Wise Practices: Indigenous Communities Share Their Stories

"We need fearless storytelling more than ever.” Dr. Laura Brearley, an Australian academic and expert in creative approaches to research, had these powerful words for a gathering of researchers, academics, youth, elders, and Indigenous leaders from across Canada, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand.

Brearley’s keynote address at Banff Centre’s Wise Practices in Indigenous Community Development Symposium touched on profound lessons for community leaders seeking positive change. The sharing of stories – and how they inspire, are communicated, and learned from – was a key theme of the symposium, which was the culmination of a two-and-a-half year “Wise Practices in Rural Alberta” applied research project led by Banff Centre with the support of the Rural Alberta Development Fund and Nexen.

Inspired by Brearley’s presentation on the Deep Listening Project, a central focus in her career, a wealth of stories was generously shared throughout the symposium. Many had come to listen to success stories shared by representatives from the four Wise Practices research communities – Alberta Indian Investment Corporation, Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, Métis Crossing, and the Mikisew Group of Companies. Representatives of a fifth Alberta community, Sucker Creek First Nation, also joined the conversation to share what they had learned by taking part in the research project.

Traveling to each of the communities, the researchers – a cohort of Indigenous youth, Banff Centre staff, and a video crew – joined in a highly collaborative approach to learning how each community had arrived at success.

“It has been a huge learning journey for the research communities themselves,” says Brian Calliou, who led the research as Indigenous Leadership and Management director. “They have been able to reflect back to when their projects were just a dream, and recall all the steps that were made to achieve their success, through the challenges that were met and overcome, and how they were able to persist.”

Sharing his story at the symposium, Rocky Sinclair touches on the things that have been both foundational to the success of his organization, Alberta Indian Investment Corporation (AIIC), and inspiring to him personally. As AIIC’s general manager, Sinclair recalls that his involvement in this “developmental” lending institution “comes from that place of empowerment.” As he and his team help Indigenous businesses get started, Sinclair thinks of the example his father set for him. “His whole being was seated in helping out the little guy, and helping the underdog.”

While AIIC’s journey to success has had its ups and downs since forming in 1987, they have now provided $53 million in loans to Alberta’s Indigenous start-up businesses, with more than 800 loans made. Even more powerful, and something Sinclair’s dad would have been proud of: “We’re seeing generational success – we’re lending to the kids of people we loaned to 20 years ago.”

The empowerment and support of Indigenous youth – and the absolute necessity that they be involved in creating successful communities and enterprises – was another key theme throughout the research and symposium. With more than 600,000 Indigenous youth entering Canada’s labour market between 2001 and 2026, many speakers stress the astounding potential of this group of young people, as they participate in the shaping of their communities and the country’s economic future.

This was a take-it-on-the-road, get-up-close-and-personal learning exercise that explored and exposed Indigenous philosophies, challenges, community needs, and the successes of real people, in real places, with real hopes and dreams for the futures of their communities.

Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux

One of the most passionate advocates for youth throughout the research project, Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux has used every opportunity in her term as Banff Centre’s Nexen Chair in Indigenous Leadership to engage and encourage youth to prepare and take charge of their futures. She accompanied in visits to research communities, and listened intently as they shared with her what they had learned, and how they had developed a deeper pride in their histories and traditions.

“This was no mere academic exercise,” Wesley-Esquimaux says. “This was a take-it-on-the-road, get-up-close-and-personal learning exercise that explored and exposed Indigenous philosophies, challenges, community needs, and the successes of real people, in real places, with real hopes and dreams for the futures of their communities.”

In Alberta’s north, another case study has involved the Mikisew First Nation, whose members are leading the way in developing opportunities and a stronger community. The Mikisew Group of Companies, based in Fort Chipewyan and owned by Mikisew First Nation, is a highly diversified enterprise with a hand in everything from sport fishing and property management, to energy services and transportation. Ideally situated to pursue opportunities within the booming oil sands, Mikisew Group also trains and supports Fort Chipewyan youth as they seek careers that will keep them close to home and contributing to their community.

Katie Smith, research officer for Indigenous Leadership and Management at Banff Centre, traveled to Fort Chipewyan last winter with researchers to learn more about the community and its business endeavours. While interest and curiosity for the diverse economic development of this far-flung community was likely top of mind for the group when they arrived in Fort Chipewyan on a frigid -30 C day, they were soon warmed by an invitation to a community supper, tea dance, and celebration happening the next evening. As preparations were well underway for a huge feast that evening, it was no surprise the research group encountered competing priorities amongst those they hoped to interview.

“One woman cancelled because she was skinning rabbits for the community dinner,” says Smith.

Indeed, it is the focus on these very activities – the sharing of food, the experience of gathering together all generations as a community to dance, pray, sing, and laugh – that appears to be one of the critical factors for Indigenous communities that achieve success.

In her powerful keynote address, Roberta Jamieson, president and CEO of INDspire, said the very best chance for success will come with the engagement of all Indigenous citizens. “Canada cannot afford to squander the opportunity. This is not a game to be watched from the sidelines… if it’s going to impact Indian people, Indian people have to lead it.”

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