A little over two decades into a decorated career and Shawna Morning Bull is still invigorated by her work. “I always say I’ve never worked a day in my life because I love what I do,” says the winner of the 2019 Chief David Crowchild Memorial Award. “I love my job – whoever I can help, I help.”
Morning Bull is a member of the Piikani First Nation, which has its administrative office in Brocket, about 200 kilometres south of Calgary and a land mass covering more than 45,000 hectares in southern Alberta – including a town and timber reserve – with approximately 3,600 registered members. She serves as the manager of business development for Community Futures Treaty Seven (CFT7), playing a role in the economic development of several First Nations across southern Alberta, including Piikani.
The full economic impact of every project she’s contributed to is practically impossible to measure, but it is surely somewhere in the millions of dollars of GDP.
For example, Morning Bull has helped Piikani Resource Development Limited in her role as a Board Member put together numerous alternative energy projects that generate power for the Nation on its own territory. These include the Weather Dancer wind turbine, which provides power for 450 houses; and a hydroelectric plant nearby that generates enough power for another 25,000 homes. Various solar projects around the Nation provide electricity for the local school, the Elders’ Lodge and office buildings. Another project, which will add 192 solar panels to the roof of the Piikani Nation Hockey Arena, is also in the works. Overall, the Nation’s alternative energy sources save members about $20,000 a year – a figure that will rise if fossil fuel costs climb higher.
“It makes me proud to live in Treaty Seven. It’s a rush when you’re helping people start their businesses, or helping start big projects like Weather Dancer or a solar project.” — Shawna Morning Bull, manager of business development for Community Futures Treaty Seven
And that’s one set of projects for Piikani First Nation. Morning Bull has also helped to catalyze similar projects on other First Nations covered under Treaty Seven – an agreement signed more than 140 years ago between the federal government and five First Nations in southern Alberta: the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, Stoney-Nakoda and Tsuut’ina.
Considering the economic impact of these projects, it’s no exaggeration to say that Morning Bull has played a meaningful role in raising the standard of those Nations through small business development. No wonder she likes her job.
“CFT7 is a hub that helps our member Nations come and see what the other Nations are doing,” says Morning Bull. “We help them come together, bounce ideas off each other, build relationships and create formal partnerships.
“Communities need to do that to grow.”
Multiply the considerable impact of Morning Bull’s career by 48 and you get something approximating the net economic effect of the work from the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers (Cando).
Cando (pronounced “can do”) is an Edmonton-based non-profit. Run by and for Aboriginal economic development officers, Cando provides training, networking, and education to people like Morning Bull – economic catalysts. Its membership roll currently includes 48 economic development officers in Alberta, Morning Bull among them.
Cando was founded for one simple reason: to foster economic growth in Indigenous communities across the country.
“There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all development solution for all First Nations in all regions.” — Paul Macedo, communications officer at Cando
There can be no doubt that this work is needed. Reports from the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, for instance, show that compared with non-Indigenous counterparts, most Indigenous Canadian households earn less money. More than twice the proportion of Indigenous households have annual incomes under $20,000 than non-Indigenous households and almost twice the proportion of Indigenous children under six years old live with low income than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
“We were founded by economic development officers working in Indigenous communities, trying to improve the economic situation,” says Paul Macedo, communications officer at Cando. “The economic development of Indigenous communities is behind, so time is of the essence now.
“We need to play catch-up.”
Cando does this by helping economic development officers with their important work. Sometimes that means training. Sometimes it means networking with other officers. Sometimes it means education.
“The first and foremost duty of an economic development officer is the assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the community they’re working in,” says Macedo. “They work very closely with chief and council to develop opportunities.”
“There’s tremendous pressure on the position to create impact. We try to make that easier.”
“Self-sufficiency leads to independence, which leads to self-determination. We believe economic development is a means towards that. Isn’t that what reconciliation is: allowing people to self-determine?” – Paul Macedo, communications officer at Cando
One of the major challenges economic developers must overcome, of course, is that development is not like widget production. Each project is customized, carefully tailored to the particulars of its situation.
“There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all development solution for all First Nations in all regions,” says Macedo. “One of the skill sets a development officer needs is that ability to assess; how can I create success for my community?”
Success for Morning Bull and the communities she’s worked with has come in a variety of opportunities. Through her role as a developmental lender, she’s helped kickstart oil and gas projects, landscaping firms, marketing businesses, and heavy equipment operations across southern Alberta. In Siksika First Nation, for example, Morning Bull has witnessed the opening of a hotel, a gas station and a restaurant. She’s attended the opening of a full-featured grocery store and a farmer’s market complex on Blood Tribe territory, and has also been in attendance for the opening of a casino and store for artisan wares on the territory of the Tsuut’ina Nation.
“In some communities it’s baby steps,” she says, “in some it’s leaps and bounds.”
Morning Bull has seen the importance first-hand of working with the unique opportunities within each Nation, as members of the different First Nations in Treaty Seven brainstorm ideas around the table at CFT7 Resource Group.
“The different First Nations I work with all bring different ideas, different strengths to the table,” she says. “Some projects are the same – most Nations have a gas bar, a grocery store. But most are unique, like the Blood Tribe’s marketplace and the travel centre at Stoney First Nation.”
And even if we restrict our focus to those popular gas bars, there is no off-the-rack guaranteed success.
“We’ve seen some communities that have made multiple attempts at operating gas stations in their communities that were not successful,” says Cando’s Macedo. “Getting to the bottom of why some stations succeed and others don’t is really one of the core skills of the people we train.”
One powerful predictor of the success of an economic development officer is how well they know the community they work in. For Cando and the First Nations it works with, that often means seeking out officers who are themselves Indigenous, as is the case with Morning Bull.
“If they’ve grown up in an Indigenous community, even if it’s not the one they’re hired to help, it overcomes a lot of obstacles,” says Macedo. “They already have an awareness of culture, of limitations, of opportunity that a non-Indigenous person might take time to understand.”
By focusing on Indigenous development officers, Cando also fosters Indigenous economic development. As Morning Bull’s career shows, these jobs can form the basis of varied, successful, abiding careers that make a real contribution to economic development in their own right.
“When I decided to go to school, I didn’t think being a player in economic development was in my future,” says Morning Bull. “I wanted to be a cop.”
“But I’m so thankful that I got my foot in the door and I have the chance to build these collaborative efforts,” she adds. “It makes me proud to live in Treaty Seven. It’s a rush when you’re helping people start their businesses, or helping start big projects like Weather Dancer or a solar project.”
For almost three decades, Cando has helped First Nations in Alberta and across Canada pursue development – and much more.
“Self-sufficiency leads to independence, which leads to self-determination,” says Macedo. “We believe economic development is a means towards that. Isn’t that what reconciliation is: allowing people to self-determine?”
But despite the undeniable impact of the organization’s work, Macedo sounds a bit wistful when he looks back on Cando’s 28 years of work.
“In many respects we would like to work our way out of business,” he says. “But there are so many communities that need development assistance or leadership in some capacity. So there’s a huge need that we still need to address.”