How to be a good partner with Indigenous organizations


ARTICLE BY Sarah Roberton & Max Skudra

Your organization wants to build new business relationships with Indigenous peoples and communities. You know the first step is to understand what prospective Indigenous partners want and expect – but where to start?

Across Canada, a growing number of businesses are seeking to contribute to economic reconciliation – an effort to build equitable, mutually beneficial relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations. When done well, these relationships can help to promote economic parity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and help to redress the profound economic harms of colonization.

Both in his current role as Partner at Mokwateh, and previously as Director of Research at the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), Max has worked closely with Sarah, Vice President of Corporate and Public Affairs at Environics Research. We are proud of the productive collaboration that has developed between our respective organizations over the past decade, and of our efforts to facilitate other Indigenous/non-Indigenous collaborations through our research and engagement work.


Our experiences have demonstrated the power of economic reconciliation to deliver meaningful results for Indigenous peoples and communities.


But getting it right means taking the time to build truly respectful relationships. Anything less is counterproductive both for individual organizations and for the larger process of reconciliation. As Canada observes its second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, here’s some guidance for organizations to consider as they seek out new partnerships.



Don’t assume that because your business is ready to work with Indigenous partners that the interest is mutual

Many Indigenous organizations have been seeking engagement from non-Indigenous people for years. Today, as society’s expectations about reconciliation are rising, there’s a sense that some non-Indigenous organizations are beginning to realize they’re behind – and they’re racing (sometimes clumsily) to catch up. Many non-Indigenous business leaders are operating with good intentions, but it’s important to avoid an attitude of entitlement: the sense that Indigenous people should be thankful to secure an organization’s interest. The reality is, it’s often the case that the non-Indigenous organization needs the Indigenous partner more than the other way around. Don’t expect a pat on the back simply for showing up. Strong relationships are built together, and trust is earned.


Do take it one step at a time

Educate yourself. Get to know people and invest in building relationships and trust over time. Indigenous entrepreneurs and organizations (like any partners) have their own interests and are not going to involve themselves in your project only to further your organization’s goals. They are striving to make a better life for themselves and their communities; how does your project contribute to that? Indigenous peoples and communities have experienced lots of people showing up, getting what they want and leaving. Make a commitment to consciously avoid exploitation and work for real mutuality and shared benefit. If you aren’t yet sure how to do that, don’t force it. Start with honesty, respect and genuine care for the relationship – and other outcomes will be more likely to follow. Engage as partners and equals. Ask open questions and listen to the answers. What do your Indigenous partners want? What’s important to them? Rather than seeking ways to advance your own agenda, work to understand theirs – and how you might play a supporting role.


Don’t assume it’s business as usual

Forcing a new relationship into your usual project format and racing ahead with standard budgets and timelines is not the way to begin. In fact, Indigenous organizations and suppliers may not be willing to participate in a project under the same conditions as non-Indigenous suppliers. Especially if you’re operating under stressful deadlines, this is the wrong time to embark on a collaboration with a new Indigenous partner. Instead, start by laying some internal groundwork. In particular, look at your procurement practices and how they may be creating barriers to working with Indigenous people and organizations. If you adjust those now, you’ll be in a better position to connect appropriately when the need arises. You don’t have to start from scratch: the CCAB is a great source of information on procurement approaches that maximize opportunities for Indigenous involvement.


Do focus on the big picture and be flexible about how to structure the partnership

In our experience, the most effective initiatives have been Indigenous-led, where Indigenous people set the project goals and interpret the outcomes through their own lens, and the non-Indigenous partner plays a supporting role through additional capacity and expertise where needed. Alternately, seek out ways to bring Indigenous businesses on as suppliers and subcontractors: one of the ways Indigenous businesses grow is by partnering with other organizations to deliver larger projects they may not have the resources to undertake on their own. Don’t let it be a box-ticking exercise; ensure they have a real place at the table and the ability to influence the design and outcome of the project.


In the end, most of these lessons are pretty common-sensical. Businesses seeking to engage Indigenous organizations and communities in real, lasting partnership should bear in mind that all healthy relationships, including strong business relationships, rely on respect and mutual understanding. We believe it’s well worth the investment.


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