Indigenous Canadians are the fastest growing demographic in the country, according to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

They’re a population that is very young, very motivated, and very interested in taking their lives into their own hands. It shouldn’t be surprising that entrepreneurship among Canada’s Indigenous peoples is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, many barriers make it difficult for these innovators to get their businesses off the ground. And when new Indigenous businesses can’t launch successfully, not only do the entrepreneurs suffer but the Canadian economy is effectively leaving money on the table.

Monica James, the Manager of Indigenous Banking (Eastern Division) at the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), has been working to identify and address the major hurdles that First Nations, Métis, and Inuit entrepreneurs face. “We commissioned a report jointly with the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA),” says James. “What that [February] report told us is that  two of the biggest challenges for Indigenous entrepreneurs are financial literacy and access to capital.”

To begin addressing these challenges, BDC is offering financial literacy training and support in the form of both paid advisory services, as well as online tools and resources, while also developing new targeted loans to offer to Indigenous entrepreneurs.

One of the business owners that BDC was able to help was Richard Martin, a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario.

Play is serious business

Martin spent years working in grounds management for a school board in the Ottawa-Carleton region, where he came to realize that there was a big gap in the playground equipment market. “I would see the schools and parents’ associations raise $80,000 for a playground and then, when it was installed, it would be a one-week novelty before the kids got bored of it because there were just no challenges,” says Martin. “So I developed an interest in playground systems that were much more challenging for the children, rather than the traditional style with just a deck and slide.”

In 1993, Martin founded Dynamo Playgrounds to design, develop, and sell revolutionary playground systems. But getting things off the ground was far from easy. “I had to keep pounding the pavement,” says Martin. “I went to all these banks and I would hear ‘no’ 10 times before getting a little ‘yes.’”

After 20 years of operation, Martin realized that to maintain his competitive advantage, he needed to stop subcontracting the manufacturing of his equipment internationally and to bring it in house, creating jobs here in Canada. That required a lot of capital. “We had to start from ground zero,” says Martin. “We went from an office environment to becoming a manufacturer overnight, and that’s when BDC became instrumental.”

Dynamo has now relocated 40 percent of its manufacturing to two new buildings in Ontario, with an eye toward 100 percent. “There’s no doubt that this transition would never have happened without BDC,” says Martin. “It’s so comforting to have people who are actually working for us and with us, rather than having a traditional banking mentality where it’s all about whether your numbers can speak for themselves.”

A strong support network for the next generation

BDC does not operate alone in this space. Dynamo has also benefited from a relationship with a Métis development fund, and there are many Aboriginal financial institutions in NACCA’s network that are working to serve this market.

For the next generation of Canadians, these organizations will be more important than ever. The Canadian economy simply cannot thrive in the long run if we leave Indigenous entrepreneurs in the cold.