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Across the country and in almost every economic sector, Canadian companies face a skills shortage. One of the greatest opportunities to meet those impending needs can be found in Canada’s fast-growing Indigenous population. Over the next decade, 750,000 Indigenous youth will enter the Canadian workforce—a cohort that’s growing four times faster than the non-Indigenous population. But to ensure that these youth can assume the leadership roles of tomorrow, investments need to be made to develop their digital skills—and provide them access to the necessary tools and infrastructure.
In this episode of Disruptors, an RBC podcast, guest host Trinh Theresa Do speaks with two community leaders who are helping to make this happen: Jarret Leaman, founder of the Toronto-based Centre for Indigenous Innovation and Technology; and Benjamin Scott, project director for Yellowknife-based EntrepreNorth. While the specific challenges faced by these two organizations vary, Jarret and Benjamin are united by one common vision: to bridge the digital divide within their communities—and position Indigenous youth for future success.
To learn more about the Centre for Indigenous Innovation and Technology, click here. And to find out more about EntrepreNorth, follow this link. (The work of EntrepreNorth is supported, in part, by the RBC Foundation.)
In his segment, Jarret referenced a photo series he was a part of titled “Concrete Indians”; to see the photos, check out his website. Benjamin, in his segment, mentioned a new podcast that EntrepreNorth has launched called Venture Out. You can listen to it here or wherever you get your podcasts.
The report referenced from the RBC Economics and Thought Leadership Team— Building Bandwidth: Preparing Indigenous youth for a digital future—is available at thoughtleadership.rbc.com
Theresa [00:00:01] Hey, it’s Theresa.
[00:00:03] Today I’m coming to you from downtown Toronto, which is the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Huron Wendat peoples.
[00:00:15] Indigenous peoples in Canada — from the Mi’kmaq in the east to the Tla-o-qui-aht in the west to the Inuit in the north — have played a vital role in the development of this country. As we exit the pandemic and look toward the skills and talents we’ll need to come out stronger, tne first peoples, who are no strangers to pandemics, will help lead the way.
[00:00:36] The recovery faces tremendous challenges, including how to balance the demands of a greying population with the needs of an economy run by young workers. And that’s where a real opportunity lies for Canada. Over the next decade, 750,000 Indigenous youth are expected to enter the Canadian workforce — a cohort that’s growing four times faster than the non-Indigenous population. By boosting digital literacy levels and providing universal access to high speed Internet, Canada can ensure that Indigenous youth have the skills and tools they need to succeed, and that businesses all across this country will have the skilled workers they need to thrive in a post-COVID world.
[00:01:27] This is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. I’m Trinh Theresa Do, sitting in for John Stackhouse.
[00:01:40] Our Economics and Thought Leadership team has just released a new report based on a series of roundtables with Indigenous youth, educators, employers, and community leaders to understand the new realities of a high-speed economy.
[00:01:52] In the first half of this episode, I’ll be talking with a Toronto-based tech entrepreneur and community activist who’s working to address the underrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in Canada’s technology and innovation sectors. And in the second half, I’ll speak with the leader of a Yellowknife-based organization about some of the unique challenges and opportunities in creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Canada’s north.
[00:02:19] The numbers are astounding. Today, Canada’s Indigenous GDP is thirty three billion dollars, but that total could reach 100 billion dollars if it were to match Canada’s per capita level. Indigenous Canadians create new businesses at nine times the national average, and that momentum is key to unlocking new possibilities in our economy.
[00:02:41] The Toronto-based Center for Indigenous Innovation and Technology is one organization that hopes to do some of that unlocking. It provides technology training as well as research and advocacy, with the aim of boosting Indigenous representation in the tech industry and promoting problem solving using an Indigenous lens. Joining me now is the founder of the C.I.I.T., Jarret Leaman.
[00:03:01] Jarret, welcome to Disruptors!
Jarret Leaman [00:03:03] Bonjour amis! [Greeting in Ojibwe]
Jarret Leaman [00:03:08] My name is Jarret Leaman and I am a member of Magnetawan First Nation, which is located in southern Ontario outside of Parry Sound. We are an Anishnabeg community and I don’t live within my community. I live within the city of Toronto.
Theresa [00:03:23] The C.I.I.T. was founded in 2017. Can you explain why you decided this organization was needed and what the gap in the market was that you’re hoping to fill?
Jarret Leaman [00:03:33] The idea actually came for this nonprofit from my time on the Governor General’s tour, actually, the Governor General’s Leadership Program. And I was placed in Northwest Territories and I got to travel up north and into some of the fly-in communities right up into the Arctic, right up into Tuktoyaktuk. And one of the things that I noticed in all of the communities was that they did have Internet or they had cell service that was pretty fast. But I didn’t see a lot of software or use of technology in their government, for example, or in some of their businesses that we were touring. And so that’s really where the idea came from in 2017, actually. And I came back from that tour and that really awesome learning experience, and I was like, what am I going to do? What did I learn and how can I make an impact? And that’s really when I entered into the technology and innovation space.
Theresa [00:04:27] I love that — carrying that momentum forward. So how have things changed or evolved in the last four years?
Jarret Leaman [00:04:33] Quite a lot, actually. I had a really great opportunity to work at the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business in my past, and I really got to get an opportunity to see Indigenous businesses across the country. And one of the gaps that I noticed was in technology. And I know that it’s growing space and we do have a lot of growing Indigenous tech companies. But I really wanted to just sort of look at what is being done in this space. And how is this being coordinated? And what is the different levels of government doing? And I quickly realized that there wasn’t a focal or central point where this was was being undertaken. I was attending a lot of Indigenous innovation conferences around the country and globally. And I was noticing that I was the only Indigenous person in those rooms sometimes. And I was like, so what are we going to do about this? And how do we start to really put an Indigenous lens on this burgeoning sector that our community is really starting to embrace?
Theresa [00:05:37] I want to carry on that point of the Indigenous lens. I know that that is part of the organization’s mission. Can you share more about what that lens is?
Jarret Leaman [00:05:46] When you think about innovation and we think about the technology sector, and I find that sometimes people think of my community as maybe relegated to the past a little bit and really wanted to highlight through C.I.I.T. the amount of innovation that we’ve had in our community and how do we bring those elements forward into forward thinking, into future thinking? And an example of that would be thinking about our Indigenous traditional governance models and how they were consensus-based. And we know that that’s a key piece in cybersecurity in regards to blockchain moving forward and really tying those connections. Because what I found was sometimes when I was touring, doing speaking engagements around Canada, I was finding that it wasn’t really an option or career thought for a lot of Indigenous youth, potentially, in the tech space. And I really wanted to develop an organization that really showed the innovation that we’ve had historically, but how the innovation that we historically did is being used to build future solutions. And I think that is the key to getting our numbers increased of Indigenous people in the tech and innovation sectors. How do we identify that and what does that look like and what does Indigenous innovation look like? And I, I struggled with that for a while, actually. And I came up with a really great example when I was, you know, engaging with an Indigenous learning institute. They really came up with an idea, at one of the institutions I was working with, around an example of what is a living plantwall look like with hydroponics — an app that’s connected with identifying the traditional medicine — and what does that mean to the people in our community, members learning about the traditional medicines? And maybe that that app can be in their own language as well? So we’re working on language revitalization, culture revitalization and integrating technology into that. And that was just an example that I like to use to really sort of see what is Indigenous innovation look like.
Theresa [00:07:42] I think we’re in such a key moment for that, too, because you hear of big organizations, investment firms, rethinking our model for capitalism and exploring what these different approaches could be. And so I’m curious, what’s been the response from the business and tech community at large into embracing more of these Indigenous approaches?
Jarret Leaman [00:08:04] When I started in 2017, I think we were a little bit ahead of the game. You know, it was sort of a burgeoning and it still is a burgeoning sort of area within Canada that we’re really entering into. And it’s becoming more apparent in regards to employment, for example, we are looking to launch a program within the next year that will focus on increasing Indigenous representation in the technology sector. But really, with that tech skills accelerator, it will be focused on cultural components and leadership as well as we want to develop the leaders in the tech space. It’s so critical for our communities to become connected, bridge the digital divide, participate in the digital economy, and we need a lot of work in our community to get there.
Theresa [00:08:50] Can you share more about the tech skills accelerator program that you just mentioned? What are the specific skills or pillars that need to be developed?
Jarret Leaman [00:08:59] The Skills Accelerator has a couple of different audiences. So, there is the private sector, but I also wanted to make sure that we had a clear opportunity for Indigenous governments to participate in the program as well, so that if they’re looking to build digital aspects, the First Nation governments, then they would have a training ground for that. And so one of the things that was really important to me in post-secondary — I went to a university in Ontario that had a really strong Indigenous culture focus. And I went to university right after I graduated from high school. And I remember thinking, as an Indigenous youth, I’m going to be in business and I’m going to work in business and that’s what I’m going to do. And I didn’t really want to learn about my traditional culture or learn about my history, which had been taken from my family. My father was in a Scoop generation, my grandparents were in the residential school era, and it wasn’t something that I was interested in. And so I show up to business school my first day ready to learn business. And I wasn’t really interested in Indigenous studies focus. And as I started to learn that more, it really did become apparent that it was needed. And I remember thinking I had to go do seminars in Indigenous studies classes that I was taking and it was in a teepee. And I live in Toronto now. I’m a city boy. And I remember just thinking like, oh, man, like like traipsing through the snow, I’m in business school – what is going on? And at the time, I didn’t really appreciate that. And when I look back and I think about the growth that I’ve had as a leader, that was the critical time, really understanding yourself and being happy with yourself and bringing that forward. And I think that it was through my elders and through the learning of my traditional language that that really began to blossom. And it really gets into this idea that we have now, you know, in corporate Canada, and in the diversity and inclusion space, around bringing your whole self to work. That is what creates, in my opinion, leaders and helps move initiative or innovation forward. And so for us, having that as part of our programing is critical.
Theresa [00:11:11] I want to follow up on the point you’ve made about you being a city boy – you live in downtown Toronto. And I want to take our listeners to a 2010 photo series called Concrete Indians, in which you were a part, exploring the duality of your culture and the urban lifestyle. And it’s a powerful play in contrasts because you’re set in the Financial District around Union Station wearing a traditional cultural attire underneath your blazer, holding what I think looks like a part of a headdress (but please correct me) as suited men and taxis and the hustle and bustle of the city swirls around you. Why was it important for you to be involved in that project? And what kind of message were you hoping to communicate with it?
Jarret Leaman [00:11:50] I was so lucky that I got to participate in that photo series with an amazing Indigenous artist, Nadya Kwandibens. And when she came to me and we met to talk about the concept I was — actually, in that picture, I lived right on Bay Street at the time, it’s taken right on Bay Street and my condo is actually right in the background. I really wanted to show that there was a new wave of Indigenous people coming in with business degrees and coming in and entering into the Bay Street era. There always was Indigenous people as part of it, and those individuals that always lay the path before me and they did a lot, actually some really great leaders in Toronto, for example. And I wanted to show that from a youth perspective coming into the city, I am the first generation in my family to have a university degree and the first one in my community to have a graduate degree, I think, as well. And so I wanted to show that sort of coming into the urban setting to really learn the ropes and figure out what the what the space was like. But keeping in mind the impact that was needed for our community itself. And I think I did that.
Theresa [00:13:01] If you fast forward to now and reflecting on everything you’ve experienced and worked on, have you noticed corporate Canada embracing more Indigenous talent?
Jarret Leaman [00:13:11] When I first started in the space in the business space in Toronto, I noticed that there was a lot of Indigenous diversity and inclusion approaches that I was seeing were focused on just attraction. And so if we think about the business model, we think about attracting Indigenous talent. What measures is the organization taking to retain that talent? And then also, is there a transition map in play for that employee? And we’ve seen a lot of reports come out that talk about the lack of Indigenous leadership at the senior level, at the board level. And what we’re seeing is an approach where a lot of Indigenous people entered into the corporate world but are still stuck at a certain level.
Theresa [00:13:53] Many of Canada’s Indigenous communities are pretty remote. But in your view, what is the opportunity for youth hoping to make their mark in this decentralized, digitized future, especially in roles that aren’t the ones that are stagnant or ones that are getting cut?
Jarret Leaman [00:14:08] When we think about the Indigenous community, I always think about it in three different ways. We always want think about First Nation people, but also the Metis community, as well as the Inuit community. And each of those communities has a very different perspective and need in regards to technology and what I’m calling bridging the digital divide. And the opportunity for us is around, how do we enhance our Indigenous governments and organizations and institutions that really move the dial forward in different areas in regards to health, economic outcome? And how are they embracing technology in order to have positions for our youth to come through and work with them if they so choose to work within the Indigenous business space or the Indigenous communities themselves?
Theresa [00:14:53] Jarret, I have learned so much in this conversation. Thank you for sharing your insights and for joining us on Disruptors today.
Jarret Leaman [00:15:00] Wow, awesome. Thank you for having me. [Goodbye in Ojibwe] And thank you.
Theresa [00:15:05] My guest today has been Jarret Leaman, founder of the Center for Indigenous Innovation and Technology.
[00:15:11] Coming up, we’ll talk with a leader from Canada’s north about how his organization hopes to capitalize on the move to a digital, decentralized economy.
Tracee Smith [00:15:25] You’re listening to Disruptors, an RBC podcast. My name is Tracee Smith, one of the contributors to the new report Theresa mentioned at the beginning of this episode. It’s called Preparing Indigenous Youth for a Digital Future. And in it, the RBC Economics and Thought Leadership Team explores the rapid digitization of our economy and details the skills and infrastructure required for Indigenous youth to take advantage of economic opportunities in the 2020s. To learn more, check out the link in the show notes of this episode and be sure to like and follow Disruptors wherever you get your podcasts.
Theresa [00:16:03] Welcome back. Indigenous youth represent a key pillar in Canada’s post-pandemic recovery, and yet obstacles remain for business leaders hoping to employ those talents. One of the obstacles is geography. Much of rural and northern Canada still doesn’t have high-speed Internet, for example. Another obstacle is access to the education, mentorship and coaching skilled workers and entrepreneurs need to thrive. Our next guest is working hard to address those challenges. Benjamin Scott is the project director for EntrepreNorth, based in Yellowknife, which works to empower Indigenous entrepreneurs so that they can build sustainable businesses and livelihoods across northern Canada.
[00:16:44] Benjamin, welcome to Disruptors.
Benjamin Scott [00:16:46] Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here to chat about EntrepreNorth and all that we do. I’m a member of the [00:16:51]Tlicho [0.0s] First Nation. I grew up in the north and have a big family based out of Northwest Territories, but I currently reside on unceded Coast Salish territory in North Vancouver. I have the privilege of leading the EntrepreNorth Project and much of our work is really focused on working where the socioeconomic gaps are widest and trying to have an impact there across the north.
Theresa [00:17:16] Can you share more about those gaps that you mentioned? Where are those the biggest?
Benjamin Scott [00:17:21] In the north, there’s education gaps, there’s income gaps, there’s access to education challenges, there is employment gaps. So a lot of what we’re focused on in supporting entrepreneurs and businesses and particularly we try to extend our reach into smaller, more remote communities where those gaps are typically widest, so outside the regional or even city centers of Whitehorse, Yellowknife, and Iqaluit. And we primarily work with Indigenous entrepreneurs. And so those are typically where we see a lot of the socioeconomic gaps and where a lot of our focus, when we designed EntrepreNorth, we knew there is access to capital issues. But what we sort of honed in on was as a first priority was focusing in on supporting capacity building and designing our entire project around that concept.
Theresa [00:18:15] When we were exploring organization and doing some of our own research, we came across the multidirectional business compass. Can you share with our listeners a little bit more about that?
Benjamin Scott [00:18:24] Yeah, absolutely. So EntrepreNorth, we’ve brought together a consortium of stakeholders from across the north and some Indigenous entrepreneurs, and the advice they gave us was to redefine entrepreneurship from an Indigenous world view. So it takes a very circular, holistic, interrelated approach and multi-dimensional approach to business. And so we piloted it in our second cohort rave reviews and we’ve just been continually iterating and using it as our tool for teaching business from an Indigenous-centered lens. So there’s different layers to it, but it’s looking at different directions of a business, different areas of the business. So leadership, marketing, operations, finance. And then how does that impact upon governance, community, land, economy?
Theresa [00:19:13] Speaking of multi-dimensional, you spent several years working for the government of the Northwest Territories before launching EntrepreNorth in 2018. What did that experience teach you?
Benjamin Scott [00:19:24] How to write a good briefing note. And you know, it gave me a really good in-depth insight into the challenges across the north. And I actually grew a passion for business because I was working within the education side of things and a lot of our focus was on labor market measures to close gaps in employment. But then when you look at the employment opportunities within communities, they just didn’t exist. And so in my mind, I was like, well, you know, I think there’s a gap here in supporting entrepreneurship and business and sort of where my passion for entrepreneurship and business grew and it’s kind of come full circle. So education, capacity building is super important, but also supporting people to grow and develop their own opportunities within their own communities that align with their values and their culture and identity is just powerful.
Theresa [00:20:17] Can you share with us some of the most exciting projects that EntrepreNorth is working on right now?
Benjamin Scott [00:20:22] Yeah, absolutely. I’d love to. EntrepreNorth has been having some exciting growth over the last three years and over just this past year, we started offering some community based ideation workshops for youth across the north, which is really exciting. We’ve had some really strong uptake, so that’s really exciting. We also just recently launched a new podcast series called Venture Out that focuses on telling the powerful stories of northern Indigenous entrepreneurs. And then we’re also working on an exciting partnership with Raven Indigenous Capital Partners to design and develop an impact-first fund to hopefully offer greater access to capital to lot of the entrepreneurs that we’re working with and others across the north that need access to capital.
Theresa [00:21:12] You mentioned off the top that you’re currently in North Vancouver and the work that EntrepreNorth, your organization, does extends across various communities and territories. How would you compare the entrepreneurial environment in the big cities and different regions compared to perhaps more remote cities and more remote communities?
Benjamin Scott [00:21:31] In bigger centers there’s obviously greater access to a lot of different supports, a lot of different resources, educational institutions compared to in the north. There’s limited access to these education opportunities, limited access to connections and networks. So I think the ecosystem is obviously a little bit stronger in some of the city centers in the south. And I think that’s a lot of what we’re trying to do also at EntrepreNorth is help strengthen those ecosystems of support through the programming that we do and then also bridging those North-South connections and building partnerships — and partnerships are just really key aspect of what we do — and bringing in relevant talent into our circle to support the entrepreneurs in their visions and their dreams of starting and growing a business.
Theresa [00:22:20] A few of my team members are working on a research report looking deeper into the digital divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth. And you’ve mentioned this too: access to things like Internet infrastructure that enables entrepreneurs, but also differences in digital literacy. How has that played out for organizations and businesses in the north? And what are your thoughts on what needs to be done in the short term to be able to overcome that divide?
Benjamin Scott [00:22:46] Well, it’s a really important topic and it’s at the forefront of what we’re challenged with and delivering some of our programing. So I honestly, high-speed Internet, improved connectivity across the north cannot come fast enough. And I think it really leaves a lot of youth and younger entrepreneurs at a disadvantage for being able to access those educational opportunities and put their business online and gain greater access to markets that might not exist specifically in their smaller, more remote communities. So in EntrepreNorth, we’ve had to be really innovative and creative on how to troubleshoot, especially for anyone in Nunavut. I really feel for people in Nunavut who would have to struggle with the connectivity issues. We’ve ended up having to find ways to go around some of these challenges. So we’ve been able to offer some access to data and we’re using cellular data because the Wi-Fi connections are not strong enough to host, for example, Zoom sessions or online classroom environments. And I think the pandemic sort of amplified the urgency of going online to make sure that you still had access to customers and were able to sell your products still. So we’ve had a lot of conversations just around business pivots. And fortunately, we’ve developed some really strong partnerships with organizations such as Shopify, where we’ve been able to offer that type of platform to the entrepreneurs that we’ve worked with. And I think it’s it’s transformative to provide that opportunity and provide also the training to know how to use those platforms and get the most out of them. In our most recent cohort delivery, we’ve seen a number of new stores launch online, which is super, super exciting, and it’s just growing the marketplace of Indigenous made products and opening the doors for people to access those products from around the world and beyond.
Theresa [00:24:44] I’m hoping I could tie in the earlier point about the Indigenous worldview in business. And I’m curious if you’re seeing more of the organizations that you work with present this Indigenous worldview as they are also trying to reach beyond Canada, beyond the north, into the south, perhaps. Have you noticed that play out?
Benjamin Scott [00:25:04] Yeah, first in our program and we try to create spaces that uphold the cultural integrity of Indigenous communities that we serve first and foremost. And for the Indigenous entrepreneurs that we work with, it’s so integral to their entrepreneurial story and their business story. To infuse their culture and identity into their business model, into their products. And I think it positions them more strongly in the marketplace and allows them to really reach customers that have a passion for what they’re able to offer them and can really identify and have an appreciation for those types of products that tell a really powerful story.
Theresa [00:25:41] Mm hmm. As we come out of the pandemic, we hear the word resilience get used so much. And I know that resilience is an important part of the vocabulary of EntrepreNorth as well. What has the past year and a half taught you about resilience?
Benjamin Scott [00:25:57] You know, resilience is, it’s a big word. It’s a, it’s a process. And for a lot of Indigenous communities, a lot of Indigenous entrepreneurs, it starts with healing. A lot of history in Canada that wasn’t so great for Indigenous communities and so a lot of what I’ve been learning is through our work at EntrepreNorth is where you really have to take a trauma-informed approach to business education. And we try to support entrepreneurs on both sort of a dual personal and business growth journey, and they really go hand in hand. And we truly believe that in order for a business to thrive, an entrepreneur has to thrive. So we try to center the health and wellbeing of the entrepreneurs and all our business education that we do. And that becomes first and foremost. And I think that if we’re sort of relating it back to the situation that the world is in right now, I think that becomes super important because it’s also now at the forefront. The health and well-being of everyone is sort of at the forefront for the entrepreneurs, for the businesses, for the communities that we live within. And then for the customers that we serve.
Theresa [00:27:06] Yeah, a company is its people. And you’re right, for a company to thrive, its people need to thrive. Benjamín, this is such a powerful conversation. And thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.
Benjamin Scott [00:27:16] Thank you so much. Really appreciate the opportunity.
Theresa [00:27:19] My guest today has been Benjamin Scott, project director for EntrepreNorth. I’d also like to thank Jarret Leaman, founder of the Center for Indigenous Innovation and Technology.
[00:27:29] I’m Theresa Do and this is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Don’t forget to check out our new report, Preparing Indigenous Youth for a Digital Future. You can find the link in the show notes.
[00:27:39] And join us next time when…
[00:27:47] Talk to you soon.
Tracee Smith [00:27:53] Disruptors RBC podcast is created by the RBC Thought Leadership Group and does not constitute a recommendation for any organization, product or service. It’s produced and recorded by our audio for more distractors content like resubscribe wherever you get your podcasts and visit Ask.com slash disrupters.
Trinh Theresa Do (she goes by Theresa) is responsible for strategy development on the Thought Leadership & Economics team, with occasional forays into podcasting, research, and writing. Previously, she was a strategy advisor to senior management and executives at RBC’s Personal & Commercial Banking business. Prior to joining RBC, Theresa was a national political journalist at CBC News and co-founded a nonprofit that promoted civic engagement through technology innovation.
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