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By Karen Herland
When management professor Ron Abraira was growing up in Kahnawake, there was no thriving business community.
“There were very few businesses. It was mostly arts and crafts and a few shops.”
Abraira studied administration at SUNY Buffalo and returned to Kahnawake. His first job was to help community members write business plans. Through the 1980s he worked with the Kahnawake Economic Development Commission in numerous capacities, supporting the community’s entrepreneurs.
Various government restrictions on available funding, and a lack of financial institutions limited the potential for First Nations entrepreneurship.
“We used any type of financing we could. It was very challenging,” Abraira said.
Since then, government policy has evolved and Kahnawake now has its own Caisse Populaire and other financing options.
“We have a very diversified economy. There are a number of retail and service businesses, as well as some that are tech-related.” Many Kahnawake businesses serve the larger Montreal metropolitan community. For instance, there are now four Mohawk-owned golf courses in the area.
This change is cultural as well. “Historically, many aboriginal cultures were collectivist in nature. Entrepreneurship is an individual pursuit.”
Abraira does not need to point further than the ground floor of the EV building for an example of one success story. Sequoia (www.sequoia.ca) sells bath and body products. Owner Michaelee Lazore expanded into downtown Montreal from her first Kahnawake shop last year (Journal, Jan. 11, 2007).
“Michealee used to work on her soap samples in the office next to mine,” Abraira said.
Abraira is thrilled to be a lecturer at the JMSB, after earning his MBA here. “It’s a treat to come back and work with students who have so much drive and energy.”
He continues to act as a consultant for the economic development commission, which incorporated as Tewatohnhi'saktha — Kahnawake Economic Development Commission almost a decade ago.
Abraira has also been involved as a member of the investment committee for the First Nations Venture Capital Fund of Quebec. The fund finances projects ranging from resource-based businesses to adventure tourism. The challenge is to develop businesses that can thrive despite the geographic isolation for some communities, especially in the North. The Fund began five years ago and has become more active in the last three years.
“It’s an example of how First Nations and non-First Nations partners can work together.” The program is supported by government agencies, First Nations institutions, the FTQ and the Desjardins group.
As First Nations businesses develop, Abraira sees the next challenge as the training and development of human resource expertise within First Nations communities. He also sees the challenge of competing in the global economy as a next step as businesses expand outside of their local communities.