October 14, 2008As the story goes, Murray Koffler was visiting one of his Shoppers Drug Mart stores just as a young aboriginal man was being escorted out of the building on suspicion of theft. It was the early 1980s and the founder of the successful pharmacy chain found himself increasingly troubled by the look of hopelessness and despair he saw in the eyes of the aboriginal people he came across on the street. And nobody seemed to be doing anything about it. Mr. Koffler pulled together a meeting of friends to discuss the problem. The group decided there had to be a way for business to share its expertise with aboriginal communities to help them create jobs, amass wealth and allow their people to lead richer, more meaningful lives. And so in 1984 was born the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, a non-profit established to enable non-aboriginal companies to share their know-how with first nations groups as well as facilitate joint business opportunities. Mr. Koffler couldn't have imagined just how different the aboriginal business landscape would look nearly 25 years later. It's still easy to find stories filled with sorrow and tragedy among the country's aboriginal people. And they are ones that need to be told, to be sure. But increasingly there are victories being declared in our native communities that aren't being talked about nearly enough. The explosion in aboriginal businesses in Canada is one of them. They are being run, in many cases, by a new generation of aboriginal leadership that is young, educated and sophisticated. People such as Clint Davis, the new head of the aboriginal business council. Mr. Davis is an Inuk raised among the Nunatsiavut First Nations of Labrador. He has business and law degrees from Dalhousie and an MA in public administration from Harvard, which he attended on a Fulbright scholarship. He is articulate, extremely bright, and bullish on aboriginal business prospects in Canada. "What really changed over the last 20 years was the evolution of the law," Mr. Davis said in an interview in Vancouver recently. "It was a series of landmark decisions that gave aboriginal governments and first nations groups legal influence on how resources are developed within their traditional territories. "And that, in turn, led to a lot of collaboration and joint venture opportunities." At the same time, a growing number of land-claims settlements infused native groups with large amounts of cash, which they used to invest in a wide array of business ventures. Mr. Davis said there are an estimated 34,000 aboriginal businesses across the country today. He calculates the potential value of the aboriginal market at about $26-billion a year - a figure that includes $9-billion a year worth of transfer payments from the federal government. Aboriginal people represent the fastest-growing segment of Canada's population - half are under the age of 25. First nations groups and governments own or control roughly 20 per cent of the country's land mass, a figure that could climb to 30 per cent within the next 15 years. Some of the groups are sitting on gold mines. The Musqueam band owns hundreds of acres of prime waterfront land in the City of Vancouver that, when developed, will be worth billions. Fort McKay First Nation in northern Alberta has the rights to potentially billions of dollars worth of oil. The Mnjikaning First Nation near Orillia, Ont., has made tens of millions from its Casino Rama complex. The Osoyoos Indian Band made Nk'Mip Cellars one of the most successful wineries in the Okanagan. You may have read recently about an aboriginal trade delegation heading off to China next month in search of business opportunities. It follows one from British Columbia that went there this past summer. Recently, first nations groups in B.C. held a major mining summit. On it goes. This is not to say everything is roses. Economic success is not being shared by all. There is still too much poverty in too many native communities. Meantime, more and more young aboriginal students are leaving home to get university educations and not returning. A shortage of skilled workers is having an impact on projects big and small. Many of the first nations groups that haven't received large injections of cash from land-claims settlements don't have the capital to invest in new businesses. Others have cash but little expertise. Still, Mr. Davis, whose organization now boasts a membership of more than 200 aboriginal and non-aboriginal businesses, sees an ever-brightening future. "I think the aboriginal community is an emerging market," Mr. Davis said. "We're only scratching the surface of the potential there. The more success there is, the greater a story it becomes across the country." It's a story that would make Murray Koffler proud.