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September 21, 2017
August 21, 2017

Edmonton’s Indigenous Tech Opportunity

Naheyawin sets a path to change Edmonton's tech scene

Written by Rhonda Kronyk
| Edited by Jeff Samsonow | Photos by Samantha Parker
TLDR

As Edmonton tries to build its downtown into a tech hub, our city’s large Indigenous population not only needs to be welcomed, it could offer economic and innovation opportunities.

There’s an untapped power of Indigenous knowledge in Edmonton.

This has to be considered as the city tries to build and brand itself a tech and innovation hub. The question for some might be, can Indigenous business models be compatible with western ideals of a knowledge economy?

Jacquelyn and Hunter Cardinal are building their business on just this kind of combination.

In March 2016, the Cardinal siblings launched Naheyawin, an Edmonton communications and engagement agency that is firmly grounded in traditional teachings from their heritage at the Sucker Creek Cree First Nation, with a liberal dose of modern business methods and technology thrown into the equation.

As she got her post-secondary degrees and travelled around Europe, Jacquelyn, 26, realized that, for years, much of her work had revolved around computers and tech. But she didn’t initially see it as an industry for her.

“I didn’t see any Indigenous people in the tech industry and didn’t see many women,” she says. “So that was really hard to figure out. Because I didn’t see myself or someone like me, I didn’t think I had a place.”

Instead of waiting for the industry to change, Jacquelyn, now equipped with a diploma in Digital Media Production from Edmonton Digital Arts College and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Alberta, created a space for herself by co-founding Naheyawin with her younger brother Hunter. Jacquelyn is the company’s director of experience design and Hunter, 23, is director of story.

She found a way to combine her values with tech. “I had literally no interest in just making a regular run-of-the-mill agency. I’m an Indigenous person and I have a western lens.”

That combination of perspectives is at the heart of Naheyawin, which is built around the idea of using Indigenous knowledge and worldview to “build capacity and engagement between mainstream Canadians and Indigenous Canadians.”

While the Cardinals may have a unique approach to tech and communications, they’re joining a growing field of Edmonton entrepreneurs looking to build the city’s next successes in tech, as Alberta’s energy industries wane and more downtown offices sit empty.

Innovation Corridor

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The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) “sector in Edmonton is growing, especially in the software and computer services sub-sector. Within the sub-sector, Edmonton companies excel in three areas – data analytics, enterprise application software, and game development and digital media,” says David Kane, from the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation.

“Some of Canada’s most innovative ICT companies, such as Darkhorse Analytics, Intuit Canada and BioWare are located in Edmonton.” And in July of this year, DeepMind Ltd., a division of Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) division, announced their first research lab outside of the United Kingdom will be in Edmonton. AI is another field Edmonton is looking to establish itself as a centre of excellence in.

Innovation Corridor  

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson’s re-election campaign included a pitch to create an “innovation corridor” along the central core of the city’s LRT lines. The tracks connect major post-secondary schools like the University of Alberta, MacEwan University and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). This potential corridor is also home to Edmonton’s downtown, which is finding itself with more vacancy, and Iveson’s pitch includes using that empty office space to launch and incubate startups, tech companies and AI businesses.

Urban Reserve  

The City of Edmonton recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the neighbouring Enoch Cree Nation to create Edmonton’s first urban reserve. This is a place that would act as a hub for Enoch, creating space for cultural and community programming, and a chance for Indigenous entrepreneurs to open businesses in the heart of the city.

Indigenous Innovation 

To coincide with this year’s National Indigenous Peoples Day, TD Economics issued a report on the business outlook for Indigenous businesses (based on the CCAB’s 2016 survey data). The TD report found that Indigenous-owned businesses were more likely to innovate and launch new products than other businesses in Canada.

Building a New Business Model

It’s going to be the combination of Indigenous and western values that sets Naheyawin apart in this burgeoning startup scene.

“As long as I hold in my heart the ideals of our people, like honesty and love and friendship and helping people, then there’s no real way that I can go wrong,” Jacquelyn says. “Almost all of [Naheyawin’s] corporate values are based on Indigenous guiding principles. Sometimes it’s difficult because it forces us to not take the quick win. But at the same time, it prepares us to be sustainable in the long term.”

Jacquelyn doesn’t see a need to choose between a western and Indigenous business model.

“I’m trying to create an alternative [model]. Something that actually facilitates innovation, that still looks after people, that looks for and even anticipates new technology and then is willing to build different interfaces with western culture. I don’t think [that] exists yet, so a social enterprise model is what works for now.”

Hunter and Jacquelyn Cardinal at the Naheyawin office.

When Jacquelyn finds she’s becoming too immersed in the day-to-day of the business, she has Hunter, who she calls the heart of Naheyawin, to help bring her back to her roots. It’s part of Hunter’s job to keep a bird’s eye view on their work and be “mindful of the fact that we are Indigenous and we want to have a reason for what we’re doing.”

This includes not just the work itself, their clients and business goals, but how the two of them are conducting themselves. Hunter says they must “understand the story of who we are as brother and sister, as Indigenous people, as people who are running a business. We want to make sure that we are operating from a good place and making sure that our story is congruent with that.”

Among their peers, Jacquelyn and Hunter’s values are not unusual. According to the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business’ (CCAB) 2016 Promise and Prosperity Report, many Indigenous business owners have “goals and that often privilege cultural values, community investment, and concern for the environment ahead of profit.”

nêhiyawêwin  ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐁᐧᐃᐧᐣ

def: the Cree language, speaking Cree

"nuh-Hey-a-win"

Online Cree Dictionary

Even the name of their business reflects their desire to think about business and technology in new ways. Naheyawin is Cree for the Cree language. “It’s been really cool to even just think about certain words and how they break down and change how you think about things.”

And while we might associate tech with new modes of thinking, that doesn’t mitigate the vision many have of the tech industry: a highly competitive space that is driven by growth and profits, dominated by (primarily white) young men who aren’t interested in opening the space for others. Jacquelyn says this version of tech “creates a culture that cultivates people that fit into a very narrow definition of what it is to be in tech.”

But Jacquelyn feels tech was, or can be, built on a very different ideal. In theory, the industry “prides itself on meritocracy, gender blindness and colour blindness,” she says. This vision of tech has parallels to Indigenous worldview, which values culture, is inclusive and is based on merit.

“If somebody can do the work you hire them. There shouldn’t be barriers.”

Jacquelyn’s vision is to build Naheyawin on those tech ideals and commonalities with her heritage. “I have a very clear idea of what I want the agency to look like, which is mentorship based. It’s based around how you would do a hunt – people and youth are part of a group so they can learn about the job.”

“Ideally, we’d pluck students right from school, immediately have them work on projects, learn office culture and how to operate in a work setting.”

For Jacquelyn, building community capacity is part of running a social enterprise – the company not only puts the majority of its profits back into the community, but also looks to create opportunities for others, including their employees. “We’re hoping that doing this kind of stuff, especially in the tech sector, inspires other people, especially Indigenous people, to start their own businesses,” says Jacquelyn.

“The more people with different perspectives come to the table, the better the solutions will be.”

tatawaw: There is room

Naheyawin has found a market “around not only helping Indigenous businesses find traction and move ahead,” Jacquelyn says, “but also in helping western businesses connect with their Indigenous audience. And, quite frankly, connect better with human beings.”

tatawaw  ᑕᑕᐊᐧᐤ

def: There is room. You are welcome.

"ta-Tih-Wow"

Online Cree Dictionary

In July, they launched tatawaw, which Jacquelyn translates as “the ongoing sacred act of being welcoming and making room for people.”

The continued action implied in the name is significant because “there’s so much value in doing,” Jacquelyn says. “You are what you do.”

For Hunter, the concept “there is room” is profound and “flies in the face of a lot of assumptions that we have about things in general. Like that there is a scarcity, there is one right way to do things. But coming to a problem with room for multiple solutions and multiple perspectives changes the way you operate. Understanding why we do something and knowing the story is crucial and can really make a difference.”

Tatawaw is important to Jacquelyn because businesses in Canada can play a large role in furthering reconciliation. The initiative, which she calls treaty projects, gives businesses in Edmonton, especially those that have spaces the public can enter, a chance to learn Indigenous principles of welcoming.

“We have to look at where there is power in our society, and businesses have an immense amount of power because they are such an important part of our everyday lives,” Jacquelyn says. 

To help businesses owners understand that power, they “come together at a teaching round table to learn about the teachings of tatawaw and treaty relationships.” They get a seal for the door of their business that is a “reminder to the people in the space that they made a commitment to their community and want to be held accountable as they start a journey of being better treaty people. Hopefully they will build relationships with likeminded people who want to move towards reconciliation.”

A tatawaw sticker on the RedBrick Real Estate office door at Homestead coworking. photo: Jeff Samsonow

In the first month, 22 businesses have signed on in an act of reconciliation. Jacquelyn, however, is already looking forward to a time when the program becomes redundant.

“We hope that people eventually won’t need something like tatawaw to learn about the place they live and to think of themselves as an important person [who] can be a support for Indigenous communities.”

By showing non-Indigenous business owners how to hold space, be inclusive and have difficult conversations, Jacquelyn and Hunter want to “bring as many people as possible into reconciliation and into becoming the Canada that we were always meant to be.”

“The goal is to empower our allies to feel connected to the land and the people.”

From local beginnings, they hope to create a national movement that Jacquelyn describes as one “where we find strength in the ideas and the stories of the lands that we are on from a place of ownership – it’s a lot harder to trash the land if you feel some ownership – and not a false ownership of paying property tax, but true ownership, stewardship.”

Coming to Edmonton

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Aksis, the Aboriginal Business and Professional Association, wants to make Edmonton the Indigenous business capital of Canada.

Rocky Sinclair, Aksis president, realizes this is a lofty vision, but the organization looks at it from a historical context. Edmonton, or amiskwaciwâskahikan in the Cree language, has been a gathering place for Indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

“We took that concept,” Sinclair says, “and asked how different it is from today. Indigenous people still come to Edmonton from all areas of the country. They come for the same reasons that non-Indigenous people come to Edmonton – economic opportunity.”

Edmonton’s Indigenous population is very diverse, which makes it the perfect place to incubate and grow Indigenous-owned businesses. “There are a lot of Indigenous people who look to entrepreneurship and business as an option,” Sinclair says.

Aksis, which is funded by the City of Edmonton, isn’t a service organization like Business Link. Sinclair calls it “an advocate and catalyst for change or support [that helps] create opportunities and partnerships.”

Jacquelyn says the support of Aksis and other organizations helped her find a safe place for networking, asking questions and learning.

Sinclair emphasizes that Aksis membership is not restricted to Indigenous business owners and professionals.

“We have associate members, large industry members and large institutional members like NorQuest College who see the benefit of working with Indigenous communities and looking for opportunities for partnerships.”

Indigenize Tech

While tatawaw is important to Naheyawin’s community work, tech is at the heart of what they do. From Jacquelyn’s self-described “tech nerd” perspective, this is the perfect time for Indigenous people to become part of a new movement and she wants to make sure other young Indigenous people see role models when they look around the room.

“I feel a real sense of being in history already and being a good ancestor as much as I can,” says Jacquelyn.

Looking to the future is why stories are so integral to Hunter’s work and the foundations that Naheyawin is build on. “Stories are how we will pass down teachings of how we overcome problems, how we meet adversity and how we come together as people. We should understand the protocol of how to engage with these stories because there are useful things in them.”

Jacquelyn spends as much time as possible in the community. “I speak as often as I can and try to go out onto reserves as much as I can just on the off-chance that a girl will see me and think ‘I can do that!’ If that even helps one person that’s worth a hundred trips to me.”

She sees tech as “a really cool opportunity for Indigenous people to catch the wave. Pair that with the fact that the digital sphere is really struggling with finding local talent [and] it’s kind of an easy sell.”

The CCAB backs Jacquelyn up – according to their 2016 Promise and Prosperity Report, the demand for talent in the Information and Communications Tech (ICT) field is expected to “increase significantly in the next five years.” And Statistics Canada reports that the unemployment rate in 2016 among youth with jobs in the ICT industry is just 3.3 percent compared to the national average of 11.8 percent for the same population.

Jacquelyn and EDAC's Pam Brierley discuss Indigenize Tech strategy.

Jacquelyn doesn’t just speak about the potential for change, she helps create it. Naheyawin recently built a partnership with the Edmonton Digital Arts College (EDAC) and Homestead Coworking called Indigenize Tech.

Indigenize Tech’s short term goal is to bring Indigenous people, who make up about five percent of Edmonton’s population, to at least parity in the tech industry. They are building that goal on three pillars. The first is to “develop opportunities for Indigenous youth to [engage] with tech in a meaningful way that shows that the tools can be used to solve problems,” says Jacquelyn.

Building capacity in youth is a critical component of Indigenize Tech’s work because “half of the Indigenous population is under the age of 25. It’s really important to target them because they are the future.” That means exposing young people to tech and finding “excited, interested teachers to teach classes” and build digital literacy.

The second pillar is creating a path into tech so students aren’t automatically streamed into either trades or post-secondary education. Jacquelyn wants young Indigenous people to know that there are “other routes to tech, to business [and] to being an entrepreneur.”

Indigenize Tech’s final pillar is making space for true Indigenous innovation within the tech sector so Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can work together to “solve problems that the west has a lot of trouble solving.”

“As Canadians, we desperately want to be separate and different from our neighbours to the south,” Jacquelyn says. “But we’re not using what makes us actually different, which is our Indigenous peoples, and that can really add to the culture. I think Indigenous people have a lot to offer.”


Written by Rhonda Kronyk. Photos by Samantha Parker.

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