For the first time in Canada, five Indigenous economic groups are uniting to create a procurement agency to help their organizations and businesses benefit from goods and services purchased through federal contracts.

The First Nations Procurement Organization (FNPO) was created to help overcome systemic barriers to accessing federal contracts and hold Ottawa accountable to ensure First Nations are truly the ones benefiting from government procurement targets.

For example, Natural Resources Canada in the fiscal year 2022-23 hired Inuit-led companies to help geo-map the Arctic and contribute to the Polar Continental Shelf Program, as described in documents obtained by Canada’s National Observer through the Access to Information Act.

The initiative is important because the federal government spends approximately $22 billion a year purchasing goods and services from businesses across Canada, with less than one per cent awarded to Indigenous companies.

FNPO is a collaboration between:

The procurement organization was created after a resolution passed by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in July.

Ottawa has set a goal to ensure that a minimum of five per cent of the total value of federal contracts to businesses, otherwise known as procurement, are awarded to those led by Indigenous Peoples.

The organization is modelled after Supply Nation, which is run by Indigenous Peoples in Australia, Shannin Metatawabin, CEO of NACCA, told Canada’s National Observer. On its website, Supply Nation calls itself Australia’s leading database of verified Indigenous businesses.

It’s time to give control to First Nations peoples to protect opportunities for Indigenous businesses and organizations from what Shannin Metatawabin calls “sharks.”

In Canada, Ottawa is supposed to be reporting on their procurement, but how they report on it and what metrics they use to classify Indigenous businesses is unclear, Metatawabin said.

For example, procurement for Natural Resources Canada for the fiscal year 2022-23 was 14 per cent, exceeding its five per cent target for Indigenous businesses, according to a document obtained by Canada’s National Observer through an access-to-information request.

That number was partly reached through planned outreach using and promoting the use of the Indigenous Business Directory (IBD), according to the documents. Through the IBD, businesses can register to be searched by departments seeking Indigenous businesses for opportunities and contracts.

FNPO is intended to keep Ottawa accountable when working toward the five per cent procurement target, which amounts to around a $1-billion opportunity for First Nation businesses, Metatawabin explained.

FNPO will use a similar definition for Indigenous businesses as the IBD, which is 51 per cent Indigenous-owned and led. However, the IBD is operated and managed by Indigenous Services Canada, not independent Indigenous organizations, like in Australia.

The lack of independent Indigenous oversight has caused scandals in Ottawa. Take the ArriveCan app. Dalian Enterprises Inc. defined itself as Indigenous-owned, but company president and founder David Yeo’s Indigenous identity was thrown into question, according to reporting by CBC News.

"It's really complicated actually. Defining who is Indigenous is challenging in some cases," Indigenous Services Canada Minister Patty Hajdu told CBC News at the time.

Metatawabin has a simple solution: give FNPO the keys and let them monitor, certify and work with Indigenous businesses and organizations to let the definition be tweaked depending on what is working on the ground.

In other words, it’s time to give control to First Nations peoples to protect opportunities for Indigenous businesses and organizations from what Metatawabin calls “sharks.”

The need for Indigenous control and sovereignty on Indigenous business certifications all leads back to an inherent distrust of Ottawa.

“We don't even trust the federal list that's out there of businesses because we know there's a lot of sharks, and the government has not checked indigeneity,” he said.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative