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Thought Leader Interview: Carol Anne Hilton

Interview by Karen Christensen

The founder of the Indigenomics Institute describes how the Indigenous worldview is critical to our collective future.

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As the founding CEO of the Indigenomics Institute, how do you define ‘Indigenomics’?
Indigenomics draws on the ancient principles that have supported Indigenous economies for thousands of years and works to implement them as modern business practices. Collectively, it is a response to the systemic exclusion of Indigenous peoples from the economic table over time and a platform from which we can work together to design economic reconciliation for Indigenous peoples. The goal is to address the Indigenous socio-economic gap by moving away from a narrative of ‘happened to us’ and towards a ‘designed by us’ approach. Many Canadians still perceive Indigenous peoples as being on the cost side of the economic equation. But going forward we will be focused on creating ‘own source revenue’ — revenue that our nations raise by generating business income and collecting taxes and resource revenues. This new paradigm facilitates the widespread acknowledgement of a new narrative: Indigenous peoples are economic powerhouses. With the right investment and growth, the Indigenous economy has the potential to exceed $100 billion.


You believe Indigenomics will help provide a sustainable pathway forward for the Canadian economy. How so?
Given the state of our environment, the path forward must include key elements of the Indigenous worldview. I am Nuu chah nulth from the west coast of Vancouver Island, and we have a concept, hishuk’ish tsawalk, meaning ‘everything is one and interconnected.’ There is growing recognition that Indigenous knowledge systems are critical to developing solutions to the climate crisis and achieving climate justice. In the realm of business, it is important to align decisions from this worldview. Our knowledge systems offer a foundation for adaptation and mitigation actions that work to sustain the resilience of social-ecological systems locally, regionally and globally. In the words of Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada’s former Minister of Environment and Climate Change, a country cannot have a comprehensive economic plan without a comprehensive climate plan. It is here — at the intersection of Canada’s climate and economic planning — where vast opportunity lives.


Tell us more about the Indigenous worldview.
A ‘worldview’ is a collective set of beliefs and values that make up a way of seeing the world, and there are important differences between the Indigenous worldview and the mainstream Western worldview. In the Indigenous worldview, as indicated, first and foremost is our relationship to the land. There is an embedded understanding of the connection of the ‘whole’ that has supported our existence, culture and survival across time, and this approach helps to frame some of the most important questions of our time: How are we interacting with our environment today, and how do we need to interact with it going forward?

Long-term thinking is another key element of our worldview. The decisions we make today will impact future generations — which brings me to our concept of the seventh generation. Put simply, we believe that decisions being made about our energy, water and natural resources must be sustainable for seven generations into the future. More than ever, we need thinking that focuses on economic progress in parallel to responsibility for our lands and resources. While the mainstream economy is geared towards monetary transactions as the source of exchange, the Indigenous economy is based on relationships. Our economy is the original sharing economy, the original green economy and the original circular economy. Today there is increased recognition of how critical these concepts are.

Our concept of wealth is much more community focused. It is less about revenue generation and more about our continuation as people in terms of economic development that supports our ways of being and upholds our Elders’ wisdom. These distinctions establish very different operating principles, and the implications for Canadian businesses are clear: All future resource projects, if they are to succeed, must have Indigenous voices onboard.


Describe the ‘push/pull dynamic’ that has long existed between Canada and its Indigenous Peoples.
At the centre of Indigenous economic progress and development has been our constant ‘pushing’ of Canada toward the activation of legal recognition as it is entrenched within the constitution of this country. The ‘pull’ dynamic has taken the form of years of government policies and practices that have created our systemic invisibility, as expressed through the continued denial, resistance and rejection of our rights. Our ongoing push for recognition has taken the form of over 300 court cases, many in the resource sector, all of which the government has lost. With these legal victories, Indigenous communities have been literally redrawing the map of Canada, one ruling at a time. This country’s land base covers 998,500 hectares; and in a power shift that no one saw coming, today, over 20 per cent of that land is controlled directly by our peoples. This demonstrates a shifting sphere of influence and the foundation for Indigenous economic empowerment.


How do you define ‘environmental justice’?
Environmental justice refers to the impacts of both historical and current inequitable distribution of the costs and benefits of environmental degradation, including the consequences of climate change. Indigenous Peoples live the long-term cumulative effects of climate change from within an inherent sense of place that is directly connected to our identity. These effects include rising sea levels, leading to increased salination of freshwater, which results in needing to adapt to the effects of a significant decrease in food security and access to traditional medicines, amongst other impacts.



Given the state of our environment, the path forward must include key elements of the Indigenous worldview.



Another important term in Indigenomics is ‘collaborative consent.’ Please describe it.
Collaborative consent describes an ongoing process of committed engagement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments to secure mutual consent. As a young leader in the Nuu chah nulth region, I witnessed high-conflict clashes around clearcut logging between Indigenous nations, the forestry sector and the government. Amidst all the chaos, I was deeply influenced by what I saw: The establishment of processes for the inclusion of Indigenous wisdom as a way to establish world-class forestry practices. This integration established that not only can upholding Indigenous wisdom support economic outcomes from a management perspective, it also works from a risk perspective and a financial perspective.

BC was the first province to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into law — even prior to a national response. Canada has since moved forward on this, and I believe we’re going to see a significant increase in the acknowledgment of decision-making frameworks and processes that include the structures of collaborative consent outlined in the UNDRIP.

Progress has begun. In early 2023, the Tahltan Nation of northern BC signed a first-of-its-kind agreement with the province that moved forward the Nation’s approach to lands management and established principles of consent based on UNDRIP. Through legal advancements, BC was a first mover in terms of embedding collaborative consent within the system.


Last summer you accepted a role on TELUS’s Indigenous Advisory Council. What is TELUS doing that other large corporations should consider doing?
I have much respect for the work TELUS is doing. It was the first telecommunications corporation to launch an Indigenous Reconciliation Action Plan. That is significant in itself, but it is also ensuring accountability by being transparent about meeting the goals of that plan, which has a strong focus on Internet connectivity. TELUS recognizes that connectivity is intricately linked to positive economic, social and health outcomes. It has committed to the advancement of broadband and mobility networks to Indigenous communities by leveraging publicprivate partnerships.

In 2022, TELUS enabled 12 Indigenous lands with advanced broadband connectivity, and it is on track to meet its targets. At the time the plan was released, it had already connected close to 85,000 Indigenous homes to pure fiber across 240 communities. It also has a five-year, million-dollar Indigenous Communities Fund that provides grants to Indigenous-led organizations such as IndigeSTEAM, which aims to excite Indigenous youth about science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics in culturally relevant ways.

TELUS has also launched a Truth and Reconciliation Elearning Program for all of its employees. To have connectivity, social outcomes and economic reconciliation outcomes reported on regularly by one of this country’s largest and most successful corporations speaks to how much the company values the Indigenous relationship. TELUS is a leader in the journey to economic reconciliation and it is time for other corporations to find their leadership space, as well.


Describe some of the key business opportunities within the Indigenous economy.
Some of the hot spots include clean energy, procurement, trade, capital and equity ownership. As investment in these areas continues, value creation will follow. Within our communities, learning and expertise are being built up around sustainable energy. Indigenous clean energy projects are increasing rapidly, and with that we are also seeing financial knowledge and capacity increasing, as well as increased equity ownership in largescale infrastructure.

A prime example is First Nations Power Authority. FNPA was established in 2011 as North America’s only not-for-profit clean energy organization that is Indigenous-owned and led. It facilitates the development of partnerships between First Nations and industry players to develop, build, own, operate and maintain cleaner energy in Canada. The ultimate goal is energy sovereignty in all parts of Canada for Indigenous nations.

Among FNPA’s achievements to date is the establishment of a Master of Sustainability (MSs) in Energy Security at the University of Saskatchewan School of Environment and Sustainability. This program is empowering a network of northern, Indigenous, remote professionals to lead sustainable community energy development in communities across Canada — and globally. It’s the only program of its kind in North America.

Indigenous technology-focused companies are also increasing. OneFeather Mobile Technologies, for example, is an innovative technology company that is enabling dedicated Indigenous banking solutions, a centre for digital Indigenous sovereign identity and data, community engagement and innovative election and voting services and products.


Is the idea to have an Indigenous economy operating alongside the traditional economy or do you want to see the two integrated?
They absolutely have to be integrated — and projects of national importance such as the Ring of Fire initiative shows why. This is one of the most promising development opportunities for critical minerals in Ontario. Located 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, it covers about 5,000 square kilometres and has generated very high estimates of the value of its critical resources to the global market to supply the emerging low carbon economy. But the other side of this story is that there are Indigenous nations in the Ring of Fire region who still do not have access to clean drinking water.


How do you define ‘economic reconciliation’?
I define it as the space between the lived realities of Indigenous People, the need to build understanding of the importance of the Indigenous relationship, and the demand for progressive action towards economic inclusion. Unless and until every business supports that, we will not have economic reconciliation. Economic reconciliation also entails recognizing how minimal the level of Indigenous content is in Canadian education. To build progress into the system going forward, that must change.


How will we know when economic reconciliation is achieved?
I am currenlty completing the Institute of Corporate Directors Designation at the Rotman School, which has established a focused program for Indigenous peoples and companies that want to work with our communities. This is a demonstration of excellent focused leadership to bring Indigenous people to the decision-making table in the corporate sector and the investment realm. That is a key way to create a strong trajectory of Indigenous economic strength.

For individual Canadians, the pathway towards economic reconciliation entails three things: becoming educated about Indigenous issues, demonstrating positive leadership in the face of racism and promoting systemic equality. Until there is an increased focus on Indigenous investment rather than social programs, we will see the continued perception of Indigenous People as an economic burden on Canada’s system.


The Indigenous Worldview

PRINCIPLE 1: Everything is connected.
This concept serves as a platform for ecological, generational and relational decision-making.

The role of stories is a core means of transmitting teachings, history and relationships over time, relaying protocol and speaking to consequences of action.

PRINCIPLE 3: Animate life force.
This concept draws the physical and the spiritual realms together, weaving the Indigenous nature of reality.

PRINCIPLE 4: Transformation.
The changing of form and the recognition of the ability to shape-shift is upheld as sacred and serves to challenge our existing and limited understanding of reality.

PRINCIPLE 5: The teachings.
Teachings exist to tell us how to be human and form the basis of the ‘original instructions’ or the responsibilities and ethics at the heart of Indigenous identity.

PRINCIPLE 6: Creation story.
Connection to origin and Creation is foundational to an Indigenous worldview. Within the Creation story comes a right to be in a place and belonging.

PRINCIPLE 7: Protocol.
The highest form of expression of recognition, this is the responsibility of remembering, acknowledging and witnessing. It is a means for recognition of connection and making things right.

PRINCIPLE 8: To witness.
This is the sacred responsibility of remembering — a practice that serves to validate experience, events, external relationships, ownership, recognition and ceremony across time.

PRINCIPLE 9: To make visible.
What we experience on Earth is only a part of the whole dimension, with the opposite being spiritual. Much of Indigenous ceremonial design reflects this concept of ‘as above, so below.’

PRINCIPLE 10: Renewal.
The shedding of the old, of being newborn, of a new time and a focus on transitioning from one state to another — this is both the physical and spiritual domain of an Indigenous worldview, centred in ceremony.


You are holding an event in November called Indigenomics On Bay Street [November 21-23; details online.] What is your message for financial services leaders?
In 2019 we identified that a $100-billion Indigenous economy is not only possible, but essential for Canada’s economic future. In November, Indigenous Nations, economic development corporations, businesses, organizations, educational institutions, governments and investment and pension firms will gather to activate value creation in this emerging economy. By hosting this event on Bay Street, we are calling attention to the vast opportunities for partnering and investing in Indigenous businesses.


The Indigenomics Economic Mix: 12 Levers for Growth

1. Equity ownership

2. Capital

3. Entrepreneurship

4. Trade

5. Philanthropy

6. Procurement

7. Clean energy

8. Technology

9. Social finance

10. Investment

11. Commerce

12. Infrastructure


As you look ahead, do you feel optimistic?
Absolutely. As with the future of our planet, our Indigenous future is all about young people seeing themselves in their own future. We need to understand young Indigenous perspectives and foster workforce development that meets the needs of the growing number of self-sufficient Indigenous communities. This is about designing our collective future for Indigenous economic success.

There are bright spots emerging across the country. One example is the establishment of the first Indigenous Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Toronto. [Editor’s Note: see page 1 of this issue for details.] The city has one of the largest Indigenous populations — over 75,000. The Centre will serve as a space where independent businesses can come to work together, establish visibility and flourish.

Elsewhere, Suncor is working with Indigenous communities across the country to increase their participation in energy development. It has worked with more than 150 communities, including the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo — home to Suncor’s oil sands operations — and other locations through Petro-Canada branded products and services. There are 26 Petro-Canada branded gas stations owned by First Nations, one wind project where a First Nation is an equity partner, and Suncor is an equity partner in PetroNor, a James Bay Cree wholesale distributor.

The First Nations Major Projects Coalition is leading the charge for increased equity ownership in major projects across the country. The loan-guarantees process will allow Indigenous communities to buy equity stakes in major projects. This is one of the most exciting and important developments in Indigenous business in decades. Overall, we are witnessing a powerful explosion of Indigenous entrepreneurship taking place across Canada. The capitalization of the growth and design of the Indigenous economy needs to brought into visibility to achieve widespread awareness.


Carol Anne Hilton is Founder and CEO of the Indigenomics Institute and author of Indigenomics: Taking a Seat at the Economic Table (New Society Publishers, 2021). She holds an international MBA from the University of Hertfordshire, England. Carol Anne is of Nuu chah nulth descent from the Hesquiaht First Nation on Vancouver Island.

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