Plans are in the works to deliver Canada its first-ever, Indigenous Business and Cultural District. What are First Nations’ business owners saying about this? And will it actually come to fruition?
Above: Construction site at corner of Jarvis and Dundas Sts. that will contain (among other things) a business incubator, which will be a part of the prospective Indigenous business district.
By: Daniel Calabretta
Being the daughter of a father in the Canadian Armed Forces, Toronto First Nations’ business owner, Candice Holmstrom, moved around quite a bit throughout the course of her childhood. She lived in Europe, as well as parts of eastern and western Canada. Crossing continents, Holmstrom took a liking to one of the most quaint and unsuspecting towns in Canada—Cold Lake, Alta. The reason being is that Holmstrom, for the first time ever, got to experience life on an actual military base. “Before that, we used to live just outside of the military bases,” she says. “It kind of had everything you need[ed].”
In 1987, Holmstrom settled into a different location—about 3,400 kilometers away from the place she enjoyed for part of her childhood. That would be, The Beaches—a neighbourhood located east of downtown Toronto. Holmstrom, an interior designer, purchased a commercial building near Neville Park Boulevard and Queen Street East, for her design firm. She has been there for the past 30 years. “Essentially, I just wanted to have a space for my practice.” Holmstrom lives in The Beaches area and has raised her daughter there as well.
When asked about the prospective development of an Indigenous business and cultural district—news that surfaced back in January—and whether she would uproot her design practice, Holmstrom did not rule it out entirely. “Depending on when it would be open…” Holmstrom, who is of Ojibwe descent, established her company “CH Designs Inc.” back in 1985. Being the president of her company as well as owning the building she conducts business in, Holmstrom explains how it’s not really feasible to move now. “I’m not sure I’d be the right candidate to end up going into that complex,” she says. “I’ve owned the building since 1987. So I don’t think I’d really want to go be a tenant in another location. It wouldn’t make economic sense.” Holmstrom says that, over the years, she has heard rumours and rumblings within the Indigenous business community that a First Nations’ BIA would be coming to Toronto. “Over the past 20 years or so, I’ve heard about these ideas. So I’m not sure if this is actually going to come to fruition.”
Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27-Toronto Centre-Rosedale), who initiated the idea in 2011, says that even though plans for this development were announced a couple of months ago, it will still take some time to complete. “This is a multi-year process,” Wong-Tam says. “It’s going to be one where we’re going to move very diligently and carefully through.” Shortly after she was elected in 2010, Wong-Tam visited the various neighbourhoods and associations within her Ward—to gain a sense of the area she’d be representing. “I recognized there was a really large number of agencies (and non-profit organizations) providing social services and supports for people of Indigenous background. But what I recognized was that they did not have a commercial core to their activities—so therefore, it wasn’t focused on entrepreneurship and business,” she says. At that time, Wong-Tam says she noticed that there wasn’t a strong sense of cultural identity along Dundas Street East (from Church Street to Sherbourne Street), as opposed to places like Greektown and Chinatown. “I started to ask the question to Indigenous stakeholders and partners in the community, ‘Is there such a thing as an Indigenous business district in Canada that’s not tied to a land treaty or [another] legal obligation? Does it have value for us to try and create one in our neighbourhood?’” Of the approximately 75,000 First Nations people who reside within the City of Toronto, Wong-Tam’s Ward 27 has one of the largest concentrations of Indigenous people. Around 2011, Wong-Tam began discussions with numerous Indigenous agencies and leaders within her Ward and asked if an Indigenous business and cultural district was something that they should explore. The people that Wong-Tam spoke to said that such a development would have “value” to the area. This was the inception of the idea for the district.
The Jarvis and Dundas Sts.-area is the prospective site for Toronto’s Indigenous business and cultural district, consisting of: street-level businesses, cafes, artisan shops, an international centre for Indigenous knowledge and much more.
Wong-Tam has obtained a prospective location for the district, at the intersection of Jarvis and Dundas Sts., according to The Huffington Post. Wong-Tam will be working in conjunction with Chief Stacey Laforme of Missisissaugas of the New Credit First Nation and JP Gladu, the president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), to bring this project full circle.
Gladu, who has held the president and CEO title for the past four-and-a-half years, says that he’s “pretty hopeful” this development will happen. “I think it’s going to take political will. It’s going to take innovative policy and practices with the city, and it’s going to take leadership on behalf of people like Chief Stacey Laforme and his community,” Gladu says. “I’m not a betting person, but I hope (and many of us hope) that it does come to fruition.”
Gladu alludes to the fact that Indigenous business owners and entrepreneurs are becoming more self-sustaining and are flourishing within Canada—particularly in Ontario. “We do compete on a day-to-day basis. We are winning more and more.” And the statistics from the 2016 CCAB Promise and Prosperity Report on Aboriginal Businesses in Ontario seem to buttress this point. From 2010 to 2015, Indigenous “net any innovation” is up eight per cent, the introduction of new products and services is up six per cent and the introduction of new processes is up 13 per cent (please see info graphic below). Moreover, Indigenous businesses’ net profit (from 2010 to 2015) was up 12 per cent.
Above: The presence of Indigenous employees, entrepreneurs and business owners within Ontario is quite apparent.
“Indigenous people, when they really put their minds into business development, they take a very innovative approach because they have a fresh look at the way business operates,” says Andrea Johnston, CEO of Johnston Research Inc., an Indigenous evaluation business and consulting firm. “We need the kind of capacity development to support these undertakings.” This prospective development may help in addressing the issue of unemployment and lack of job opportunities for Indigenous people—an issue that was tied for second, in terms of significance, among urban First Nations people surveyed in the 2010 Urban Aboriginal Peoples study. “I think you’ll hear that from most Aboriginal people in the city,” says lawyer Nicholas McDonald, who’s of Anishinaabe descent. “The people that I’m around in the Aboriginal space are always kind of looking for side gigs, side work and trying to create things. But it’s hard to get space in the city.”
The district will contain a start-up centre embedded with Indigenous history, street-level businesses, cafes and artisan shops, as well as an international centre for Indigenous knowledge. “Having a district where it’s open and welcoming, everyone will be happy to go there and learn a lot about each other,” Laforme told The Huffington Post on January 12. Tina Ottereyes, a manager at the Indigenous restaurant “Tea-N-Bannock,” northeast of Leslieville, was excited when the news broke. “I think I read about it on blogTO. When I saw it, right away I shared it—because I was so excited about it,” Ottereyes says. “[It’s] a chance for First Nations people to showcase their culture, language and what they have to offer.”
According to Coun. Wong-Tam’s office, a feasibility report regarding the district is currently being produced by Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.