Racism and bias ‘alive and well’ in federal procurements, Indigenous entrepreneur says

Sam Laskaris Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Four panelists at a presentation held on Wednesday during the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) online Business Recovery Forum said the federal government’s procurement strategy is not only failing Indigenous entrepreneurs, it’s wasting their precious time and resources.
It’s no secret that Indigenous businesses have been underrepresented in the supply chain of the federal government. Less than one per cent of government contracts have been awarded to Indigenous companies.
Since last fall, however, the Canadian government has stated its mandate is to increase that procurement to at least five per cent. But much has to change before Canada makes this benchmark something more than just a pie-in-the-sky fantasy.
Sam Damm, who is the founder and president for both CLAW Environmental Services and FoxWise Technologies, said conversations about boosting Indigenous procurement have actually been around for 20 years.
“It seems there’s a lot of talk, a lot of meetings and a lot of roundtables,” said Damm, a member of Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation in Ontario. “But there hasn’t been a lot of success.”
Garen Blais can certainly attest to that. He’s the director of business development for Gestion ADC, a Cree-owned company that specializes in food and concierge services. It has operated in Quebec’s James Bay region for 24 years.
Blais said his company has recently submitted 30 different bid applications for federal contracts. And it has not been awarded a single one.
“The process has been quite disheartening,” Blais said. “It’s hard to take at times.”
Blais said his company has submitted competitive proposals, but officials have never provided any feedback as to why a bid was not successful.
“We have the capacity and I’m sitting here in disbelief wondering why we didn’t get any of them,” he said. “Ultimately, if it doesn’t give you anything in the end, it sours the process.”
Based on those experiences, Blais said it’s unlikely his company will put in the manpower and effort for future calls from the federal government to submit procurement bids.
“We have a fairly negative outlook,” he said. “We’re going to spend our time pursuing other opportunities instead.”
Damm was shocked to hear about the lack of success Blais’ company has had.
“It’s pathetic,” he said. “Thirty bids and no wins. I’m really taken aback by that.”
Victoria LaBillois, a Mi’kmaw entrepreneur who owns Wejipeg Excavation and is the co-owner and president of Wejuseg Construction, also blasted the way federal procurements are handled.
“My experiences have been less than stellar,” she said. “And I’m being kind with that.”
LaBilliois said she doesn’t believe the Indigenous supply chain system will become successful in the country if it is simply a voluntary one without any repercussions if it is not achieved.
“It’s just a discourse of hope,” she said. “We need it to become mandatory. And there has to be mechanisms (in place) to see if this is being achieved. Hope doesn’t pay bills. It needs to be mandatory.”
Based on her experiences, LaBillois said she would not recommend to Indigenous companies to seek federal procurements.
“It’s just time consuming and does not result in any contracts,” she said. “It’s not the best use of time.”
The panel was moderated by Philip Ducharme, CCAB’s director of innovation and entrepreneurship. He asked panelists whether they felt racism or bias has played a role when dealing with federal procurements.
LaBillois didn’t hesitate in answering this question.
“We’re (in) 2020 and we’re still dealing with this outdated knowledge of Indigenous people and Indigenous companies,” she said. “(Racism and bias are) alive and well. That’s one of the areas that needs improvement.”
Other panelists stated their agreement with LaBillois’ assessment.
Wednesday’s panel also included Lionel Drouin, a Métis business owner from Thunder Bay, Ont. He is now working in Ottawa and is the president of LDC Solutions, which specializes in recruitment and Indigenous inclusion programs.
Drouin also believes there has to be more than just a desire from the government to boost the Indigenous supply chain.
“It’s a policy,” he said. “It’s a guideline. It has no teeth.”
Drouin believes those Indigenous businesses who are not based in the nation’s capital are at a disadvantage.
“I’ve seen myself it does help to be here in Ottawa,” he said. “You have better visibility.”
Damm agreed.
“I feel you have to be in Ottawa,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that way. But I think you have to be in front of the client.”
But that does not necessarily translate into success, Damm added.
That’s because his companies have the experience and capability to do large projects. But he has found government officials often only think of awarding him small projects, worth only just a few thousand dollars.
“It’s B.S.,” he said. “I’m tired of that. I’m just tired of the thought that we’re small.”