"Reconciliation is everyone’s business"

"Reconciliation is everyone’s business"

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story | Contributors: Emily Bednarz | Published: September 2, 2022

When speaking about the newly reopened Windhorse Farm (pictured below), Chris Googoo, Chief Operating Officer of Ulnooweg, says, “We're bringing our Indigenous knowledge-holders into our teachings — but we also take some of the science today, embed the two together, and practice what Etuaptmumk actually means to us.”

Etuaptmumk is the Mi'kmaw word for Two-Eyed Seeing. Elder Albert Marshall explains that Etuaptmumk is “learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges.”

It’s a perfect word to describe how innovative Indigenous business leaders in Kjipuktuk are bringing their ways of knowing and being to our local business community. Read on to discover how Ulnooweg, Indigenous Treaty Partners, and Akwekon Innovation & Consulting are revolutionizing the way businesses and organizations conceptualize wealth, health, and reconciliation.


Ulnooweg started over 37 years ago, in the era following the 60s scoop. “A number of our community members were coming back home looking for cultural and family connections,” says Googoo. “A few discussions led to a few presentations to the Chiefs, which led to a gathering at Liscombe Lodge, which led to the creation of Ulnooweg Development Group, as well as the Mi'kmaw Family & Children's Services of Nova Scotia.”

For the next 20 years, Ulnooweg operated under a broad mandate related to business support services. They incorporated as a registered charity in 2005, launching what is now the first of their three divisions: The Ulnooweg Development Group. After expanding their education and training services, their second division took shape: The Ulnooweg Education Centre, an education and research charity.

Ulnooweg has continued to grow ever since. “In 2018, we launched the Ulnooweg Indigenous Communities Foundation to bridge the gap between philanthropy in Canada and Indigenous communities,” says Googoo. Most recently, they launched a US-based foundation called Friends of Ulnooweg Indigenous Philanthropies.

Parsing the progress and barriers for Indigenous entrepreneurs

Over his years with Ulnooweg, Googoo has seen markers of progress and innovation in the local Indigenous-led business community. “The opportunities that Indigenous people are trying to capitalize on are no longer the mom-and-pop stores,” says Googoo. “That has morphed into Indigenous businesses looking at the corporate and private sectors, where there is opportunity and available financing.”

Barriers still exist for Indigenous entrepreneurs though, notes Googoo. The Indian Act prevents those on reserve from using the land they live on as collateral for business loans, and only one percent of charitable organizations accessing philanthropic funds are Indigenous-led, says Googoo.

There are also barriers that aren’t “written on paper,” says Googoo. “Barriers like racism and prejudice still exist, but they’re not as bad as they were a decade or two ago,” he says. “That has a lot to do with relationship-building and society looking at Indigenous people in more positive ways. As more successes occur, we highlight the Indigenous businesses and community as potential partners — more spaces, discussion, and collaboration open up from that.”

One such success story Googoo highlights is Mi'kmaw artist Cheyenne Isaac-Gloade, who recently partnered with Nike to create beaded shoes for the iconic brand. “Beaders and leather-workers are jumping into the mainstream economy,” says Googoo. “You can call it innovation — how they're using their teachings passed down from generations.”

Innovation in business, education, and outreach

The team behind Ulnooweg has recognized the need to innovate from within. “A lot of our work over the past five years has been to push the community into a space of innovation,” says Googoo. “And it's been pushing ourselves into this space as well — into the network, the Chamber dinners, the conferences. It’s also the willingness of our own entrepreneurs to connect to individuals that are in this innovation space. Once we make those connections, you see more Indigenous entrepreneurs take that leap into new areas. We’re starting to see that develop right now, and that's pretty exciting.”

One area of innovation for Ulnooweg is Windhorse Farm, an education and healing centre. “You don't have to do much but walk the land to heal from it,” Googoo says. After the success of its first year, there are a number of projects planned for Windhorse: a night-sky observatory and a performance art centre will be ideal venues for teaching and storytelling.

In the meantime, Googoo sees Etuaptmumk in action at Windhorse, particularly when it comes to science and forestry. “In one hour, we can see an elder talking about plant life and in the next hour talk about how lidar technology can break down a tree,” he says. “The two knowledges blend together so that at the end of the day, it is about respecting nature and our connections to it.”

Motivating systemic change

The Indigenous principles Ulnooweg promotes may seem at odds with corporate culture. But Googoo highlights this as an opportunity for intervention and reflection. “We're all human beings, and when we take ourselves out of that context, our decisions are no longer based on empathy or dignity,” he says. “One of the things that businesses, even not-for-profits, struggle with is the definition of what wealth is. They have to think about the impact of generated wealth, which may be taking wealth away from certain sectors of society.”

Googoo highlights EleV, one of Ulnooweg’s newest programs for youth presented in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. “EleV is focused on improving opportunities for youth in employment and education, higher education, and empowering them through culture and leadership skills,” says Googoo. “We've funded about $1.5 million for youth-led initiatives in cultural language or reclamation in communities across Atlantic Canada.”

Programs like EleV are working toward breaking down systemic barriers, a complex and ongoing process says Googoo. “You can't always draw a straight line to breaking down systemic barriers,” he says. “To provide these resources that have led to communities and groups gaining confidence and being involved in breaking down systemic barriers — when you affect systemic change and see it actually happening — it's a really great story.”

Googoo champions the new generation of innovative, Indigenous-led businesses and organizations. Both Indigenous Treaty Partners and Akwekon Innovation & Consulting serve as examples of how young, Indigenous entrepreneurs are reconceptualizing corporate culture through Indigenous principles and community-building.

Indigenous Treaty Partners

Houston Barnaby and Corey Mattie are on a mission to Indigenize corporate Canada. “We believe reconciliation is everyone’s business,” their website reads. “We guide organizations through approachable and guided knowledge sharing on what it means to be Indigenous in Canada.”

Indigenous Treaty Partners is an Indigenous-owned consulting firm, founded in 2021, that specializes in delivering cultural awareness training. “Our training supports businesses looking to participate in reconciliation through right action,” say Barnaby and Mattie. “Before action takes place, there must be a foundation of understanding — that’s where our training comes in.”

When it comes to allyship and partnership-building, the team at Indigenous Treaty Partners endeavours to meet their clients where they are. “Often, the companies that we support have great intentions and high aspirations to create lasting relations,” say Barnaby and Mattie. “If a client's aspirations are suspected to be out of reach for the short term, we offer foundational Indigenous cultural training, coaching, and project and program support, making these high aspirations achievable and measurable.”

Such training services provide the framework to help non-Indigenous peoples better engage and support Indigenous peoples in Canada, say Barnaby and Mattie. “Our curriculum focuses on the history and rich culture of Indigenous Nations in Canada,” they add. “But we are also focused on moving them emotionally, to the realities of our Nations. Once companies have a sound understanding of the history in this country, they are moved to do more. Our cultural training transforms people in the workplace into allies."

The team at Indigenous Treaty Partners also provide speaking services, ensuring more Indigenous voices are heard at events and in the office. “Our main mission as a company is to support our Indigenous brothers and sisters by being approachable and compassionate in the delivery of our curriculum,” say Barnaby and Mattie. “This is no different in our speaking engagements. We work to repair relationships and move forward, together, in healing our Nations.”

Finally, Indigenous Treaty Partners work with clients to conduct research. “We support organizations through economic reconciliation and project planning,” say Barnaby and Mattie. “We support an organization with research capacity to answer the important questions, like the murky waters of the Duty to Consult, and we also understand the unique nuances of communities in our area — primarily the Mi’kmaq of Mi’kma’ki.”

Barnaby and Mattie see corporate Canada as the ideal place to focus reconciliation efforts. “Industry can be successful when it utilizes its own resources and knowledge to support local Indigenous entrepreneurs,” they say. The two acknowledge the partnerships Indigenous Treaty Partners has built with CIBC, BDO, Barrington Consulting Group, EverWind Fuels, and the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. “These businesses are showing the rest of Canada their commitment to reconciliation and a shared future,” say Barnaby and Mattie.

While they are pleased to see the commitment to reconciliation, Barnaby and Mattie acknowledge there is still much work to be done. “Reconciliation is an ongoing process,” they say. “The damage was done over many years, and so it will take some time for things to improve.” Still, they are bolstered by the progress taking place in the Kjipuktuk business community. “Every single action and initiative makes a difference,” they say. “We are turning reconciliation into action, and this would not be possible without our amazing partners supporting and cheering us on.”

One such partnership Indigenous Treaty Partners has built is with Ulnooweg. “We established our own registered scholarship — the Indigenous Treaty Partners L’nu Scholarship Fund — in partnership with Ulnooweg Indigenous Communities Foundation,” say Barnaby and Mattie. “Five percent of our profit is donated to the fund, which will give yearly scholarships of $2,500 to Indigenous students in Atlantic Canada. The scholarship serves as an example of what industry can do here in Halifax.”

Keep an eye out for new Online Learning Modules at Indigenous Treaty Partners this Fall!

Akwekon Innovation & Consulting

In January 2020, Michael Maracle-Polak first started Akwekon as an export business. “My plan was to export Indigenous products internationally,” says Maracle-Polak. “Three months after I started the business — thankfully before I engaged in any transactions — COVID-19 hit. As the pandemic carried on, all of the emotions and reflection that society went through seemed to create an overwhelming demand for different Indigenous perspectives.”

That’s when Maracle-Polak shifted gears. “I found myself being invited to participate in consultations on Diversity Equity and Inclusion work, programming, speaker series, design projects, and executive leadership consultations,” he says. “At the start of 2022, I did an audit of my schedule the prior year, and I realized it was a full-time business. I decided to pivot Akwekon from an export business to a design and consulting company — two things I have become skilled in over the last 25 years.”

Since the pivot, Akwekon has taken a holistic approach in applying Indigenous principles to organizational leadership and governance. The Akwekon team uses Storytelling, Gathering Minds, and Truth Sharing to achieve this. “Storytelling is equivalent to guest speaking,” explains Maracle-Polak. “We use this method to deliver important, inspiring, and thought-provoking messages through Indigenous teachings and stories. Sometimes we use this method to dissect a company’s DNA or culture — it can be a foundational step in helping spark the mindset shift that needs to happen in the corporate world in order to realize reconciliation.”

Gathering Minds is equivalent of a workshop, says Maracle-Polak. “It’s focused and deep teamwork. It’s about solving complex problems and leveraging Indigenous principles to design better solutions,” he says. “We do this by blending existing innovation design frameworks with ancient Indigenous knowledge to make decisions.”

Finally, Truth Sharing is the equivalent of Executive Coaching. “The focus here is on ‘Truth,’” says Maracle-Polak. “The objective is to find those leaders that are tasked with trying to develop Indigenous market strategies and move them further in their reconciliation journey, so that they can pursue their business objectives in a way that is authentic and real.”

Maracle-Polak adds that Akwekon works with both non-Indigenous and Indigenous organizations. “With Indigenous organizations, our work involves helping them understand the way non-Indigenous corporations operate so that better alignment can happen on a project, joint venture or potential partnership,” he explains. "With non-Indigenous organizations, we find there is a larger demand for a vision and strategy with Indigenous people. There's also a lot of fear that restricts more meaningful and bold strategies from emerging in the market. We help provide comfort in the design and execution of those bold strategies.”

Like his colleagues from Indigenous Treaty Partners and Ulnooweg, Maracle-Polak agrees that reconciliation is an ongoing process. “I would love to see more businesses understand the value of Indigenous knowledge and build it into their core values, policies, and procedures,” he says. On the other hand, Maracle-Polak is encouraged by the progress he sees. “I love that support for Indigenous business and community is happening and is gaining momentum,” he says. “It feels to me like it’s the first time in my life people are paying attention.”

What’s on the horizon for Akwekon? “I am working on a Smart EV Moderate Livelihood Fishing Vessel with a partner at Covey Island Boats,” says Maracle-Polak. “We are building Indigenous design elements into every aspect of the boat and the company joint venture.” Akwekon is also designing an Indigenous talent program, developing a continued learning curriculum with Dalhousie.

The Akwekon team is also in the process of completing a Nature Guide Certification through Ulnooweg and Windhorse Farms. Maracle-Polak closes with thanks to Grand River Enterprises, Indigenous Treaty Partners, Covey Island Boats, Grand River Employment and Training, Glooscap Ventures, Born in the North, The Royal Eagles, and Ulnooweg.

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story

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