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Doing Business With First Nations: A Beginners Guide

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

Cambium Indigenous Professional Services holding an Indigenous engagement session
Indigenous partnership / engagement session

Doing business with First Nations can be a very rewarding experience. Depending on what your outcomes are, doing business with First Nations can provide a long term, sustainable and positive relationship. Establishing a mutually beneficial and respectful partnership with a First Nation takes patience and understanding. It requires a well thought out engagement plan that encompasses the First Nations traditions, language, protocols and current social and political structures.

At the core, a First Nation will ensure the well-being and safety of it's members, territory, traditions, social structures and language above anything else. By aligning your companies vision with the vision of the First Nation will help ensure a more positive and beneficial outcome. In this article, we are going to discuss some of the basics of doing business with First Nations.

Recognize the First Nations Views, Culture, Experiences, Language and Way of Life

Indigenous communities differ from non-Indigenous communities in some very significant ways. Indigenous culture is founded on a unique view which governs all aspects of life and, in turn, affects government, corporate, and societal relations.

It is essential to understand Indigenous communities and learn about the communities’ experiences in order to develop an effective working relationship. Doing so will help set the stage for a positive partnership and allow you or your company to do business with First Nations.

Some individuals, corporate entities, and government representatives may want to reach out to Indigenous communities to begin building working relationships but are hesitant. The first stumbling block has often been verbiage. Communication is key when doing business with First Nations. Remember, every First Nation is different and each community has their own way of doing things.

Communication is KEY! What is an Indigenous community referred to as? Is it a band, a reserve, or perhaps a tribe? Are the community members called Indians, First Nations People, Indigenous or maybe Aboriginals? In the fear of not wanting to offend and trying to be politically correct, many people forego their initial attempts at effective communication simply for lack of knowledge on how to address Indigenous People.

The simple answer is that the community members should be addressed in the terms that they prefer to be called. Take the first step and simply ask. When doing business with First Nations and in doubt about political correctness, pick up the phone and talk with the First Nation directly. The First Nation will advise accordingly.

Manage Risk with Effective Planning

Those who are risk averse may also tread lightly around Indigenous People – often representing as a lack of confidence. Fear of the unknown in life is large enough without the addition of fear of the unknown in community relations, cultural and spiritual beliefs, mannerisms, and community values. Many strategies are available to manage such risk and increase the reward by working effectively with Indigenous People.

Prior to initial meetings, develop and implement engagement programs that focus on managing risk instead of blindly following processes or policies. 

Provide training to employees to help them work effectively with First Nation technicians and once introductions have been made, and a working relationship develops, help the community build capacity from within through mutual learning and sharing with respect. 

Cambium Indigenous Professional Services holding an Indigenous engagement session
Indigenous engagement and partnership session

Time Your Engagements!

Learning the factors that play a significant role in Indigenous community life is also not only important but necessary.

The timing of engagement and relationship building can depend on the community lifestyle. Calling in advance to confirm, and calling en route if you’re traveling great distances is not only a sound practice when doing business with First Nations, but makes simple business sense. (Related: Why is Indigenous Awareness Training Important?)

For those communities that rely heavily on natural resources for survival, their very routines may revolve around a time clock that neither works at the speed of mainstream business nor on the average timeclock of a non-Indigenous person. Similarly, Indigenous communities place a great importance on the cycle of life. It’s not uncommon for an entire administration to shut down following a death in the community. Respecting this and recognizing that the potential for a full closure is high while in the midst of engagement will go a long way toward solidifying a working relationship and improve business relations with First Nations communities. (Related: Myth Busters: Indigenous Edition #1)

Understand Correct Protocols

Questions often arise around protocols when doing business with First Nations. Many corporate and government representatives can anticipate such customs as the acknowledgement of the host peoples and their territory at the outset of a meeting. Doing so will show the proper respect to Chief, Council, Elders and Community Members which will help set the right tone for the meeting.

Be Active in The First Nation Community!

Participating in community and cultural events, and showing a genuine interest in getting to know a community without an agenda are also best practices. This will go a long way to building respect and trust with the First Nations Community. When doing business with First Nations is it of the utmost importance to show that you and your company are there to be a part of the community. When invited, go to the feasts, pow-wows, community gatherings and other special occasions.

Choosing words carefully in advance of presenting or speaking in an Indigenous community is also wise. And, ensuring proper enunciation of tradit