There has never been a better time to invest in aboriginal businesses and communities, according to many of the participants at this week’s Sto:lo Business Match conference in Abbotsford.
The conference, held Tuesday and Wednesday at the Ramada Plaza Abbotsford Hotel and Conference Centre, brought together organizations and businesses operating on Sto:lo territory for meetings and networking opportunities.
Bruce Russell, the president of Gulf Pacific Group, a property company that has been working with First Nations for half a century, said more and more companies are seeing that British Columbia’s First Nations are a great place to do business.
“Opportunities have been so untapped,” he said. “It took a long time for a lot of non-First Nation real estate development companies to realize the benefits and the rewards of working with First Nations.”
But that, Russell said, is changing and is reflected in the Business Match conference.
“The non-First Nations world have now seen how bright those developments can be.”
In 15 years, Eagle Bay Financial Services co-owner Nick Calla says the aboriginal landscaped has changed both internally and in its dealings with the non-aboriginal world.
“Years ago, First Nations were almost overlooked, driven by on the highway, and now people have seen the value in actually stopping to talk to them about business,” said Calla, whose company provides employee benefits and retirement planning for around half of the province’s First Nations.”
Financial institutions have also been taken notice. Royal Bank, TD Canada Trust, BMO and VanCity all sent delegates to the conference.
VanCity announced $1 million in new financing for Sto:lo Community Futures’ (SCF) Sto:lo Community Loan Fund, which supports community-owned businesses.
BMO also announced it was doubling its funding commitment to $200,000 for its micro-lending program that partners with Sto:lo Community Futures. The program provides loans up to $10,000 for small First Nation business startups on Sto:lo territory.
Organizer Mike Watson said the presence of the banks and their commitments are a sign of the growth of the aboriginal business sector.
“That’s a reflection of what they’ve identified as great lending opportunities in the aboriginal world,” he said.
Candace Dennis, director of aboriginal banking in British Columbia for BMO, said the Abbotsford business match conference is just one of several similar events that take place around the province.
She said they help make it easier to meet with businessmen and women in the nearly 200 First Nations spread out around B.C.
“This was a great opportunity for us to be involved and network and help a lot of business entrepreneurs,” she said. “I do a lot of travelling and sometimes I’m landing in places and have a two-hour drive out and a two-hour drive back.
“This way, they’re all coming in to you in one location.”
At the conference, delegates used an online tool to set up focused, 20-minute appointments with the aim of developing business relationships. The short meetings focus conversation, Dennis said.
“We kind of liken this to speed dating,” she said, “because you get to see if you want to get together for your next appointment.