CBA President Stephen Rotstein and First Nations Financial Management Board CEO Geordie Hungerford discuss Economic Reconciliation. An inspiring conversation about turning things around and growing together.
Geordie Hungerford is a Gwich’in of the Northwest Territories and Yukon and has quite possibly the most diverse professional background of any of the guests so far in Stephen Rotstein's Conversations with the President podcast series.
Geordie holds an MBA and an MA (East Asian Studies/Chinese) from Stanford University, an LLB from UBC, and an electrical and computer engineering degree from Queen’s University.
He a CFA Charterholder, CAIA Charterholder and an Action Canada Fellow.
He is a member of CFA Canada’s Canadian Advisory Committee for investment policy and a member of the Independent Review Committee on Standard Setting in Canada, which is reviewing audit and sustainable standards governance and oversight for Canada.
Indigenous Economic Reconciliation
As CEO of the First Nations Financial Management Board, Geordie Hungerford is in a unique position to know what’s needed for corporate Canada to make a real contribution to economic reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
[Start of recorded material 00:00:00]
Stephen: Bonjour, and hello everyone. Welcome to another episode of this season of Conversations with the President. My name is Stephen Rotstein, president of the Canadian Bar Association. I'm speaking to you from Toronto, home to many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishiaabe, the Chippewa, the [Hudishone? 00:00:26], and the Wendat. I would ask each of you to consider the treaty lands and territories on which you reside as we acknowledge with respect and gratitude the many First Nation, Inuit and Metis whose footsteps have marked this land for centuries.
My guest today is Geordie Hungerford, [Gwichʼin? 00:00:45] of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. Geordie has quite possibly the most diverse professional background of any of my guests so far on the Conversations with the President podcast series. Geordie speaks Mandarin, can design and build your computer infrastructure, and defend you in court.
Geordie is that true?
Respondent: Well I do have an electrical engineering degree, but I don't know that I could build a computer any time soon. But yeah definitely a lot of different backgrounds and experiences I've had.
Stephen: That's good. Well I can guarantee you that even speaking Mandarin actually you may not be my first speaker who speaks Mandarin but you definitely have a diverse skill set. So in addition to that you hold and MBA and an MA in Eastern Asian studies in Chinese from Stanford University, a little-known university in California. An LLB from UBC, and electrical and computer engineering degree from Queen's University. And you're very good with money, I've been told, which is a good skill to have. You're a CFA charter holder, a CAIA charter holder, and an Action Canadian Fellow. You're a member of the CFA Canada's Canadian Advisory Committee for Investment Policy and a member of the Independent Review Committee on Standard Setting in Canada. Which is reviewing audit and sustainability standards governance and oversight for Canada.
Last, but not least, you're a CBA member in good standing and to be honest with you that is the most important thing that I've said today. So welcome Geordie to the podcast.
Respondent: Yeah, well thanks very much for having me. It's a great chance to chat about reconciliation and that's very close to my heart. I'm actually in Ottawa right now talking to the senior bureaucracy and the senior leadership in government in the opposition talking about pathways for economic reconciliation. So it's an exciting – very exciting time to be in Canada and I'm very pleased to be here. So thank you.
Stephen: So that's a good segue to my first question which is, can you define what economic reconciliation is and can you tell us why it's so critical that we focus on it and that we stay focused on it for the future?
Respondent: Yeah, so I mean economic reconciliation is the hope that the country can be shared. And shared mutually beneficially for all Canadians, and that we can have an economy now where indigenous people can prosper and as well as non-indigenous people. And that's really what the intent of the treaties were back in the day was this idea of sharing of the opportunity.
But to achieve the goal we need to remove barriers that are stopping First Nations from managing – they need to make a move from managing poverty to managing economic development and wealth. And it's been very challenging for the nations in the last 150 years because the Indian Act deliberately took First Nations out of the national economy and the Indian Act provided a bunch of restrictions on education, so if you got educated you were no longer part of the Indian Act [then? 00:03:51]. It put restrictions on mobility. You had to get permission from the Indian agent in order to leave the reserve. And it shrank the traditional territory down to these small reserves.
The nations themselves were prevented from hiring lawyers to push back on their rights, so indigenous economies were basically shuttered for 150 years. And there were no business school graduates. There was not a lot of ability to be entrepreneurs. So that's a multigenerational loss of the ability to do business, while in the meantime the Canadian economy as a whole was able to take off.
So that's created a massive socioeconomic capacity gap, and so we can start to fill that through economic reconciliation. And my organization is one of those organizations that provides an onramp towards economic reconciliation.
Stephen: So can you give us a sense of what that economic reconciliation would look like? Like some practical ideas of how we can address the barriers which you just discussed?
Respondent: Yeah, so there's been a lot of work done out of the United States at Harvard, and that Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. And they looked at a whole bunch of nations across the US and looked at what were some preconditions in order to get good economic outcomes in the communities. And they basically broke it down into four different buckets.
One is sovereignty, so the ability to govern yourself, make decisions for yourself as a community and as a nation. The second was people. So to have leaders that are interests in economic development, that are interested in trying new ideas. And institutions. And that's something that we focus a lot on is in terms of creating institutions that can build a basis for the nations to have that capacity to look at economic opportunity, to evaluate it, to bring in people that can speak the language of business. And then ensuring at the same time that all this development is done with culturally appropriate lens. So considering the indigenous laws, considering indigenous customs, and the indigenous ways of thinking in terms of how one evaluates business.
So we ourselves are the First Nations Financial Management Board, and so we're an indigenous-led organization. And we support about half the First Nations in Canada. So we work with those nations to increase their final and administrative capacity, so the back office. And this kind of foundation puts the nations in a position where they can then look at economic development opportunities, and work with other organizations that are related organizations to look at considerations like potentially taxing on land or for fuel and tobacco. And then potentially also creating a land registry in order to have security of land tenure on reserve. As well as evaluating deals.
So I mean we ourselves have had some amazing success. We're working with about 321 of the nations. So that's over half. So we put the nations through a process whereby they sign an MOU with us, and then we work with them to encourage the adoption of a financial administration law. So once this law is adopted they can then go through different pathways. And the law itself encourages or creates roles for the nation in terms of things like managing conflict of interest, managing transition of political power so that there's a smooth transition. And creating a good set of planning and back office accounting and other kinds of structures so the nations are ready to manage their financial systems and their financial operations at a very sophisticated level.
We've worked with, like I said, a large number of the nations. Some of them then go on to want to be certified. And so we have a certified process which looks at the financial position of the First Nation, so its balance sheet and its operating statement. And we – if they meet certain criteria we give them a statement of financial position, and then they can take that to go and borrow money from a related organization called The First Nations Finance Authority. And that allows them to borrow at very low rates, basically the Government of Ontario rate.
Stephen: I wish I could get that rate actually.
Respondent: Yeah. I mean it's a little higher today than it was at the beginning of the week, but still. So other kinds of circumstances you'll see nations borrowing at credit card kinds of rates. So it opens the door that the nations can then use that borrowing to build infrastructure and other kinds of investments that's important to the community.
And we've also got a certain number of clients that want to do another kind of certification which certifies that the financial administration law is working and that they have all those financial processes in place and are following them. And we found that those nations that get this financial management system certification have increased their own source revenue. So that's the revenue that they're making on the reserve. It’s not government money. It's their own economic development. But it's increased by about 64 percent over five years. And so that money will go back into the community. It will go be spent in the surrounding non-indigenous communities, and we think that you know, this is really breathing life into the principles of the Harvard Project. You know, the nations that have these good institutions are then ready to go and create economic wealth and prosperity for the nation.
One of the biggest deals we've worked on, which is really exciting, is the Clearwater deal in Atlantic Canada. We worked with these nations who wanted to go and take on the purchase with a business on the West Coast of British Columbia called Premium Brands. They wanted to buy the largest integrated seafood business on the East Coast called Clearwater.
Stephen: I'm actually familiar with it. I think I've gotten lobsters at the airport from Clearwater now that I think about it.
Respondent: Yeah, yeah. So, so these nations got together and they all got certified through our process. All were able to borrow money. And then use that money to go and buy fishing licences, which was part of their treaty rights and reinforced by the Marshall decision on the East Coast. And so they took those licences, rolled them into the business with Premium Brands, bought Clearwater and ended up with a 50 percent ownership of it. So it's an amazing opportunity that we were helping to realize and shows the vision of leadership of those communities out there on the East Coast, particularly [unintelligible 00:10:37] and Chief Paul. And collectively those nations were able to transform these rights, these nebulous rights into a real business.
So seeing those kinds of, of real outcomes, they create tremendous impacts on the social and economic development of the communities, and we think that that's unlocking prosperity for the nations. It's unlocking prosperity for Premium Brands, and for all the workers and the value chain that works with Clearwater, both indigenous and non-indigenous.
Stephen: That's clearly a great success story. Have they all been success stories or have there been some learnings along the way that you've applied in your work?
Respondent: We've largely had success ourselves with respect to our certification process and our onboarding of the nations. We've had opportunities to work with Indigenous Services Canada. So sometimes if a nation's having trouble and they're starting to go into near bankruptcy, Indigenous Services Canada will go in and start to manage some of the operations and cut off some of the funding to the band. And so we have developed a program there were instead of that happening we go in and work with the band to try and get them this financial management system certification. And so we've turned around some nations that were getting close to having some serious economic problems and turn them into a real success story. Taking nations that were millions of dollars in debt, to suddenly being profitable within a few short years, because they were able to both have better systems and then use those systems to create better opportunities.
Stephen: Interesting. Interesting. So it begs the question – I know you're a very educated person because I read your CV earlier and I was in awe, but how did you get into this space? How did you – did you know earlier on that this is something you were interested in doing as a young lawyer, or even as a young indigenous individual? Or did you – like, how did this all come about?
Respondent: Well it came about – I was inspired a lot by my great-grandmother, and she passed away when I was 20 or so. So she would tell me a lot of stories about her and her family growing up in the North. And it just – the way that she could story-tell, it was very exciting. She was also blind and a shut-in. So she was always looking to talk to family members. And I was the one that ended up talking to her a lot of the time, over the telephone and in person.
And through that experience I was – I was taught to be proud of my family, and I was also inspired by the values, I think, that – a lot of values for indigenous people are conveyed through stories. I guess it's true as well when you think about storytelling in other traditions too. Like you think about the storytelling in the Bible, you know, those are stories that are there because they were important historical stories, but also they conveyed certification kinds of values and meanings to people. And so through that I – I wanted to learn more about indigenous – more about my family, more about what happened. You know. She basically told me all these stories but she would stop chronologically around 1920 or so, and that was kind of the time when you had a big settler population coming into Edmonton, where she was living. And she'd moved down from Fort Chipewyan, and I think she just found it very difficult for herself, for her mother who was a widow, and for her sisters. And so she focused on the good times, on the times before the treaty and before you know, there was a lot of discrimination against her and her family. And so I kind of wanted to learn more about it.
I was down in Silicon Valley and I was doing investment banking and the market completely imploded there with the dotcoms, and so I applied to UBC on a lark and got a scholarship and I said, well you know, laws – it's interesting, it's something I don't really know a lot about. I mean I have a lot of relatives that are lawyers but I didn't really understand what it was about. So I thought it was a good opportunity to try it out, see if I liked it. And in my first year at UBC, I was taught property law by June McCue who's an indigenous lawyer and prof, and she just opened my eyes to questions I hadn't really thought about before. And kind of explained in a very clear way to me what happened with the treaties, what happened to indigenous people in Canada. And so I wanted to learn more.
So I'd take all the Black Letter Law courses because I wanted to burnish my credentials. But where I could I would either audit or take seminar courses or write my paper on indigenous related stuff. And so once I graduated I worked at a firm that I was doing mainly corporate commercial and MNA type stuff. But there was one lawyer who sent out an email, and he said, does anyone know anything about modern treaty? And so I'd been reading up a lot about that when I was in school. And I said, yeah, me. So I got to start to do modern treaty work, which I really, really enjoyed.
So I continued to do work related to that. I volunteered to be on my First Nations Development Corporation Board, and was able to – I hope, I think – I added a lot of value. Certainly we turned around a development corporation which was in a bit of a difficult space. And worked with my community on other initiatives like the Arctic Economic Council. My nation's way up in the arctic, in the Northwest Territories and Yukon. So we have some interesting input into policy as it relates to the arctic. And I just found it so rewarding and I was given the opportunity to go on the board of the First Nations Financial Management Board for a couple of years from 2015 to 2017, and I was very inspired by our chair. He's a really visionary. And when this role to BCO came up I was like, I've got to do that. So I applied and I was very, very happy to get it.
And then it's been an amazing process of working in tandem with him in terms of taking his vision, adding my own vision, and really driving the agenda forward. So we've published a long document that is a framework for where we think economic reconciliation can go. And it's got six different pillars and I won't bore you with it, but we've been – we published the first chapter, which is the overview. Then we're publishing six more chapters that are on each of these different pillars. And it's gotten a lot of traction in Ottawa and in Victoria and other parts of the country. And we think that we have this ability to work collaboratively with other organizations and with the government to create this roadmap, this way to really create economic reconciliation and drive it forward.
Yeah, it's a super exciting time, and sometimes I remark to the people that I work with is the feeling that I had when I was working in Silicon Valley in terms of everything being possible, it's kind of the same kind of thing right now. Like we just have to move beyond critiquing and complaining, and come up with exciting ways to make it happen. And no idea is a bad idea, and we just come up with the ideas, work with other people to come up with the ideas and create this real vision for how we can create that economic reconciliation.
Stephen: So I'm hoping that we have a lot of young lawyers listening to this podcast who are thinking, hearing your story and obviously interested about your career path. What advice would you give them? Especially if they're from indigenous communities, about the work you're doing, if they're interest in, or other areas where they can contribute, I guess as a lawyer –
Respondent: There's a tremendous amount of opportunity right now, and there's different strokes for different folks. Different areas that you can be working as a lawyer. When I was first starting out I wanted to do solicitor work for indigenous nations and there really wasn't much of that going on. But suddenly now it's just exploded. And I see some of the younger lawyers with amazing practices working with nations. I also continue to see great opportunity working within organizations like ourselves, where we're quasi-government or government funded, and we can create the policy and the ideas.
I guess it really depends on the young lawyers' interests and aptitude. You know, if you want to do litigation there's tons of litigation out there. If you want to do business there's tons of business out there. And if you want to make change there's tons of opportunities too. You know, if you want to do something more conventional, like intellectual property or something like that there's and increasing awareness of the value that indigenous people bring to these practices. And increasing the number of indigenous people within the practices.
What's exciting from that point of view is that as we roll out things like The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act that require government to consult and cooperate and get an indigenous eye to legislation. But these people that are in these specialties can start to assist government, assist First Nations collectively, and indigenous people collectively, that legislation is reflective of indigenous people. So even if you take a Black Letter thing you can probably find an opportunity to give back in your particular area of law.
Stephen: Do you have advice for other CBA members or legal professionals working in the area of Truth and Reconciliation or economic reconciliation that we were talking about?
Respondent: Yeah, I mean I think besides opening the door for opportunities for indigenous people within businesses and ensuring that there's more inclusion, like I mean I look at some of the stats that have been published for the Canada Business Corporations Act, or reporting issuers of public companies and it's quite surprising how little representation there is of indigenous people in corporations particularly, I think, the number for the – the number of TSX V executives who identified as indigenous, I think it was zero. So you know. Yeah.
So indigenous people are sort of 20 to 30 times under-represented within boards and within senior management. So I'd recommend that businesses take a look at the Truth and Reconciliation Committee recommendations and particular recommendation number 92, which talks about educating senior management on the history and the – what really happened with respect to history and the law. And to reflect more on systemic racism as well.
With respect to firms, I mean I think the Law Society in BC now has mandatory indigenous training, and I've taken the course. I thought it was excellent. I learned stuff there that I probably should have known but I didn't. And very well done, and I can see a need for that kind of education across the different law societies in Canada. We also have been working on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee at the CBABC, and we've created a reconciliation action plan which has now rolled out across the country for the CBA. And consider whether or not your firm – well I would suggest that they should consider having a reconciliation action plan in place and looking at what that would entail for the firm. We have an aboriginal lawyers [forum? 00:20:37] our here in BC, which has been a real opportunity for indigenous people to network and to join together and to share and to mentor. And it's been a fantastic way to bring lawyers into the profession. And for lawyers to – indigenous lawyers to find that support. And having an aboriginal lawyers forum in some of the other provincial CBA sections would be – CBA branches would be amazing.
Stephen: That's good, it's good recommendation. Before I move on I wanted to just also make a pitch that the CBA has other resources such as The Path –
Respondent: Oh it's great.
Stephen: - which is a program obviously that we're very proud of. As well as we've created toolkits for law firms on the area of creating their Truth and Reconciliation pathway. So just a pitch there because it's my podcast. But I appreciate the comments that you made.
Respondent: Yeah, it's a great course and it's – it's very manageable in terms of the time committee and it's got great material in it.
Stephen: So, I'm going to ask you to take a crystal ball for a second because you say you were kind of in this interesting – it sounded like very – you know, you're talking about the Silicon Valleya and lots of things happening and now here a lot's happening. Where are we five years, 10 years, 15 years? Or maybe where would you like us to be? Maybe that's a better question. Where would you like us to be?
Respondent: Carol Anne Hilton of Indigenomics talks about the $100 billion indigenous economy. But I think we're almost there. And I look at the trends in Canada and what's important in going forward with respect to the global trade, global finance, climate change, and Canada is in a great position to develop electrical resources, to develop minds that are focused on rare earth and other minerals that are required for batteries. But it's all going to happen on traditional treaty. So there's a real ability now for the nations to work together with the provinces and the feds to jointly develop these opportunities. And when I look at the international capital markets, I think that the capital markets are going to reward Canada if we are very low carbon, very environmentally aware, which is where we're heading. And also increasingly the capital markets will look at indigenous rights and whether or not we're abiding by that. And I think Canada is furthest ahead arguably in the world on a lot of those files. It still has more to go, but collectively if capital markets are measuring how Canada and Canadian businesses are doing and we're doing well on those kinds of metrics, then I think there's a huge opportunity for a huge boon to Canada. And so I see a really opportunity for these nations to be a real part of the Canadian economy and to benefit and share with the rest of Canada and all Canadians.
Stephen: I hope you're right. That sounds like a promising future that I'd like to be part of. So, let me ask you a bit – because the other thing that I like to talk to my guests on Conversations with the President on is about volunteerism. It's something that I've been talking a lot during my CBA presidency, the importance of volunteering within your community, it's beneficial obviously to the community in which you serve as well as you personally. So for lawyers, whether they be indigenous lawyers or non-indigenous lawyers, interested in the area of Truth and Reconciliation, how would they get involved? Where would they be able to provide their contributions?
Respondent: Well I mean I think we have – certainly in BC we have the CBA section on Truth and Reconciliation that's a great opportunity for people to learn more and volunteer their time towards driving Truth and Reconciliation forward. There are a number of non-profits out there like the Chanie Wenjack Foundation the people could become involved with there.
On a personal level, I mean learning more about the nations in whose territory you live in and looking for ways that you can participate in local activities, like going on the march for the Truth and Reconciliation Day, the Orange Shirt Day. Or to go on a march for the National Indigenous Day, and enjoy the food and the company and meet people, and see if there are opportunities to become involved in community volunteering. I mean there's lots of – in Vancouver lots of organizations that are focused on the more vulnerable populations, a lot of which are indigenous. I suspect increasingly there will be opportunities on the economic reconciliation side. I'm sure the province is thinking hard about setting up a secretariat to – which would be looking at whether or not the laws of British Columbia comply with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. So there's some amazing work opportunities there. There's probably going to be consultations, tons of consultations where you could give some ideas on how you might make the laws better and more consistent with Truth and Reconciliation.
I mean becoming educated is a big part of it. And through education you'll see different opportunities.
Stephen: Can't end the podcast better than that thought, so thank you very much and best of luck.
Respondent: Yeah, thanks a lot of having me, and just a final thought. I love the quote by Murray Sinclair, former senator Murray Sinclair, Honourable Murray Sinclair. He and the TRC commission showed people the mountain and now he asks for the people to climb. And I think it's the opportunity to climb together and to really try and make Canada a better place through economic reconciliation and through reconciliation.
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