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Advancing Indigenous Economic Sovereignty: Insights from Jolain Foster

Jolain Foster, Managing Partner of Nation Building at Deloitte Canada, provides CanadianSME Small Business Magazine with insightful perspectives on fostering economic sovereignty for Indigenous Nations and the crucial steps toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Economic sovereignty, as Jolain outlines, involves granting Indigenous Nations the power and resources to build self-sufficient infrastructures, education systems, and employment opportunities, paralleling the quality of life enjoyed by many Canadians. Through Deloitte Canada’s Nation Building practice, Jolain and her team aim to empower Indigenous Peoples and Nations towards economic empowerment and self-governance by developing solutions in areas like jurisdiction, governance, and economic development. Jolain stresses the importance of reconciliation as a process of building respectful relationships, involving active listening, reparations, and tangible actions toward societal change. She emphasizes the role of corporate Canada in advancing reconciliation by encouraging Indigenous participation in the economy and supporting Indigenous sovereignty and economic development aspirations. Jolain’s personal journey, from witnessing the poverty amidst natural wealth in her Gitxsan Nation to leading transformational change, fuels her dedication to eliminating poverty through improved governance and economic opportunities for Indigenous communities. Offering advice to young Indigenous individuals, Jolain encourages active community participation, volunteering, and a relentless pursuit of one’s passions and purposes, highlighting that adversity can ultimately become a significant strength.

As the Managing Partner of Nation Building, Jolain leads a multi-disciplinary team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous professionals dedicated to building strong connections between Indigenous communities, non-Indigenous governments, and corporate Canada that will forge new pathways to economic empowerment. Jolain is Gitxsan and Wet’suet’en and belongs to Wilps Niisto. For more than two decades, she has been working with Indigenous Peoples across Canada in various private sector firms, educational institutions, and First Nation organizations. With experience that ranges from leadership, strategic planning, governance, and operations to Indigenous engagement and financial management, Jolain is a natural facilitator.

How do you define economic sovereignty for Indigenous Nations, and how has this shaped your work with Nation Building?

Even today, Indigenous Peoples and Nations continue to face systemic barriers which impact the ability to meaningfully participate in the labour market, regain financial autonomy, pursue opportunities for economic development to grow independent wealth, and live an equal quality of life that many Canadians are accustomed to.

Economic sovereignty for Indigenous Nations means having decision-making powers and access to funding to develop adequate infrastructure, health care, education, employment opportunities, and child and family services.

Our goal with the Nation Building practice is to bring together leaders and change makers across corporate Canada and the public sector to support Indigenous Peoples and Nations on their journey to economic empowerment and self-governance. As a firm, we want to support First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities in developing innovative solutions focusing on jurisdiction, governance, economic development, natural resources, and community infrastructure to ensure Indigenous Peoples and Nations have a leading role in the economy, propelling Indigenous businesses forward, while advancing reconciliation efforts.

What key steps should be taken to further reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities?

Reconciliation is an ongoing journey of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships with Indigenous communities. A critical part of this process involves repairing damaged trust by listening and learning, providing individual and collective reparations, and following through with concrete actions that demonstrate real societal change. We must be deliberate in our actions to restore trust and repair relationships with Indigenous Peoples and Nations as it’s through these relationships that we can drive transformational change—both socially and economically.

The possibilities for reconciliation across corporate Canada are endless if we work together. Indigenous participation in our economy is fundamental to advance reconciliation and help Indigenous Peoples and Nations achieve sovereignty and economic development aspirations. Ensuring that they have a leading role in the economy is the most impactful way forward for economic, business, and social reconciliation.

By 2030, Indigenous workers will make up 7 per cent of the labour force, yet they are systematically underrepresented in Canadian businesses. Governments, businesses, and all Canadians can help fundamentally transform our economy and society by taking targeted action to address labour market barriers for underrepresented groups.

How can corporate Canada support Nations and Peoples in their sovereignty and economic development aspirations?

Businesses that want to encourage Indigenous participation and support Nations and Peoples in their sovereignty and economic development aspirations can do it through Indigenous partnerships, reconciliation efforts, and adapting Indigenous solutions.

Through our new Indigenous-led practice, we want to help businesses with navigating inter-Nation dynamics. Partnering with Indigenous Peoples and Nations or requiring consent, buy-in, and/or social licence for major projects on traditional Indigenous territories is key. Navigating complex governance constructs between different Nations presents unique challenges and opportunities, meaningful and effective engagement creates mutually beneficial outcomes.

To advance the reconciliation journey, understanding customs specific to Indigenous Peoples and Nations with whom they are working, creating approaches and strategies that are authentic, or finding innovative ways to provide value beyond compliance is important.

Businesses also have the opportunity to innovate business models to reach environmental, social, and governance targets by drawing on centuries-old approaches and solutions to manage land sustainably by working with Indigenous Peoples and Nations to develop these.

What ignited your life’s purpose? What are some of the challenges you faced as an Indigenous female? 

I grew up in Kispiox, B.C., a member of the Gitxsan Nation, whose unceded territory is nestled in the middle of the most beautiful mountains, rivers, and boreal forests. My Gitxsan name is Nagwit Sen and I belong to the House of Niist’o. Growing up—my three siblings and I were raised by a single mother—I experienced poverty all around me, even though my Nation was rich with natural resources like forestry, water, fish, and critical minerals.

Corporations came and went, extracting and developing resources with no benefit coming back to the Gitxsan in the form of employment, procurement, or royalties. The Gitxsan Nation and our peoples experience some of Canada’s highest levels of suicide, unemployment, poverty, and children in care. There are many reasons for this—a complex history between governments and my Nation that continues to impact our governance systems, culture, and economy.

The Gitxsan have a hereditary system that has been in place since time immemorial and continues to this day. Today our traditional governance system is deeply impacted because of the federal government’s Indian Act, intended to erase us as people through actions that devastated our culture, livelihood, spirit, health, and laws – forcing our people off our traditional territory and the traumatic impact of residential schools on our families, to name just two.

All this ignited my passion for leading transformational change anywhere I work—not just for my Nation, but for all Nations who share the same history of destruction. My life’s purpose is working to eliminate poverty through improved governance and operations to create a new path for economic wealth for First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Peoples and Nations.

It’s important to me that I make an impact that matters, in our communities and in our country, and I believe collaboration is key to build a stronger Canada.

Today, I’m honoured to be serving as Managing Partner, Nation Building, a role that enables me to continue my personal journey and pave a new path for Deloitte Canada’s role in Truth and Reconciliation. I believe this is an incredible opportunity to support Indigenous Peoples and Nations in Nation building, creating new pathways for economic empowerment and reinforcing self-government – and I hope that non-Indigenous clients and corporate Canada are as motivated as I am, and will join us in our journey to building a stronger Canada, together.

What advice do you have for young Indigenous individuals aiming to make a difference in their communities?

I am inspired by my fellow Indigenous women and men and the next generation of Indigenous youth who have the opportunity to play an integral role in Canada’s economy and contribute to the strength and leadership of their communities and nations in the face of diverse challenges.

My advice to the younger generation is to take on new professional and personal experiences wholeheartedly. Those experiences will allow you to discover where your passions truly lie. If you are passionate about your culture, learning your language and traditions, or want to make an impact in your community to make it a better place to live – start by participating and volunteering in your community.

Our communities need volunteers to help with priorities such as youth programs, health care, elder programs, office administration, community events, and more. Learning how your Nation and community is governed and operates plays a huge role in making a difference. By volunteering, gaining employment experience, and pursuing education and training programs, you will establish a better understanding of who you are and more importantly, who you want to become.

Lastly, do not seek the perfect answer, condition, situation, or path. Start somewhere and be persistent in finding your purpose and knowing your value, make modifications where necessary, and continue to move forward. Your past does not define you and your adversity will eventually become your most significant strength.

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