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Philip Ducharme
From Pivot Magazine

Opportunity costs: racism and societal obstacles are no match for this entrepreneur

Philip Ducharme works to help aspiring Indigenous entrepreneurs find opportunities for business success

Philip DucharmePhilip Ducharme has become a pillar in the Indigenous business community (Photograph by May Truong)

Growing up in the tiny rural community of Welwyn, Sask., Philip Ducharme didn’t see many opportunities for success. “Education also wasn’t a priority in our household,” says Ducharme, the youngest of nine children in a Métis family. “My parents never went to school beyond grade four and I fluttered around for a while after finishing high school.” Still, eager to build a better future for himself, he decided to pursue a higher education and graduated with a degree in business administration from the University of Regina. Ducharme has become a pillar in the Indigenous business community and has worked with Indigenous organizations nationwide, in fields including procurement, health, education and employment. In 2020, he became of vice-president of entrepreneurship and procurements with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB). In his position, Ducharme has helped countless Indigenous businesses, from one-person shops to corporations with more than 1,000 employees, rise over the many business and societal obstacles members of his community face. But with more than 25 years of experience in tackling those obstacles, Ducharme now wants to level the playing field for Indigenous entrepreneurs so they can become full participants in the Canadian economy.

What drew you to pursuing a career in business?
I always liked numbers and accounting. I found out about a pre-entry business program at the Gabriel Dumont Institute, an educational and cultural centre for Métis in Saskatchewan. The program was a doorway to getting a degree from the University of Regina, which seemed like a great opportunity. I was a shy kid from a small town, so it was quite the transition going from having three classmates in my grade to attending lectures with 100 other university students. There was a lot of racism in Saskatchewan at the time, and unfortunately, that problem still exists today. When you face discrimination, it makes you a stronger person or it makes you shy and reclusive. At the time, I definitely became the latter. It was after school that I had to overcome the shyness, once I started working and having to address audiences at work.

Once you graduated, did you encounter any racism or discrimination as you embarked on your career?
Yes, unfortunately. After I graduated in 1993, I started applying for jobs. The application process would often start with a telephone interview. Those always went well, but because my last name is Ducharme, the employers I spoke to assumed I came from a French background. I’m visibly Indigenous, so once they met me for an in-person interview and realized I wasn’t French, several of them immediately became uncomfortable. They couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. I realized that even with an education, I would struggle to get positions, which was incredibly discouraging.

Philip DucharmePhilip Ducharme says he encounters success stories that inspire him every day (Photograph by May Truong)

How did you overcome that discrimination?
I wasn’t having much success with getting jobs in Saskatchewan, so I decided to move to Toronto, where I figured I’d find more opportunities. The CCAB had a provincial office there and they gave me a job doing admin work and helping people update their resumes. I’ll always be grateful to them for giving me that first opportunity. When I started networking with other Indigenous people in Toronto and saw their successes, I was inspired. Drawing on the energy and strength of other Indigenous people whose struggles were far more challenging than mine helped me get past my own negative experiences. Soon after my Toronto move, I landed jobs in telephone and online banking at CIBC and BMO. That was a great experience that led me to many other opportunities over the years, eventually leading me back to the CCAB.

What role does entrepreneurship play in supporting economic development and empowerment for Indigenous communities in Canada? And how do you and the CCAB support this entrepreneurship?
Indigenous people have been left behind in so many aspects of Canadian society. The CCAB’s mandate is to facilitate opportunities between Indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada. That’s where entrepreneurship plays an important role. Instead of relying on social programming and assistance, Indigenous entrepreneurs take on an active role to create growth and self-sufficiency. When Indigenous entrepreneurs start a business, they'll often hire other Indigenous people. Those businesses also reinvest in their communities and give back in the form of supports like scholarships and cultural centres. You also can’t forget the impact of how seeing the success of someone from your background can instill pride and belief that you can achieve that success too. In my role, I oversee a number of different programs, such as Supply Change, which is the CCAB’s trademarked procurement strategy for Indigenous businesses. Through building relationships between the federal government, non-Indigenous corporate partners and Indigenous businesses, we create pathways to increase Indigenous participation in every industry.

Can you share a success story of an Indigenous entrepreneur that has inspired you?
I encounter success stories that inspire me every day. I work with a lot of small businesses that are rarely given any opportunities. Part of my job is to support them in preparing for and responding to a request for procurement (RFP) from the federal government, or any other entity looking to buy goods and services. Receiving phone calls from those businesses to inform me that they’ve secured what is often a life-changing contract brings me so much happiness. But my personal role model is Dave Tuccaro. Based in Fort McMurray, Alberta, he's an entrepreneur whose philanthropic efforts have given so much to the Indigenous business community. And yet, he’s one of the most humble and down-to-earth individuals I’ve ever met.

During your 25-plus year career, what have you learned are the vital attributes that cultivate success for an Indigenous entrepreneur or business professional?
Listening is key. Asking questions is also important. Intuitive people ask questions because they have a desire to learn and grow their businesses. In many instances, some of the most successful Indigenous businesspeople I’ve met have also always remained true to themselves and their values. Many of them still practice their traditions and embody their culture. Being successful can sometimes make you lose perspective, but sticking to your values helps keep you grounded.

What advice would you give to aspiring Indigenous entrepreneurs?
Go out and meet other entrepreneurs to build connections. Join organizations like the CCAB that offer networking events. This will help you find a mentor or collaborator who might be able to assist you in an area where you have struggles. There’s plenty of Indigenous businesspeople who want to share their knowledge and expertise with up-and-coming entrepreneurs, but you have to put yourself out there to find them.

What barriers exist that prevent Indigenous entrepreneurs from accessing funding and resources to support their businesses? What can be done to address those barriers?
It is quite difficult for Indigenous businesses to get loans because of unconscious biases within lending institutions. For example, an Indigenous business is often perceived as a bigger risk than a non-Indigenous venture. Additionally, when entrepreneurs live in First Nations on reserves, they can’t use their homes to get credit like most Canadians starting a business can. The reason for that is because the Crown technically owns the land on the reserves—all the residents have is a certificate of possession for their homes. Those are just some of the many hurdles Indigenous people face. Fortunately, Canada has a substantial network of Indigenous financial institutions that have successfully aided many Indigenous businesses. But their impact is limited by the amount of funding they receive from the government. That federal support has to be boosted.

What other government changes are needed to support Indigenous entrepreneurship and economic development in Canada?
The federal government has a Procurement Strategy for Indigenous Business (PSIB) that aims to increase opportunities for Indigenous entrepreneurs. In August 2021, the Minister of Public Services and Procurement announced a mandate requiring that all federal departments and agencies ensure that a minimum of five per cent of the total value of contracts are held by Indigenous businesses. This $35.2 million investment is an important commitment that’s going to help Indigenous economic development. But the process needs to be refined to make things easier for smaller businesses. For example, the government needs to simplify their contracting process. A small business that's applying for a $50,000 RFP has to deal with as much red tape and paperwork as a business that's applying for a $100 million RFP.

How can non-Indigenous businesses support Indigenous economic development?
Many times, the only reason outsider businesses will approach an Indigenous community is because they’re pursuing a venture that requires that community’s support. There’s this prevailing assumption that Indigenous communities should be automatically motivated to support them for their own financial benefit. Outsider businesses will also often go in with this approach of telling the community that this venture is what they need. However, the first thing they should do is listen to what that community has to say about its needs. Every community has different priorities. Economic development might not be high on their list if they don't have safe drinking water or sufficient health services. Once the community is consulted and its interests align with the project, outsider organizations should give opportunities to local Indigenous businesses. Again, there’s assumptions that the local businesses don’t have the capacity or capability to support certain projects. That might be initially true in some cases, but there’s plenty of examples of fruitful long-term collaborations. For instance, in Alberta’s Wood Buffalo region, oil sands companies realized at first that Indigenous businesses didn’t have the capabilities needed, but after working with them to grow their capacity, those local businesses have now become dependable integral vendors.

Looking to the future, what changes do you hope to witness for the Indigenous business community in Canada?
I would like to see Indigenous businesses involved in every industry across the country. We want to work to build our communities. What we need now are the opportunities.


Read about five things you can do to learn more about our Indigenous history. Find out more about the new Indigenous-designed CPA program in Alberta and check out CPA Canada’s Introduction to Indigenous People culture course and its CPA Martin Mentorship Program for Indigenous High School Students.

Plus, read our Q+A with CPA Scott Munro to learn how Indigenous values are essential to ESG efforts.