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Building Aboriginal/Corporate Relationships Our call to action

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Charlie Coffey
Executive Vice President
Government & Community Affairs
RBC Financial Group
JEDI Luncheon and Roundtable
Sheraton Hotel
Fredericton, New Brunswick
Monday, March 25, 2002

Alex, thank you for the introduction...and for the invitation to participate in JEDI's luncheon and roundtable today.

From Elder Maggie Paul, the Honourable Brad Green, Dennis Wallace, Alex Dedam, Hermel Vienneau, Brian Dick and Pierre Michaud, to various Chiefs, government officials, executives, bankers and community representatives, (if only there was time to single out each of you by name), it's gratifying to see aboriginal leaders, federal and provincial partners as well as members of the private sector at this forum. Since the Joint Economic Development Initiative was established seven years ago to identify and pursue projects that contribute to economic development for aboriginal peoples in New Brunswick, it's more than fitting (many might say, long overdue) for the private sector to become the fourth pillar in what I often refer to as our call to action.

It's great to be back in Fredericton - to see several friends again and meet new ones. I'm always pleased to have another opportunity to speak about a topic that's important to everyone in this room...to aboriginal peoples, to the public sector, to the private sector, to Canadians and yes, to RBC Financial Group...and to me. As with the Atlantic Economic Summit in Halifax last September, I'm here to help stimulate thinking and action - to explore ways aboriginal peoples and corporate Canada can better work together as spirited partners with shared goals and responsibilities - to focus on the benefits of building long-term relationships...of building a new aboriginal, corporate and public sector business model for sustained economic development.

And speaking of spirited partners, working together and economic development, my visit to Iqaluit and the Arctic Winter Games last week was about all that and much more. The city was hot with the energizing spirit of youth, teams, competition, partnerships...and business! The cold temperatures were replaced with the warm hearts of young people from Greenland, Russia, the United States and Canada, particularly the territory of Nunavut. My son Jonathan and I couldn't help but get caught up in the spirit of the Games and the people of the North...and I couldn't help but note the partnerships and relationship building at work. Aboriginal, government, corporate sponsorships and commitments - the legacies - were evident in every facet of this exciting event...the pride was showing!

Of course when it comes to pride, some of you may be aware of my strong connection to New Brunswick, as I was born and raised in this province - in the upper Saint John River Valley - in the town of Woodstock. My own experience with aboriginal peoples has been along a path of learning and understanding. It was when I led RBC Royal Bank in Manitoba thirteen years ago, that I truly became aware of the issues facing aboriginal peoples and the need, as a Canadian and a businessman - as part of the corporate sector - to act.

So where does our relationship-building journey begin today? Perhaps with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report, released in 1996. To this day, the final report represents a significant piece of work - filled with research, analysis and recommendations. Although the report provoked much discussion among aboriginal peoples, the business community, with a few notable exceptions, has said little about it in the last six years.

At RBC Financial Group, we see aboriginal issues as a matter of concern for all Canadians and aboriginal economic development as having a significant impact on the national economy and the corporate sector. We may have changed our LOGO last summer but we haven't changed our commitment to and support of aboriginal peoples.

We've all heard about the historical and contemporary inequities of aboriginal peoples in our society - the painful costs that have been borne by individuals and communities. RBC Financial Group has also offered an analysis of the fiscal cost of doing nothing.

In the absence of a solid economic base, the dependence of aboriginal peoples on social assistance has continued to grow. In the Royal Commission Report: Nine Steps to Rebuild Aboriginal Economies, Fred Wien of the Maritime School of Social Work at Dalhousie University says "for the on-reserve population in Canada as a whole, 45% were reliant on social assistance in 1995. Projected into the future and taking account of anticipated demographic change, the rate of dependence on social assistance is expected to reach almost 60% by the year 2010. In the Atlantic Region, we were already at the 74% level in 1992, with the forecast for the year 2010 rising to a staggering 85% unless something changes drastically".

These costs are significant and serious. They concern us deeply - as individual citizens who care about society and as corporate citizens concerned with broad and sound public policy. However, our bank's interest in and advocacy about relationships between aboriginal peoples and corporate Canada go beyond corporate citizenship and public policy. Good relationships are also smart business.

We're aware that many business people don't always grasp the business benefits of relations with aboriginal peoples and communities. For us, the business benefits are clear. We see a major and expanding market opportunity. The rapid increases in the aboriginal population represent new customers. Land claims represent increased economic and financial clout. The aboriginal business sector, which has grown at a dramatic rate in recent years and is steadily moving the aboriginal population towards economic self-sufficiency, is generating wealth and creating jobs.

A demand for financial services - and increasingly sophisticated financial services, is one result of the demographic, political and economic changes within the aboriginal community. RBC Financial Group needs to respond to these demands and work with aboriginal peoples to build win/win relationships. To do less would be a disservice not only to our customers, but also to our shareholders.

The business reasons for building good relations with aboriginal peoples go beyond market opportunity. Aboriginal peoples are becoming a vital source of new entrants to and new skills for, the workforce. Many companies are benefiting from having long-term and reliable employees on board. And economic relationships - employment, contracting or joint ventures - are contributing to community support for resource development. Our bank's new recruits from Big Cove First Nation were a welcomed addition to the Royal Direct Centre team in Moncton last year.

Relationships with aboriginal peoples can bring new knowledge and values into the corporate sector, especially in terms of respect for land, traditional knowledge and sustainable development. And a track record of establishing mutually beneficial relationships with aboriginal communities can even open international opportunities for Canadian companies. It's clear that the potential business benefits of relations with aboriginal peoples and communities are aligned with our underlying business objective of creating value for our shareholders.

Many businesses also face a practical challenge - that of developing corporate strategies and day-to-day business practices that create win/win business benefits. Learning, adapting and change are the order of the day - prerequisites to corporate survival and growth.

At RBC Royal Bank, we sometimes need to step back and remind ourselves that long-term business relationships with aboriginal peoples and communities - our banking, lending and other financial services - are part of a holistic set of relationships where education, training, employment, partnerships and community leadership work together to form a basis for mutual benefit and ongoing results.

First, we want to help aboriginal youth as they prepare to be the future leaders in their communities:

  • We introduced our Native Student Awards Program in 1992 - a program that provides five Aboriginal students with up to $4000 for each year of their post-secondary education. Brian Muise from Nova Scotia, earned one of the awards in 2001 and also worked in our Yarmouth branch last summer. I'm told he enjoyed his time with us...and we're hoping for a return engagement in May, when Brian takes a break from his studies at the University of New Brunswick. And if you want to see the real value of the program this afternoon, please chat with one of our former "graduates" and employees, who just happens to be in the room - the JEDI manager herself - Debra Alivisatos.

  • Our bank's Aboriginal Stay in School Program provides aboriginal high school students with a chance to earn and learn during the summer. We believe that the more young people know about the business world, the more motivated they will be to obtain the education required to succeed. Since 1996, more than 400 returning aboriginal students have been trained at RBC Royal Bank branches. Atlantic Canada is well represented in this program every year.

  • RBC Royal Bank has partnered with the province of New Brunswick, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and Ulnooweg Development Corporation, an Aboriginal Capital Corporation, to establish a loan fund for youth (under the age of 30) wanting to establish or expand a business here. We contributed resources, including a $50,000 loan capital pool, to the project.

Members of our Atlantic team are also involved with the Joint Economic Development Initiative (JEDI) Committee in New Brunswick. We want to increase aboriginal education and employment opportunities...we're making headway in New Brunswick, Atlantic Canada and across the country.

Second, we are committed to assisting aboriginal communities in their efforts to achieve and sustain economic self-sufficiency:

  • RBC Royal Bank was one of the first banks to open a full-service branch in a First Nation community. We now have seven such branches and one branch in each of the three regions of Nunavut. There are also two RBC agency outlets where First Nations run their own bank utilizing Royal Bank technology, support, and training.

  • Our bank has supported First Nations in Atlantic Canada through housing assistance projects. These programs help build several housing units in New Brunswick. Royal Bank's specialized lending program allowed First Nations to purchase additional houses, outside the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) program and without Ministerial guarantees.

  • Recently, RBC supplied a First Nation community in New Brunswick with financing to complete a sewage lagoon project and to complete paving of roads. We've also provided another First Nation in this province with capital financing for the construction of a health, community centre and band administration offices.

  • Since more than half of aboriginal Canadians live in urban centres, we've placed a focused effort in this area. Our bank's partnership with the National Association of Friendship Centres has led to the support of more than 120 centres across Canada, including the one right here in Fredericton, under the leadership of Sharlene Paul.

  • RBC Financial Group has also established lending criteria and guidelines to help First Nations and aboriginal companies with financing requirements. Royal Trust is the only major financial institution to have established a national First Nations' Advisory Service for aboriginal communities in terms of investment, trust and land claim settlements.

These activities are more than doing business - they're critical to aboriginal economic development moving forward. And some of them also serve as employment opportunities for aboriginal peoples in various industry sectors.

Third, we support training initiatives for aboriginal communities and entrepreneurs:

  • Many aboriginal enterprises face the same challenges of other small and medium businesses...as Canada's leading lender to small business, we work with entrepreneurs not only to offer financial products and services, but also to provide the information and tools that help businesses grow. We also offer financial/risk management training to aboriginal peoples.

  • Our contributions to the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers (CANDO) are helping to develop entrepreneurial training seminars and the certification program for Aboriginal Economic Development Officers.

  • RBC Royal Bank is also a founding sponsor of Canadian Executive Services Organization (CESO) Aboriginal Services, including its MBA program, offering economic development assistance in aboriginal communities.

Have we achieved our goals? Not yet. Do we have a distance to go? Absolutely. Are we on the right path? We believe that we are. So what will it take for corporate Canada to become more committed to building business relationships with aboriginal peoples? We see progress in the number of companies making commitments and introducing initiatives. We see results in New Brunswick and from coast to coast. The fact remains there simply aren't enough businesses doing this. And, there are costs associated with failing to act.

How many businesses in Canada are looking at themselves and asking: are we removing the barriers - solving the problems - creating solutions - and providing the opportunities that will enable aboriginal peoples to become full participants in our society and in our economy? There are practical ways to proceed and best practices to follow. Many ideas will be shared at this forum and in the months ahead.

Those businesses - the ones that are more experienced and knowledgeable - those that have begun to see the business benefits of constructive relationships, must continue to speak up and share success stories - convince others they have a role to play and much to gain from building relationships: Paul Theriault and NB Power, Mike Whalen/Beaver Paul of Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline, Bob Pinnette of J.D. Irving, Ian Hurst from CHIP REIT Hospitality (this Sheraton hotel), Jerry Pond of Q1 Labs, to mention just a few...

The federal government (and provincial/municipal governments) has its own role to play. We're encouraged by efforts to renew relationships and chart new courses with aboriginal leaders. There's much to do...justice, land claims, treaties, health/social conditions, taxation, economic development...

The Atlantic Investment Partnership (the five-year initiative announced by the Prime Minister in June of 2000) goes a long way in supporting aboriginal peoples' interests in innovation, community economic development, trade and investment, not to mention entrepreneurship/skills development initiatives, as does the work of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, under the stewardship of Minister Bob Nault. Partnerships at work...

The National Aboriginal Economic Development Board, which oversees Aboriginal Business Canada and reports to Industry Minister Allan Rock, continues to make a significant contribution to the growth of aboriginal business opportunities. I serve on this Board with the likes of Chief Misel Joe from Conne River in Newfoundland...and we want to push the envelope on the progress that's already been made on "re-building the aboriginal economy" - on corporate/aboriginal relations.

RBC Financial Group is also involved in the Aboriginal Human Resource Development Council of Canada. Led by Kelly Lendsay, this council fosters partnerships among industry, government, and aboriginal partners. Our best measure of success is the creation of new jobs in aboriginal communities.

The Council on Corporate-Aboriginal Relations (CCAR), established by the Conference Board of Canada (with RBC membership), is one more example of the benefits of building relationships. The Council's approach and activities emphasize an improvement in understanding the strategic importance of aboriginal/corporate relations. More partnerships at work...

These are challenging times for aboriginal peoples and aboriginal leaders. Economic development is but one area where aboriginal peoples are working to re-establish control as a means of fostering healing and political/social/economic well-being. I'm sure Betty Ann Lavallée (the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council) knows what I mean. Within this context, aboriginal/corporate/government partnerships hold tremendous promise. Perhaps there should be a more formal partnership or business model in our communities - a partnership and model that reflects shared goals - a partnership and model that enables us to work together towards tangible, measurable results.

Congratulations to the Joint Economic Development Initiative for planning this forum and moving forward with its agenda...and special thanks to Debra/the JEDI team for coordinating this event. When skimming the recent annual report of the Aboriginal Affairs Secretariat, I was most impressed with the work, the achievements and the support to JEDI/youth - the commitment to the future of this province. I invite all of you to stay in touch with me and with Tom MacDonald, RBC's head of the New Brunswick/P.E.I. region, whose office is right here in Fredericton...there are best practices to share and much knowledge/understanding to gain. Let's keep the pride showing!

In closing, we've learned it's possible for corporate Canada to create wealth with aboriginal peoples and for aboriginal peoples. It's in the national interest to do more. It's in the business interest to do more. It's in all of our interest to help ensure aboriginal Canadians take their rightful place in Canadian society and in the economy. There's a cost to doing nothing and a cost to not doing enough. It's our call to action!

Thank you...now let's hear from you.


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