Local native procurement policy could boost economy

Eddy Robinson is a new Mississauga resident, but he’s already trying to change things at City Hall.

The Objiway/Cree educator and entrepreneur recently appeared before city councilors to press them for an aboriginal buying policy for Mississauga similar to the federal government’s.

In Ottawa, the federal Procurement Strategy for Aboriginal Business works to help native companies bid on and win more contracts with all federal government departments and agencies.

Few local governments in Canada have similar buying policies, though some may have shared services deals or other arrangements linked to treaty rights or resource developments with nearby native groups.

On major energy projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline that would run through native lands in B.C., aboriginal businesses would own part of the project and likely get access to millions of dollars in contracts.

Many leaders in the native community have focused on education and aboriginal business development to help create badly needed jobs for natives, where the adult unemployment rate is nearly twice as high as that of the general population of Canada.

That’s ultimately Robinson’s goal — to boost the fortunes of his people as well as his own local business.

The tall, brightly tattooed member of the Cree clan owns MorningStar River, an organization focused on education and cultural awareness through traditional performances.

Until the recent labour dispute in many Ontario schools, Robinson was regularly booked through the school year for events in classrooms across the Greater Toronto Area.

MorningStar River also offers cultural consulting, enhancement workshops, showcases, keynote speaking, leadership development, custom training and presentations, as well as bookings of contemporary aboriginal artists.

Robinson wasn’t always an educator and socially minded businessperson. Before he arrived in Mississauga a year and a half ago, Robinson spent years learning from elders about his culture and trying to change the situation for natives in Toronto.

Even Robinson is surprised at how things have changed since his complicated childhood in Toronto. He grew up in the city’s east end and attended Danforth Tech High School before dropping out. Now he’s a Master’s of Education candidate and a married new father of one.

Robinson’s mentor, TD Bank executive Domenic Natale, said Robinson’s goal of a local native buying policy in Mississauga is one worth pursuing.

“One of challenges is nobody takes (Aboriginal entrepreneurs) seriously or a lot of them feel like they’re not given a fair chance to participate in the greater economic world,” said Natale, TD Bank’s vice-president of aborginal trust services.

Natale said the initiative could also inspire people to move. “If Mississauga was to adopt a procurement strategy that would enable Aboriginal entrepreneurs to bring their goods to market, I think it would attract some of these artists and business people to come to the city.”

The Italian-Canadian said he knows the benefits firsthand of encouraging business opportunities for Aboriginal entrepreneurs. Natale said TD has actually grown their Aboriginal procurement strategy over the last few years and there is now  a larger trend in corporate Canada to provide more opportunities to native businesses through introduction conferences, internal events and greater community outreach.

But Natale says Mississauga first needs to find out how many Aboriginal businesses reside in the city. “How much business does the city give them the opportunity to bid on?” Natale said. “It’s got to start someplace.”

“What’s the downside?”

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