Treaty 4 News is excited to present the Top 10 Most Influential Economic Developers feature that profiles business leaders, job creators and entrepreneurs who have made a valuable contribution to improving the lives of Indigenous people through business and have helped keep Saskatchewan’s economy vibrant and strong. 

In the past few years, more and more Indigenous people have forged business careers working at the First Nation community level, building Tribal Council economic development projects, climbing the corporate ladder at government Crown Corporations and in the last few years guiding the private sector as they engage with First Nations.

Now a new generation of entrepreneurs are building successful brands like Neechie Gear, Shop Indigenous, SheNative as they develop products for an ever growing Indigenous market.

Over 10 weeks, Treaty 4 News will release one profile a week of an economic developer we believe is influential in building a better future for Indigenous people through business.

This week we introduce Milton Tootoosis.

Milton Tootoosis – Top 10 economic developer

by NC Raine

For Milton Tootoosis, there’s one simple yet bottomless principle that’s guided much of his life.

“One of the most important things I learned through my elders early on was this concept of pimacihisowin,” says Tootoosis. “It means making your own way, making your own livelihood.”

For Tootoosis, a businessman, a father, and leader, this is just the way the world works, and has helped him understand a great deal about his people.  At an early age, growing up in the Poundmaker Reserve in Treaty Six territory, he became conscious of the economic equalities in his community, even if he didn’t understand why.

“As a kid, I realized that there was a great economic disparity between First Nations people and the local settler community. We knew we were poor as soon as we stepped off the reserve,” he says. After finishing high school, Tootoosis attended the First Nations University of Canada in Regina where he discovered Indigenous Studies courses and ignited an interest in learning about his people.

“In those classes, we learned new language like self-determination, self-government, treaty rights and treaty protection,” says Tootoosis. “That’s when I got excited about learning who I was, and learning about our relationship with the rest of Canada – the promise made to our ancestors that there would be a quality of life and an economic livelihood.”

Improving the quality of life for himself and his community at large became Tootoosis’ objective from that point forward.  He went on to become an urban life coach, where he said his eyes were opened to the explicit racial discrimination in society. Then, as what he describes as his career turning point, he becoming the director of the First Nation Employment Centre in Regina.

“I began attending economic development conferences and began to make the shift from being an employment developer to an economic developer. And that’s when I realized the tremendous economic potential for our people.”

Ec Dev series Congratulations-AdTootoosis’ career path has led him to resources management and indigenous policy development at the tribal, provincial, and federal levels of government. He is currently the director of livelihood/economic independence of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner [OTC], and Chair of Saskatchewan First Nations Economic Development Network [SFNEDN] and has a strong commitment to enhancing capacity, self-governance, and economic development with Indigenous communities.

“I’ve continued to see how separate our economies are,” he says. “Indigenous communities need to figure out how, not to assimilate, but integrate, into the mainstream economy.”

Perhaps one of Tootoosis greatest strengths is his ability to see the big picture and apply it at the community level.  He talks about how important it is to be aware of the global economy.  “Even with the recent Brexit, there are ripple effects across the world. Locally, with the oil patch and demand for oil.  We have to be aware of what’s going on in the global economy. We live in a global village. We can’t escape it.”

Heather Exner-Pirot, who has served on the SFNEDN board with Tootoosis since its conception says that his deep-rooted cultural values is one of the reasons Tootoosis has been a great leader.

“He’s very rooted in traditional indigenous values of working hard and working with one another. He doesn’t see any inconsistency with trying to be good in business and maintaining your roots in culture. I think that’s important because some people see that as a dichotomy, but Milt is really bridging that,” says Exner-Pirot.

Tootoosis, as a father of three, believes these cultural values with help younger generations in the same way it helped him.

“I think a lot of young people are lost. They don’t have a deep understanding of who they are as indigenous people. They’re not connected to their language or cultural values,” he says.

Pimacihisowin. We have to get back to that mindset,” he says. “We have to make that paradigm shift from dependency on Ottawa to taking care of ourselves. I believe in treaty rights and obligations should be honoured. But we need to get going on this concept of Nation Building.”

Nation Building, as defined by The Harvard Project, is the principle that tribes themselves hold the key to positive social, political, cultural, and economic prosperity – and that self-governance plays a crucial role in building strong nations.

“Policies in Canada like the Indian Act was a barrier for so many First Nations to move forward. I believe in this concept of Nation Building and implementing it on our communities. The way out of poverty is home-sourced revenue.”

In August of 2016, Saskatoon will be getting a first-rate education in some of these very principles at the World Indigenous Business Forum. The forum, which was previously held in places like Australia, New York, and Guatemala City, will take in Canada for the first time since its conception, thanks in large part to Tootoosis, who was helped win the bid for Saskatoon.

“The conferences that get my mojo going is connecting and learning with First Nations around the world. There is a silent movement, a growing renaissance in the Indigenous world. We are learning that the way out of poverty and oppression is by creating wealth in both a sustainable and cultural manner,” he says.

Part of his priority on creating sustainability focuses on addressing greenhouse gases and renewable energy. Tootoosis and the SFNEDN, along with the First Nations Power Authority, dedicated a forum last year to create more sustainable sources of energy.

“We have to do our part fighting greenhouse gases. Getting into renewable energy is one of our solutions and opportunities to create enormous indigenous employment and business opportunities,” he says.

Wanda Hunchak, Vice President of Westcap, has been a long-time colleague of Tootoosis, working alongside him at OTC, SFNEDN, and various other boards. Together they collaborated on a resource development project called BRIDG, which worked together with seventeen First Nations and Metis communities across Saskatchewan to create business infrastructure. They were able to leverage around 100 million dollars worth of investments, and has impacted about 500 jobs for people across the province.

Hunchak refers to him as her ‘go to guy’ when she needs to connect with a network of movers and shakers.

“What Milt brings to the table is an extensive network within the First Nation community. He has really strong relationships not just from business but from being involved in the community in a personal way. That has been extremely invaluable,” she says.

“People feel comfortable around him. A lot of non-First Nations people may not be comfortable with the terminology and are trying to be respectful. Milt makes you feel comfortable. He’s disarming. He’s always looking at the bigger goal, the bigger cause. It’s the sense that really drives Milton,” says Hunchak.

Naturally, as an economic developer and someone who has such a strong connection to his roots, Tootoosis is ever considerate about the younger generations. He believes in mentorship, and believes in imparting to them that simple concept that impacted his life so meaningfully.

“We need to mentor the next generation and instill in them to say, ‘I’m not going to wait for someone to create an opportunity for me. I’m going to create my own job, my own future.’ The value of pimacihisowin.  If you want something, you can do it. But its up to you.”

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