in Canada’s Rural & Aboriginal Communities by David LePage, Chair, Social Enterprise Council of Canada
Most histories of North America and Canada begin when the Europeans landed and immigrated in the 16th through 19th centuries. But the Indigenous communities lived across the continent for many centuries prior to then.
“By the time of European invasions, Indigenous peoples had occupied and shaped every part of the Americas, established extensive trade networks and roads, and were sustaining their populations by adapting to specific natural environments, but they also adapted nature to suit human ends… They conducted trade along roads that crisscrossed the land masses and waterways of the American continents.” An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
The centuries that followed saw a resource based extractive economy, along with residential schools, cultural deprivation and reserve-based living for the First Nations people, leave most of rural Canada in an externally forced socially, culturally and economically devastated situation.
Add the immense geography of Canada with four and one-half time zones East to West, and a massive land base south to north where more than 90% live within 600km of the U.S border, and the remaining 10% are spread sporadically throughout the rest of Canada. The average density for Canada is 3 people per square kilometer. In Scotland the density is 65 persons per square kilometer and even 8 persons per square kilometer in Highland Council area.
Fast forward to today
Today, many parts of rural Canada struggle with a disadvantaged social and economic infrastructure, pockets of extreme poverty, and poor health, housing, and educational opportunities. We have a complex, systems problem of deprivation across multiple capitals – social, economic, environmental and cultural.
So what is the potential role of social enterprise in this situation?
Especially in the Aboriginal communities where they are the opposite of what would be viewed from a traditional business environment as a valuable, or even a viable market.
For me social enterprises, (community-based businesses focused on social impact above shareholder value), have always been a valuable and effective tool in addressing community based complex socio-economic issues. Social enterprise changes the market expectations from primarily a financial profit generator to using business to create community value.
And fascinatingly, there is an emerging collection of successful social enterprise models taking on these issues across Canada, and in many Aboriginal communities. Some examples include:
- The Higher Education Society on Haida Gwaii, a rural west coast island of less than 5,000 people hosts a university certified course every semester. The economic impact, local employment and sharing of First Nations culture and local environment is all based on a successful social enterprise business model.
- Aki energy in Manitoba is an Aboriginal owned social enterprise model that works with First Nations to start green businesses in their communities, creating local jobs and growing strong local economies.
- The Osoyoos First Nations Band partners with private sector businesses to maximize the business opportunities in their community. Now operating a winery, cultural centre, resort, golf course and an ever-expanding line of businesses that are bringing employment and economic advantages to the entire region.
- In Ontario the rural based Aboriginal Friendship Centres collaborate through a shared on-line marketing and e-commerce site. They take their often remote, tiny markets and expand them to the entire web-based market place.
- On the northern end of Vancouver Island, KUTERRA, the land based salmon farm is an example of the Namgis First Nation’s focus on combining economic and environmental sustainability.
Learning from the past to look to the future
If we do conceive of social enterprise as a means to use trade to create healthy communities, we might look back at the original Indigenous commerce of the period before the arrival of outside populations as the very foundation of the social enterprise model. They were trading corn and vegetables from one region in exchange for the metal ores and gems of another region. Their purpose of commerce was to share their local wealth to build healthier communities.
Let’s hope those very traditional values of social enterprise can be one of the tools that contribute to the healing and revitalization of rural and Aboriginal communities in the 21st century – not only in Canada, but in rural and remote communities internationally.
To keep up to date with David and Social Enterprise in Canada, you can follow him on Twitter @David__LePage.
You can also hear more from David and the issues affecting rural Canada at www.socialenterprisesummit.org.uk