Indigenous Entrepreneurial Response to COVID-19

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, COVID-19, Joseph Quesnel

A Winnipeg area Indigenous entrepreneur might hold the key to Indigenous peoples controlling their own response to the COVID-19 pandemic. His experience also underscores why it is so important to unshackle the Indigenous business community and entrepreneurial sector from restrictions posed by the Indian Act, as well as other non-legislative barriers. 

Josh Giesbrecht is president and co-founder of Exchange PPE, a newly opened business-to-business venture that distributes personal protective equipment (PPE) to Indigenous businesses, non-governmental organizations, and First Nations within Canada and the US. While the company does also offer these services to local businesses within Manitoba, its primary focus is that of First Nation and Native American peoples. The company is fully Indigenous-owned, and it is called Exchange after the Exchange District in Winnipeg, which is one of the city’s most historic neighbourhoods. 

His business acts as a retailer in PPE for these Indigenous entities. “We are not a regular business-to-business company,” said Giesbrecht, in a phone interview. 

The Exchange PPE Team tends to the needs in Native American communities south of the border as well, where problems are much worse in many communities. 

Giesbrecht is part Anishinaabe ancestry and is part of the controversial “60s Scoop” generation in Canada. During that time, state agencies in Canada took Indigenous children from their families and communities for placement in foster homes or adoption.

When people raise eyebrows after hearing his last name, he mentions he was raised by a Mennonite family in Steinbach, Manitoba. He originates from the Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation and the country of El Salvador. 

Prior to getting involved in this venture, he was involved as a broker in the legal cannabis industry.  He conducted business in Akwesasne, Tyendinaga, and Mohawk territories in Ontario, Quebec, and upstate New York and witnessed these First Nations closing their territories due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However in the Mohawk Territory of Tyendinaga, he also saw some Indigenous ingenuity where it was decided to close the business community for four days, but within those four days the businesses were able to re-tool themselves and when they reopened most businesses had converted to a drive-thru service or had plexiglass shields. They also had strict social distancing practices put in place. 

Giesbrecht also refused to accept the line from the media and elsewhere that important PPE resources were lacking and there was not enough to go around. 

“There is no shortage of masks, ranging from N95 to non-medical and surgical ones,” he said.  “It is heartbreaking to see government penny-pinch their way through this,” he said, referring to the limited PPE resources he saw the federal government providing to Indigenous communities. 

In fact, just recently, a group of Saskatchewan First Nations made a request to Indigenous Services Canada to help them acquire PPE to build up their own stockpiles in case of a second wave. 

Rather than rely on the mercy of Indigenous Services Canada and other departments, he started his business to meet the PPE needs of these communities, especially the most remote ones. 

While Giesbrecht’s business venture is located off-reserve, it shows – as if we needed more demonstrations – that Indigenous people are just as entrepreneurial and resourceful as other communities. Indigenous community members see needs and opportunities in their own surroundings and think of ideas and ways to meet them, all while thinking about how this process can be monetized to make it sustainable. 

A major study by this author also discovered that Indigenous entrepreneurs – in all four major Anglosphere countries – are very community-oriented and think of how their business opportunities can advance other people in their communities. In other words, when they think of a business venture, they are thinking about how it will raise everyone up. 

However, there are of course many talented, ambitious, and resourceful Indigenous people – like Josh Giesbrecht. But for Indigenous people who live on reserves, they continue to face systemic obstacles to start these businesses. Even in 2020, many First Nation communities on the Prairies are still very underdeveloped private sectors and lack good business role models and mentors for aspiring entrepreneurs in these communities. 

Also, as in the case of Giesbrecht’s venture, these on-reserve entrepreneurs see the needs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and potentially see new ways to meet these needs. The alternative is these ambitious members must sit and wait for governments to address their unique needs. But, the on-the-ground perspective of these entrepreneurs is exactly what is required.

In 2020, strong evidence reveals that First Nations members continue to see many of the same obstacles. They lack access to equity and capital. Most First Nations do not have mainstream banks on their reserves. The land restrictions imposed by the Indian Act continue to prevent band members from leveraging their own land as collateral. Many of the entrepreneurs seeking access to financial institutions often have bad or no credit. There do exist public institutions that seek to provide financing to First Nations, but this is never enough. Also, while First Nation governments or larger enterprises can access these sources, individual entrepreneurs that are seeking to set up small or medium-sized businesses often do not. 

Many of these communities also lack solid business networks that exist in larger mainstream communities to get them inspired and started. Many of these Indigenous potential entrepreneurs do not want to leave their communities to pursue these opportunities. They want to service their own communities. Finally, non-legislative barriers exist, such as the lack of a skilled and educated workforce ready to assume jobs for these ventures. Also, lack of reliable internet access also limits the reach of these ventures, and of course, public infrastructure is not strong. 

So, if Ottawa really wants to allow Indigenous communities to meet their own needs on COVID-19 and in so many other ways, they need to liberate on-reserve Indigenous entrepreneurs. 


Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.