Published on January 25 2024 In Scientific news

Doing business in the North

An article by Valérie Levée, science journalist

Entrepreneurship, highly valued in Western societies, is making inroads among First Nations and Inuit. But what form does Indigenous entrepreneurship take when neoliberal logics diverge from Indigenous values? This is the field of research of Émilie Fortin-Lefebvre, a professor at Université du Québec à Montréal, the director of The Economic Autonomy for Nunavik Inuit and First People Study Centre and recently named co-director of the INQ's society and culture axis.

Going into business is like a race against time: acquiring knowledge about industry, developing a business model, building a network, obtaining financing... For Indigenous peoples, these steps are often coupled with additional barriers. For example, a major pitfall for First Nations is the Indian Act, which stipulates that First Nations are exempt from seizure. "This means that First Nations community entrepreneurs are considered insolvent by the banks," explains Émilie Fortin-Lefebvre. However, the Act does not apply to Inuit, who face barriers such as geographical remoteness and the enormous cost of transportation. These barriers marginalize Indigenous peoples and can prevent them from taking a more important place in the economic ecosystem. They hinder what Émilie Fortin-Lefebvre calls economic autonomy, i.e. autonomy in making decisions about their economic future at both individual and community levels.

Linking entrepreneurship to Indigenous values

Empowerment cannot be achieved by transposing Western entrepreneurial mechanisms into an Indigenous context. Entrepreneurship and the economy in general convey values of competition, efficiency and profit, whereas Indigenous peoples tend to advocate collaboration, cooperation and the sharing of resources and benefits within the community. 

In Inuktitut, entrepreneurship means "a project to make money". The Inuit say ''if entrepreneurship is about making money, it's not me, I don't want to compete with others''. An Indigenous leader told me 'wealth is a white man's concept'", reports Émilie Fortin-Lefebvre.

In her research, she finds that Indigenous entrepreneurship is imbued with values different from those conveyed by the liberal economy, which sometimes becomes a source of anxiety and a fear that economic logic will erode Indigenous culture. This tension gives rise to a variety of entrepreneurial approaches, which Émilie Lefebvre-Fortin has mapped according to whether they address the Indigenous or general market, and whether they integrate a cultural dimension into their products and services. More generally, First Nations band councils or the Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec, Makivik Corporation and Inuit landholding corporations are setting up businesses using a community-based entrepreneurship model, with a view to offering services to the community. 

"When entrepreneurs start their own businesses, the majority are concerned with giving back to the community by creating jobs, enhancing a cultural dimension or offering services that the local or Quebec government doesn't provide," adds Émilie Fortin-Lefebvre. 

In another research project, in partnership with the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Economic Development Commission, she focused on the needs of entrepreneurs to improve entrepreneurial support services. "On the one hand, I interviewed entrepreneurs about their needs, and on the other, I looked at the services offered to see how the two corresponded," describes Émilie Fortin-Lefebvre. She is now extending her research to Nunavik to find out what Inuit need in terms of entrepreneurial support. I'm not going to tell them what to do," she says. We're going to interview entrepreneurs in Nunavik to find out what their needs are, what they think the current barriers are, and how different structures would address these issues. The result will be a decision-making tool, and then it's up to them to decide.

Spreading knowledge by giving back to the community

Entrepreneurs are the first to be interested in the results of Émilie Fortin-Lefebvre's research, and since she feels that scientific articles do not percolate easily outside academic circles, she is exploring other ways of disseminating knowledge. "It's my job to write articles or give lectures, but I feel like I'm taking rather than giving back to society," she says. She is therefore preparing an illustrated book on entrepreneurial coaching for Nunavik's entrepreneurs and economic development agents.

Last summer, thanks to a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, she also produced a documentary, "The Cree way", reporting on the benefits of the Paix des Braves agreement for the Cree Nation. The twenty-minute film shows how the Waswanipi Cree see their economy in relation to their culture and territory. Émilie Fortin-Lefebvre is now waiting for another grant to produce five documentaries showing the contribution of the Indigenous economy to the Quebec economy.

This contribution is not only economic, but also environmental. 

"If one day we succeed in abandoning the over-exploitation of natural resources, it will surely be because, collectively, we will have been inspired by the way Indigenous peoples conceive the balance between social, economic and environmental needs," observes Émilie Fortin-Lefebvre.

To learn more:

Fortin-Lefebvre, É., Awashish, K., Blanchet-Cohen, N. (2023) Support for Collective Entrepreneurship Among Indigenous Youth: An Account of an Experience of Indigenization, Canadian journal of nonprofit and social economy research 14(S1), 122–137

Fortin-Lefebvre, E., Baba, S. (2021) Indigenous Entrepreneurship and Organizational Tensions: When Marginality and Entrepreneurship Meet, Management international-Mi, 25(5), 151-170.

Fortin-Lefebvre, É., Baba, S. (2020) Indigenous Business Support Services: A Case

Study of the Quebec Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Canada, Journal of Aboriginal Economic Development, 12(1), 139-161.


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