The province and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs have created the “First Peoples Economic Growth Fund” (FPEGF), which will provide approximately 4 million dollars each year over five years targeted to Manitoba First Nations entrepreneurs, peoples and bands. While it will be welcome news to reserve residents who often see outside businesses take profits out of the community, the record of these programs is not good, particularly when they involve transfers between governments. Since native bands are not in the business of operating retail businesses, these monies should be directed only at the people who want to start a small business. Before the province goes any further, however, hurdles that greatly hinder entrepreneurs on some reserves must be overcome.
As I have questioned repeatedly over the years, “Why do we not have on most First Nations reserves the same retail stores — bakery, mom-and-pop corner stores, hairdressers — as a non-aboriginal community of comparable size?” Instead, reserves have Northern Stores that do supply many of the needed goods and do supply a few jobs to band members, but with the accompanying downside that all profits leave the reserve. In addition, presently some northern reserves are paying $12 for four liters of milk. Why are we not starting small mixed cheese-and-dairy farms or chicken hatcheries? We could look to the Mormons or Hutterite colonies as examples of successful enterprise. Small business creates employment, all the while keeping more money circulating at home.
However, the roadblocks for entrepreneurs on many reserves are, pure and simple, politics combined with an undemocratic, banana-republic-style of leadership. In the past, some reserves have been the worst possible places for budding entrepreneurs. Who in their right minds would want to invest 20 or 30 thousand dollars in a small business in a place where a slip-of-the-tongue or, God forbid, mentioning the need for an audit of the band books or supporting a new group for band council would place your entire venture at risk of closure? The council need only issue a legal resolution known as an order of the band council.
Case in point: in the past, a former band council member opened a gas bar and vehicle repair shop but ran afoul of his previous council colleagues. The council decided that the band would no longer do business with the gas bar. This was a big problem because much of his revenue was generated by band purchases of fuel and other commodities. Faced with a large drop in the business’s bottom line, he prepared to lay off employees. But first he decided to fight back by gathering 40 people together – the affected employees and their families – and marching to the band office to show the chief and council that they were hurting not only the business owner but the larger family group as well. They made their point and the band council reversed its decision but the band’s message was clear: entrepreneurial survival was subject to their whim.
A similar incident occurred with the same band council, this time with a different band member who ran a restaurant. After a disagreement, the hapless restaurateur arrived to open the place for the day’s business but was dismayed to find the locks on his restaurant changed by order of the band council. Even more insulting, the petty cash in the cash register had been removed. Five years on, the former business owner still awaits restitution from the band. His restaurant continues to be operated by someone else.
These incidents provide just a sampling of the problems that still face First Nations entrepreneurs today. Chief Dennis Meeches is right in saying that any effort to assist economic development in the Manitoba aboriginal community is worthwhile. But it will take the guiding steps of Chief Meeches and newly-elected Southern Grand Chief Morris Shinicappo to ensure that budding entrepreneurs have the unmolested support of their band councils.