Report maps Indigenous representation in BC tech, calls for need to address systemic barriers

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First Nations Technology Council encourages orgs to address workplace barriers, including access to capital.

An interviewee in a new report that maps the Indigenous tech landscape in British Columbia cited experiencing “discriminatory lending practices and significant challenges in attracting capital.”

They were one of a number of respondents in the report from the First Nations Technology Council (FNTC) that stresses that for the equitable participation of Indigenous people in the tech sector, adequate support and access to opportunities are needed.

“This is the first time such detailed, regionally-specific information has been captured.”

The report examines labour market opportunities and constraints, skills development gaps, and perceptions about Indigenous employment and training across all sectors of BC’s economy – both from an Indigenous and industry perspective. It touches on several areas, from the need for broadband connectivity in rural communities to self-governance and determination.

FNTC’s report calls for Indigenous communities to be able to set their own priorities and opportunities for technology. It also calls for private and public sector organizations to help address systemic, workplace, and interpersonal barriers individuals currently face, such as access to capital.

The council called the report “the first time such detailed, regionally-specific information has been captured.” It said the report is the culmination of more than two years of work, and provides baseline data that illuminates the current state of Indigenous leadership in BC technology.

“Our research was guided by Indigenous knowledge, values, and ways of being to ensure the findings were reflective and representative of many diverse experiences across the province,” said Lauren Kelly, director of sector transformation at the FNTC.

The FNTC is Indigenous-led, with a board of directors representing Indigenous communities from all over BC. The FNTC works with Indigenous Peoples, governments, academic institutions, “technology futurists,” and “social changemakers” to map the tech ecosystem. Its aim is that this “will result in fair and equitable access to the tools, resources, and education required for success in the digital age.”

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At Collision in June, Indigenous tech leaders spoke about some of the challenges facing the sector, many of which mirror concerns in the report. These range from limited education resources to a lack of basic necessities on reserves, which can limit Indigenous communities’ ability to even take part in entrepreneurship.

With the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation report specifically calling for corporations to change and review hiring practices, Sheila North, former MKO Grand Chief Bunibonibee Cree Nation, noted at Collision that there is still a long way to go to create equal opportunities.

The FNTC maintains that reconciliation and innovation go hand-in-hand, and that a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and world views participating and leading in technology fields will lead to a more prosperous future for all Canadians.

Indigenous-owned businesses are an important component of improving Indigenous access to technology-related opportunities in the province, the report noted. FNTC found that 23 percent of Indigenous-owned businesses in BC are technology-focused.

Of those tech businesses, 80 percent employ less than 10 workers. The FNTC said that as the number of Indigenous-owned businesses in the province grows, so too will the ability to employ more First Nations, Metis, and Inuit workers.

Access to capital remains a barrier to Indigenous tech firms. Though, the report noted that some dedicated programs seek to mitigate that issue. These can include a small number of private financing groups that “attempt to understand the social and systemic context behind someone’s credit score.”

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The report noted that funds are also available through such mechanisms as the federally-backed Indigenous Growth Fund, which provides business loans to Indigenous entrepreneurs throughout Canada through Aboriginal Financial Institutions (AFIs) – autonomous, Indigenous-controlled, community-based financial organizations.

The report noted some funding from the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), and that BC contains 11 Aboriginal financing institutions that offer small-business development funds. As well, a number of Nations and regional organizations offering seed funding programs specifically for Indigenous Peoples and members.

Other groups providing capital in BC include One Nation’s business incubator, which the report noted offers virtual training on business registration and administration, along with a business development fund with contributions of up to $50,000 to member-owned companies, which becomes grant funding if a company is still operational after two years.

The largest Indigenous venture firm across Canada is BC-based Raven Capital, which recently closed its $100 million CAD second fund. Raven Capital’s second fund is meant to build on the venture firm’s Fund I, investing exclusively in Indigenous enterprises that demonstrate commercial viability, potential for scale, and measurable community benefit streams.

Despite some increased access to capital, the report noted that several participants discussed the role of institutional racism and sexism in accessing capital. According to the report, respondents recalled working with women who remembered not being able to get loans, stating that: “If Indigenous entrepreneurs are living on-reserve, they don’t have collateral like a mortgage on their home; they are not able to amass intergenerational wealth or access many services.”

Another respondent maintained that access to capital proved a challenge simply because she owned a tech business, and that “traditional banks don’t invest in tech; we are considered too ‘high risk’ because we’re tech and we’re not brick and mortar.”

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The report called for the need for increased support and programs to help address these challenges. These include Indigenous-led and focused incubators, accelerators, and investment funds as well as appropriate access to research and development (R&D) and other forms of technical support.

An example of FNTC’s efforts on this front includes a partnership from 2021 with SAP Canada, Pagefreezer, Microsoft, and Bench Accounting to develop a strategic, action-based approach to identifying and addressing systemic barriers Indigenous persons face when it comes to accessing employment and thriving within a company. The Moving Beyond Inclusion: Partnerships and Reconciliation Project was meant to advance reconciliation within the innovation and technology sectors provincially, and nationally.

“Without Indigenous-led initiatives that are driven to address their communities’ unique self-identified needs, these activities most often fail to address, respond to, or reflect their priorities,” the report stated. “A further consequence of the exclusion of Indigenous leadership in innovation and technology is the significant lack of appropriate technology and innovation investments, resources, and supports.”

“Our goal is for this research to be widely used by First Nations Leadership and governments, and key partners across all sectors of BC’s economy to support Indigenous-identified priorities and increase Indigenous leadership in digital society,” FNTC said.

Charles Mandel

Charles Mandel

Charles Mandel's reporting and writing on technology has appeared in, Canadian Business, Report on Business Magazine, Canada's National Observer, The Globe and Mail, and the National Post, among many others. He lives off-grid in Nova Scotia.

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