Indigenous Prosperity Centre’s Executive Director Christina Clarke (pictured above) was interviewed for the CHEK Spotlight series during Rising Economy 2022, a conference held in Victoria November 15 – 17, produced by South Island Prosperity Partnership (SIPP), that discussed how to move our economy forward in a time of great turbulence.
During the interview, Christina shared the vision, purpose and values of IPC. Here’s a synopsis of the conversation.
How did the Indigenous Prosperity Centre come to be?
It was an idea born out of the Rising Economy Task Force that SIPP convened during the response to COVID. There was an Indigenous Economy committee as part of that task force, and the committee recommendations concluded that we really needed to strengthen our regional Indigenous economy.
What’s your vision for the Centre, and what are your immediate goals?
What we’re attempting to do is highlight the Indigenous economy that’s already here, and augment and support and cheerlead for all of the amazing things that are happening. We have all the ingredients for a thriving economy; we just need to connect the dots between them and be more inclusive.
The Indigenous Prosperity Center is Indigenous-led, and it will go in the direction that Indigenous businesses and First Nations want it to go. First, we connect and see what’s important, what are the priorities, what’s already working, and where can we support that or where can we connect people to other folks that are doing similar work. We don’t want to work in silos or replicate work already being done. We want to be more efficient and targeted and find ways to magnify the benefits of projects.
And is this initially focused on the South Island? Who will you be working with?
We will be engaging with the 10 First Nations on the South Island, as well as the Metis Nation of Greater Victoria and the Victoria Native Friendship Centre. There are about 20,000 Indigenous and Metis people living in our region, and the Centre is here to help provide a connection point into the regional economy. So we’ll also be working with the universities and colleges. We’ll be working with financial institutions and industry organizations and local governments to connect the dots between all these partners.
What drew you to join IPC as its inaugural Executive Director?
What I found through my work with the Songhees Nation is that efforts to engage in the regional economy is a form of reconciliation. It’s economic reconciliation. It’s taking a seat at the table, in the case of the Lekwungen people. It’s reemerging in this local economy that they were central to for thousands of years – a reemergence of an Indigenous economy that has always existed.
Can we talk about the South Island economy that existed before colonial settlements?
This land has been a centre for trade for at least 10,000 years. Canoes came from all over to gather here. One of the trade items was Camas, which is a food staple. Folks would come here to bring their goods and trade, and when the Hudson Bay Fort was built, there was lots of trade with the fort. The Lekwungen people helped to build the fort. It was the Indian Act and the subsequent exclusion from the economy that drove the Nations out.
And in the case of the Songhees Nation, literally relocating from the reserve downtown here out into Esquimalt, which at that time meant being virtually kicked out of the economy. So economic reconciliation is a return to the economy and a return to the rightful place within it.
The misconception that Europeans brought commerce here is part of an outdated and misguided narrative. How does the narrative have to change to bring it in line with the Indigenous reality instead of myths and stories that aren’t fact?
One thing that’s helpful to think about is how do we define prosperity? And in an Indigenous context, it’s not just about profit. Most Indigenous businesses are social enterprises by design. They’re intended to contribute to society and make it a better place. And prosperity is defined not just about the wealth that we generate, but our health and wellbeing and the wellbeing of our environment.
What Indigenous people bring to the economy is that awareness of the importance of taking care of one another, taking care of the land, and making sure that everyone benefits from the things that we do. And I think that particularly at this time when we need climate change solutions, we know there are many Indigenous businesses focused on that area.
There are a number of First Nations on the South Island that are very interested in the marine industry space, including vessel and ocean cleanup, it’s part of their innate sense of responsibility for land stewardship, and there’s economic opportunity in it.
Indigenous participation in the ocean economy appears to be growing – what are your thoughts on that?
If you’re looking at a map of the South Island, you see that First Nation communities are oriented along the coast, and their economies have historically been based on the ocean. It’s the grocery store, it’s the transportation route, it’s the playground, it’s the core of life. So that focus was already there, and the Nations view opportunities through this lens.
A recent example is the DFO funded Salish Sea Initiative, which aligned with what the Nations were already interested in working on, and that was to get out there on the water with their own vessels, their own marine biologists, their own crews, and monitor the territory and take care of the territory.
So we have all of those assets out in the water, and they’re poised to support emergency spill response, for example.
You know, looking at T’Sou-ke First Nation and Sci’anew First Nation, for example, it’s a natural fit. It’s something that they’re interested in, and it’s a need that we all have. Sci’anew led the development of a commercial diving team. They’re ready to get out there and monitor the hulls of ships and see if there’s any damage. It’s a real opportunity to do something wonderful for the environment, something that generates prosperity for the people and great paying jobs too.
Can we talk about the challenges Indigenous businesses are up against?
Partly it’s economies of scale. We have very small communities for the most part. Songhees Nation, for example, has about 650 people. Esquimalt Nation is about three quarters of that amount. So that’s challenging from a governance perspective to have enough funding to operate all the programs and services for a small group, but you still need the same number of services to offer.
People in band offices are very, very busy, often wearing two or three hats. For them, economic activity is another layer, another new thing. And these are unfunded positions. So we have First Nations governments that are trying to increase their portfolios. And economic development is one area that’s a priority, but there is a challenge to get the capital, to get people involved, to invest, to do those initial investments.
That’s why what we’re wanting to do with the Indigenous Prosperity Center is connect opportunities to First Nations. When we all understand what one another is trying to achieve, it becomes easier for us to help and to connect people to the right people to help their dreams come true.
Are there any projects you’re currently working on?
We’re currently learning from the Nations about what they want us to support and how they want to connect in. And as we deepen engagement with the Indigenous communities on the South Island here, we’re holding back industry who are very eager to engage. There’s a lot of – and for good reasons – people wanting to do things in a different way. And so it’s like an avalanche of effort.
That’s one of the gaps that we hope that we can fill, that we can help to answer some of the questions that industry has and support industry and non-Indigenous businesses in their efforts to do economic reconciliation. They might be looking for partners, they might be looking for a workforce, for example. They might be looking to really just be a better corporate citizen. And we can help them find ways of doing that, that saves those First Nation offices from receiving the volume of calls that they’re getting and to help curate the information so that it’s easier to find and easier to act on.
There are a lot of people that are nervous about walking in the doorway of a band office. They’re not sure if they’re welcome. They’re not sure of protocols and, and how they’re supposed to do things.
We can help share information, you know, we can find out from each Nation, who do you want people to reach out to? What’s important to you? What protocols do you want people to follow? And then we can help businesses and others in our community, to do that outreach so that we all get to know one another better in our region.