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Building a better economy:
The role of business in creating wealth for and with
aboriginal peoples


Charlie Coffey
Executive Vice President
Government & Community Affairs
RBC Financial Group
BC Treaty Commission Venture Forum
Simon Fraser University
Vancouver, British Columbia

Thursday, March 4, 2004

Thank you for the introduction Commissioner Adam (Wilf)…

It's a pleasure to be here this afternoon - to be part of a conference agenda whose purpose is to open doors to new business opportunities - and to venture into a treaty world as well.

It's also a pleasure to be among champions here today - from Gujawwm, the President of the Haida Nations who spearheaded and won the Haida case establishing the need for companies to consult with communities, to Harley Chingee, Chief of McLeod Lake Indian band, a very successful leader who's developed a strong economy for his people and others. Needless to say, there are many more champions in this room…

Let me begin our discussion of "building a better economy" by reaffirming what might appear to be obvious: the foundation of a healthy community is a sustainable and diverse economy that generates wealth for community members, businesses, and all those who interact within the community. That wealth provides income-earning opportunities for members, contributes to the quality of life, makes the community an attractive place to live and reduces poverty and crime - thereby achieving the vision of a healthy community. The connection between these elements forms what we refer to as the Circle of Prosperity.

In the Circle of Prosperity there is a direct link between a community vision and economic activity. The community develops and builds the vision with the financial resources provided by a sustainable economic base. That base is made up of economic drivers and economic supporters. Both are necessary for a balanced economy.

Economic drivers are "new wealth generators" or businesses that bring new and sustainable wealth into the community by providing goods and services to customers outside of the local area. Examples of economic drivers include tourism and export-oriented businesses that sell regionally or internationally. The wealth from these economic drivers increases the money available in the community and is shared with:

  • Other businesses (through local purchasing and the strengthened spending capacity of residents)
  • Residents (through wages and job creation and their associated positive social impacts)
  • Organizations responsible for providing local services and amenities

Economic supporters are businesses that circulate money within the community, either from the sale of goods and services to members, or as suppliers to other businesses. The market for these supporting industries typically grows in size and strength as a result of the wealth-generating economic drivers. Examples of economic supporters include retail and construction businesses.

Organizations that provide community services and amenities such as schools, recreation groups and health care agencies are also considered economic supporters because they provide the infrastructure and services that businesses need in the community. They also contribute to the quality of life that attracts the skilled workforce needed by all businesses.

RBC is a proud partner to many of the communities within BC and throughout Canada. We're very proud of our record - that in BC, 43% of all First Nations' communities are our partners. We have a critical role to play in terms of understanding community needs and developing proactive ways of addressing the needs and visions of the communities we serve.

We're not prepared to finance any large resource development if it fails to consult and accommodate the First Nations whose territory resources are being extracted from. Failure to support rights and titles places our funds at risk, so it's simply not an option.

Historically we have focused on identifying programs that address the critical need for housing, education and the like. We have some very progressive programs that bring great benefit to aboriginal peoples, however we now need to think about addressing the overriding issues. If we step back and look at the community as a whole we'll see that housing programs etc. are more like a stop gap solution - in other words, a strong economy will precipitate housing because if everybody is working, housing isn't an issue.

In BC, we're now beginning to look at ways of working with communities that will assist in the formation of community development plans. We'll provide our financial expertise in identifying ways of maximizing cash flow and investments, while following community development plans. If we - if business - can help create strong key economic drivers, the community will begin to prosper through capacity development, support industries and overall employment opportunities.

The bottom line is that economic measures are required in advance of the treaties. For example, revenue sharing agreements are allowing communities to begin to address infrastructure needs and the overall needs of the communities in a way that allows First Nations to play a integral role in the decision making process.

Let's take a look at nine (9) goals in building a community economic development strategy:

Committed Leadership
1. Business, political, and community leaders that commit to a clear economic vision, act consistently and focus on priorities.
2. Well-informed decision-makers who improve the community and look to the future.

Excellent Foundations
3. A business-friendly environment that welcomes and supports business.
4. A focus on economic drivers that generate new and sustainable wealth.

Quality Infrastructure
5. A highly skilled and talented workforce.
6. Physical infrastructure that connects businesses to their markets.
7. Unique features that contribute to the quality of life for people and business.

Positive Image
8. A positive attitude about the community among the community members.
9. A positive reputation for the community outside the area.

At RBC Financial Group, we're concerned about the level of business and public awareness of the importance of aboriginal participation in the economy. One of our goals has been to stimulate a public discussion on this issue. We have done this, in part, by emphasizing the social and economic consequences of the status quo.

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 significant 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. The benefits of a strong aboriginal community also big incredible benefits to the mainstream business comunity.

The business reasons for building good relations with aboriginal peoples go beyond market opportunities alone. Aboriginal peoples are becoming an important source of new entrants and new skills for the workforce. Many companies are benefiting from having long-term, stable and reliable employees on board.

It's clear to me 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. I believe other businesses would arrive at the same conclusion if they took the time to make a similar assessment.

And we sometimes have to step back and remind ourselves that our business relationships with aboriginal peoples and communities - our banking, lending and other financial services - are in fact part of a holistic set of relationships where education, training, employment, partnerships and community relationships work together to form a basis for mutual benefit and sustained results.

We see ourselves building relationships with aboriginal peoples that lead to market opportunities for our services and skilled employees for our workforce -- both now and in the future.

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. More and more businesses are recognizing the need to hire aboriginal people and to capitalize on market opportunities. And more and more businesses are contracting with aboriginal owned companies for the same reason. 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. Best practices are becoming better understood. Many ideas are being shared at this conference.

And 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.

Has RBC Financial Group achieved our goals? Not yet. Do we have a distance to go? Absolutely. Are we on the right path? We believe that we are.

It's in the national interest to do more and it's in the business interest to do more. RBC, for its part, will maintain our course and will continue to make the investments we need to in order to make a difference. In many ways, our investment here speaks to our investment in the Olympic Games. We believe the Games will benefit all of Canada from the perspective of economics, sustainability, cultural activity, and tourism. The Olympic Games are part of our heritage and our history - we've been there since 1947 and we expect to be a supporter for Vancouver 2010 and beyond. RBC Financial Group will continue to be there for aboriginal peoples too - it's part of our heritage and history - it's simply who we are.

I would like to conclude my formal remarks by revisiting a quote from one of my speeches in March 2002 - I saw it re-printed in the BC Treaty Commission's paper, The Business Case for Treaties (November 20, 2003): "We've learned it's possible for corporate Canada to create wealth with aboriginal peoples and for aboriginal peoples." In fact, there are unlimited possibilities!

Thank you…now let's hear from you…

Thank you. Meegwetch.

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