Vancouver Sun: Aboriginal-focused MBA links western business ideas with First Nations perspectives

Jun 08, 2015

Aboriginal North VanThe following article was published by the Vancouver Sun on June 5.

By Tracey Sherlock.

With First Nations rapidly becoming a key part of the B.C. economy, a business professor saw a need to combine the teaching of business with aboriginal knowledge and culture.

In 2002, Mark Selman was working with the Haisla First Nation in Kitimat as First Nations across the province aggressively signed agreements with government and companies. Revenue sharing, ownership, preferential hiring, contract services and training ­— the agreements involving multiple First Nations were already worth a fortune then and have been growing ever since.

Selman saw great potential in aboriginal leaders, but they did not have any formal business training. Meanwhile, business leaders were telling him that their senior leadership spent more time working on aboriginal relations than on any other issue.

So he set out to create a new business program that could train both First Nations leaders and the business leaders who work with First Nations.

Today, Selman is director of Simon Fraser University’s executive master’s of business administration in aboriginal business and leadership, which started in 2012 and graduates its first 14 students this month. All but one have some aboriginal heritage.

“In most contexts in aboriginal communities, people want to look at things from two perspectives. They want to look at it from a more traditional way, understanding it through traditional language or through the values and beliefs in the aboriginal culture. They also want to look at it from the point of view of western business thinking,” Selman said.

“To be able to understand that there are those two different ways of knowing … and giving some thought to how to involve each one is a big issue for many people involved in this work.

“Even if you work for a big resource company, knowing that there are indigenous ways of knowing or thinking is really important. If you’re a leader in a First Nation, that’s the world that you work in.”

Adam Munnings, one of the first group of graduates, took the program to fill a void he noticed when his clients asked for help with business decisions. Munnings is an Anishinaabe, from the Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario. He is also a lawyer with Callison and Hanna, a Vancouver law firm that works exclusively with First Nations, many of which have only 50 to 200 members.

“We may be the only advisers they have and they ask a lot of questions related to business,” Munnings said. “I felt I had a duty to grow my experience from a business point of view. Economic development is a growing area of law and I wanted to be able to provide better service to my clients.”

For Leslie Varley, another graduate and the director of aboriginal health at the Provincial Health Services Authority, the aboriginal focus of the program was a major draw. Varley’s supervisor at work wanted her to enrol in an MBA program, but Varley had a bad experience with math in high school and felt intimidated. She tried to avoid signing up, and even registered at the last moment in hopes she wouldn’t get in. She was accepted and found her classmates were so collaborative they surprised the professors, she said.

“They said usually by the second day the ‘A’ students were all clamouring for attention and trying to get the edge on their peers, but that just not how we behave. There was a high level of diplomacy in our class,” said Varley, who is a Nisga’a.

With a little help from her colleagues and her experience as an administrator dealing with budgets, she was able to conquer her math demons. “Accounting was hard and I definitely had to get over some of my self-doubt and fear. But it was so great to be in a (class) that was so helpful. We really worked collaboratively to get through this,” Varley said.

She said it was a very positive experience to be in a group that was predominantly of First Nations heritage.

“When people are the only indigenous person in an MBA (class), they find it very difficult,” Varley said. “People don’t know or understand the history and the current conditions for aboriginal people. There are still an awful lot of stereotypes and racialization of indigenous people. That was a non-starter in our group, but it’s always a challenge in other groups.”

The new program covers standard MBA courses, such as leadership and marketing, but it also looks at business and economic issues from the perspective of First Nations.

It is taught in face-to-face sessions over 15 days in the fall and 15 days in the spring. In between these sessions, students work on assignments. The final two semesters include a final project that applies what the students have learned to a real life business or issue.

The 2½-year program is unique in North America, Selman said.

“There are a few other MBA programs with an aboriginal focus in North America, but they tend to be for young people who are thinking about a career in business academics,” Selman said. “There is no other program in North America that takes experienced aboriginal leaders and managers and addresses these issues the way we do.”

Munnings said he was able to put the teaching into practice almost immediately.

“It was applicable to my work pretty much right away, especially with some of the problem-solving,” Munnings said. “There was a negotiation course, an accounting course and a marketing course — pretty much everything fit into my work within a couple of months.”

Munnings said the program would serve other lawyers well and would also benefit people in industry working with First Nations.

“I think it would be extremely beneficial for people in mining and oil and gas to take this, to give them a different perspective. Not just lawyers, but also management and board members. Anyone who has to do with resources on Crown land. It would even be beneficial for people in government,” Munnings said.

In his work, he finds that the province and industry representatives don’t always understand the issues that aboriginal people face or their strong connection to the land.

“A lot of the times they think money will solve those things … but in Aboriginal Peoples’ cultures and traditions, land is of a higher value and that protection of that land for seven generations is a common theme across Canada,” Munnings said. “There has to be a balance.

“What I’ve found in my practice is that the earlier a business can come to First Nations to discuss a potential project, the better. … Because if you get the First Nation on side before you do the planning, before you have a road, before you have anything, the success of that project is going to be a lot greater than if you come later and say you’re putting a pipeline in.”

Norman Fraser has had direct experience in situations like that, before and after completing the SFU program.

He is the leader of aboriginal initiatives for Teck Coal Ltd., working in the company’s coal business unit in Sparwood.

“I’m involved in all aspects of our business relationship with indigenous people for the coal business unit. We get to maintain those important relationships, formal agreements that we have, employment initiatives and all the different ways we interact,” Fraser said.

Mostly, he communicates.

“Externally, I communicate about our projects to the aboriginal community. And internally, communicating the importance of the relationships that we have and some of the commitments that we’ve made,” he said.

He says the MBA program has affected his work in many ways.

“We’re dealing with environmental assessment on some of our mine extensions and they’re really complex, large projects, so some of the skills that I’ve fine-tuned through the program, like change management, communication and policy development, those are all things that I apply on a regular basis,” Fraser said.

It was particularly helpful for Fraser to challenge himself to apply aboriginal world views to theoretical projects in the MBA program.

“I think it’s a really important business skill, given the emerging focus and emphasis on aboriginal rights,” Fraser said. “It’s a real important part of resource development projects,” Fraser said.

Fraser’s father is Métis from Fort Chipewyan, Alta.

“(My aboriginal heritage) is a loose connection, but it’s part of who I am. I think it does contribute to my affinity for this type of work and some of the cultural sensitivity I might have.”

Before joining Teck, Fraser worked for the Cranbrook-based Ktunaxa Nation, which has four member First Nations in the Kootenays, ultimately as manager of their economic development corporation. That work gave him a connection to Teck, but it also gave him a good understanding of B.C. indigenous culture, which helps with relationships.

“It’s an important piece of Teck’s work, collaborating and having positive relationships, so I think the (MBA) program fits with Teck’s priorities,” Fraser said. “It’s a priority for Teck to engage collaboratively and have positive working relationships. I’m proud that what I’ve done here fits with that.”

Selman says the program will continue to evolve as each class moves through it. Names are being taken on a list for the next intake, which will be in September 2016.

Read the full article on the Vancouver Sun website.

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