First Nations land a ‘big opportunity’ for Indigenous agriculture

As the federal government continues to settle land claims with First Nations, the territory acquired is expected to become a big opportunity for Indigenous agriculture in Canada. 

Speaking at the Indigenous Agricultural Innovation Conference, held Sept. 21-22 and hosted by the File Hills Development Corp., experts in financing projected growth within First Nations agriculture.

The panelists from various financial sectors all recognized opportunities for First Nations with growing land bases to take advantage of lending.

Why it matters: Land claim settlements are resulting in an increased interest from First Nations in pursuing agriculture. 

“A lot of land claims are coming up and freeing up more land space. I know a lot of nations are leasing land out right now but there is a lot of interest in taking up agriculture,” said Jennifer Sutherland, an agriculture accountant officer at the Saskatchewan Indian Equity Foundation (SIEF).

To capitalize on those opportunities, First Nations need more certainty than they have now, according to Shannin Metawabin, chief executive officer of the National Aboriginal Capital Corp. Association.

“There are still a lot of nations that don’t have enough certainty to their land claims,” he said. “Canada could do itself a big favour by assisting communities in providing certainty, so they can do the proper planning on the lands that they do have.” 

Land claims continue be settled by Canada, but hundreds are outstanding.

Nevon Faucher, a senior commercial account manager at RBC Royal Bank, said land as well as labour are “big opportunities” for First Nations.

“The challenge becomes, do you have the full ability to manage that?” he said, suggesting that like any new industry, there are associated risks.

“First Nations aren’t unique in that sense,” he said. 

It is important for First Nations to have strong risk management strategies in place when they seek capital for farm operations. 

Metawabin said there is a “wholesale approach” taking place within agriculture as land entitlements continue and called for more support for Indigenous producers. 

“We’re at the beginning of this whole industry,” he said. “I don’t think the programs and services have adequately met the need.”

Despite some modern successes in First Nations farming, Faucher, who works to finance large-scale commercial projects, admitted he has no Indigenous clients. 

“We just don’t see them…We don’t get to look at these very often,” he said. “The challenge is they are just few and far between.”

That means when funding proposals do pop up, Faucher and his colleagues are still navigating how to approach them. Some First Nations are limited by government legislation, like the Indian Act, from using land as collateral, for example.

Hard questions come up for banks. Do they approach these entities as a business or as a community venture? 

For what it’s worth, Faucher says a “community has a distinct advantage over one individual trying to start, particularly for any scale.”

Regardless, he has advice for those seeking capital: “Don’t be short-sighted.”

He encourages First Nations’ leaders to consider how they can inject themselves into agriculture not just as primary producers, but as key cogs in the supply chain. To accomplish that, partnerships might have to play a role. 

“That’s the biggest opportunity I think, is how First Nations can partner with existing entities that are out there,” Faucher said. 

Metawabin called for adequate business support services and people on the frontlines working with First Nations to create business plans, navigate the networks and properly manage potential risks. 

Owning a $500,000 piece of machinery “doesn’t seem like a risk people want to take, so we have to introduce the concept of a pathway to building it up,” he said. 

“In order to create that opportunity in the mind of an Indigenous person, you have to give them that sense that they are a part of the industry. We need to show people they can sit in those boots, and do that work.”

The panel discussion, centered on the theme of financing indigenous agriculture and investments, was one of several events during the two-day virtual conference.