It happened like some of the best things in life: purely by chance.
My partner was making the 2400 kilometre trek from Saskatoon to our hometown in Ontario and stopped in for a visit to a friend who lives off the grid just outside of Kenora, near the Manitoba border. The friend’s husband, a correctional officer, inquired about my line of work. When told I studied co-operatives, credit unions, and social enterprises, he said, “I’ve got a book he should read.”
So I read it, and I’m glad I did. An Army of Problem Solvers: Reconciliation and the Solutions Economy isa book by Shaun Loney, a former senior official in the NDP government from the early 2000s who co-founded a First Nations-managed social enterprise called Aki Solutions. While written for a broad audience, the book has important insights for policymakers and the co-op sector. The premise of Loney’s book is that Indigenous people are best placed to solve their own problems. They just need a real chance to take ownership of their situation. That might not sound like a radical idea and in some ways it isn’t: this assumption is the premise for many approaches to policymaking and it’s the core idea behind research centres devoted to studying Indigenous governance like the Harvard Project (the executive director of the program, Joseph Kalt, recently delivered a talk at the University of Saskatchewan available here).
Social Economy in Action
But not always. The colonial legacy lives on and the book stresses that bureaucracies are too often afraid of losing control to let on-the-ground solutions take root. As Sheila North Wilson, Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, says in the foreword to the book, First Nations want to “do our part for sure. Our people are ready. But right now the rules are stacked against us.”
The book is full of examples: Garden Hill reserve is a community of 4,000 people accessible only by winter road or plane in northeastern Manitoba. Almost no one has a job, food is expensive, and health problems are prevalent: 12.5% of the community is diabetic, compared with a national average of 5%.
Government solutions are expensive and treat the symptoms, not the causes. The government of Manitoba spent millions of dollars building a renal hospital in the community and now allocates hundreds of thousands annually in operating costs. The federal government spends millions more across remote communities like Garden Hill subsidizing food through its “Nutrition North Canada” program. What if some of this money could be redeployed to support local agriculture, employment, and fresh food?
In 2014 and 2015, Aki Energy, a division of Aki Solutions, set out to show what a different approach might look like. The company worked with Garden Hill to set up Meechin Inc., which operates a healthy-food market and commercial-scale farm that in its first year produced vegetables, broiler chickens, laying hens, and turkeys and employed 10 people. This kind of small-scale social enterprise gives people meaningful employment, access to fresh food (that can help prevent and manage diabetes), and a sense of dignity and control over their lives. However, governments aren’t well equipped to think about these kinds of solutions because they just don’t get the “social economy” or don’t want to.
Another example comes from the use of diesel fuel to heat homes on distant reserves. The fuel is expensive and poses serious environmental and health risks. What if, instead, the community used geothermal energy for heating and had local people learn the skills needed to install the systems? In 2012, the Manitoba government introduced a “pay-as-you-save” (PAYS) policy whereby Manitoba Hydro lent communities (and households) the money needed to install the energy efficient systems and then used the reduced heating bills to “pay back” the loan. Despite considerable opposition from what was then Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAC), Aki Solutions managed to help a handful of Indigenous communities leverage the program, train workers, and install the systems. Loney says Indigenous communities could have $100 million worth of geothermal installed by 2025.
The program would be even bigger if governments used their spending power to purchase energy from Indigenous communities. There is also an opportunity to provide incentives for landlords to make energy-efficient changes so that their (often Indigenous), tenants enjoy the benefits of lower heating costs. But these kinds of policies need government support to thrive and that is all-too-often not forthcoming.
The book isn’t perfect. There is plenty of critical literature about the social economy and social finance but you won’t see much mention here. While the book emphasizes the importance of Indigenous-led interventions (“nothing about us without us”), it does not say much about how the governance structures in these social enterprise entities might actually work – who gets to decide what and how? How do companies like Aiki Energy and Aiki Solutions actually share control and ownership?
Also, like almost everything written about the social economy, there is an assumption that the federal government is more fiscally constrained than it really is. As a growing body of research shows, we need to shift our thinking and see the constraint as real resources, not monetary accounting entries of who owes what to whom. The question then becomes: do we have the labour, material, and energy resources to do what we want to do? The book is premised on the idea that the answer is clearly “yes.”
But this is a book for a general audience and policymakers, not academics, and it does what it sets out to do: offer a hopeful vision of what is possible when we change the way we think and do… As Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson writes, “At the heart of this strategy is a big step towards creating a new Nation-to-Nation relationship… The Elders are telling me that they recognize the value in the economies we are trying to build. Much of what we are proposing is focused around community-led economic activity. Many people are calling these ventures social enterprises. The values are old but still so relevant today, and they will form the core of how we move forward.”