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A program designed to help dismantle community dependence on fossil fuels is also helping dismantle barriers for Indigenous people and communities to building wealth.
In 2023, Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, in partnership with Efficiency Manitoba, CMHC, Fisher River Cree Nation, Peguis First Nation, and Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, launched the ‘Ground Source Heat Pump Program,’ aiming to install nearly 400 energy-saving pumps in homes in First Nation communities.
Jeff Cyr, managing partner of Raven Capital, said the program hires people struggling to find stable work with a training program specifically for Indigenous people in reserve communities.
As well as helping families save money and reducing greenhouse gasses, the program increases employment, allowing more people to rent and own homes.
“[It] upskills people, and they go on to do other installations in other communities,” Cyr said. “It’s a pretty swimming success story.”
Operating across North America, Raven Capital supports Indigenous entrepreneurs through impact investing, supporting the revitalization of the Indigenous economy. In the case of the Ground Source Heat Pump Program, Raven provided the capital cost of the pumps.
Second to Ontario, Manitoba has the highest population of First Nation communities living on-reserve in Canada, with communities often facing reduced access to healthcare services and barriers to economic development.
Set up by colonial authorities in the 18th century, reserve systems saw Indigenous communities being forcibly “pushed into smaller and smaller parcels of land,” Cyr said.
The basic structure of the colonial financial ecosystem survives to this day, Cyr said. For example, in our current economy, many people leverage their homes to start a new business, using home equity loans to get the needed funding. However, the rate of home ownership by Indigenous communities in Canada is close to zero.
There are several reasons for this, including provincial laws preventing the sale of properties on reserve, making it impossible to build equity.
“The long-term effects on our people can be summed up with the word ‘extractive.’ It’s extractive of natural resources, but it goes much beyond that — it’s also extractive of value and people,” Cyr said, pointing to the brain drain happening for reserve communities, where young Indigenous individuals are forced to move to urban centres to find employment.
In the 1970s, land trusts began popping up in Canada as one potential solution to home ownership. Communities come together to purchase property through land trusts, removing homes from the market to ensure housing affordability for local communities.
Chiyi Tam is the managing director of the Toronto Chinatown Land Trust and was formerly the executive director of the Kensington Community Land Trust. Both organizations operate in overlapping neighbourhoods of Toronto’s downtown core, in rapidly developing areas at risk of gentrification.
“Both [organizations] are part of a wave, a huge surge [of] ways of community land trust organizing that we’re seeing coast to coast, across the entire continent,” Tam said.
How community land trusts are decolonizing land ownership
There are two methods for property acquisition through community land trusts: cashback and land back, Tam explained. The basic principle is to divert money to Indigenous-led efforts to eventually give land back to Indigenous communities.
Tam explains that some First Nation corporations are buying back land at market rate. “However unjust that feels to some people — that they have to pay money for land that was theirs — [some communities] are not going to wait around for policy actions. They’re just going to buy back on their own terms.”
Other First Nation corporations are building their own community wealth, creating the financial freedom to decide whether or not to pursue other property acquisitions. Tam gives the example of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island operating the very successful Great Blue Heron casino.
“It was a major economic development initiative,” Tam added. At the same time, she hasn’t spoken to the community directly. She hears that the “revenue from that then supports the health of an Indigenous community on their own terms, in their own governance.”
In Vancouver, the Squamish Nation is developing Sen̓áḵw: a significant development across 10.5 acres, with tens of thousands of housing units. “[It] could generate a really healthy, conventional capital portfolio that’s completely under the control of the Squamish Nation,” Tam said.
She adds that, while these are financial decisions being made within a capitalist system, the movements are anti-colonial, as they are Indigenous-led and governed. “It’ll be interesting to see how we can transform [the developments] beyond the conventional capitalist-like structures,” Tam said.
And throughout it all, Toronto Chinatown Land Trust’s team is “watching closely and seeing where we can support,” Tam said.
She added that community land trusts are flexible; no matter the context of a group’s interest, from decolonization to affordable agriculture, “it’s relatively easy to understand and customize [community land trusts] for each local group,” Tam said.
In today’s real estate crisis, community land trusts are advantageous, giving power to communities to take immediate action. “Indigenous Peoples are seeing their waterways and land being polluted and mined against their consent,” Tam said. “They’re continuing to see historic landmarks of their own cultural communities being misused or appropriated — and I assume they want to do something now as opposed to wait and fight and advocate for decades and decades.”
How Raven Indigenous Capital Partners is decolonizing impact investing
By investing in Indigenous businesses, Raven Capital is giving power to entrepreneurs who are transforming their communities for the better — and while it is a venture capital fund that has to make money for its investors, “we do it in a much less extractive way,” Cyr said.
For example, Raven Capital sets caps on how much of a cut it’ll take from a business’ revenues. The firm only takes minority positions in companies. It shows entrepreneurs dynamic capitalization tables, so they are crystal-clear on how many shares each shareholder has and what Raven Capital’s equity means for them.
The team is also very hands-on with their entrepreneurs, ensuring they stay on track with their mission and values — which, Cyr said, is often not about going public but uplifting the community.
“[We] try to navigate that nexus between mainstream capitalism and this ‘Indigenous capitalism,’” Cyr said.
Raven also takes on initiatives at the community level, like with the Manitoba Ground Source Heat Pump Program. For these kinds of projects, Raven uses a model called ‘Outcomes Finance,’ working with community committees that decide the priorities for Raven’s capital. From there, those communities receive the funding to do the actual boots-on-the-ground work.
What decolonized community finance models could do for Canada
For Tam, blue-sky thinking means a world where private property systems as we know them have been eroded, and land is governed by “real, local people who know their water systems, air systems, and then ecological systems really well, to make appropriate decisions about how to share it,” she said.
If that vision comes true, Tam said, community land trusts wouldn’t need to exist. “We exist because of the gap and a lack of systemic care,” she said. “But ideally, in some future world, everybody is generous and has all of the things they need in order to survive.”
Looking ahead, Cyr hopes to see programs like the government’s Social Finance Fund be leveraged to build more community-centric finance models and for large asset holders like banks, pension funds and life insurance companies to “expand the momentum and energy” by backing ventures they might previously have deemed ‘too risky,’ Cyr said.
Plus, Cyr hopes to see the Canadian government shift away from creating social finance programs to focusing on procuring successful outcomes. “The key is this mix where private capital comes in in more robust ways, the government learns to spend differently, and then we empower communities to solve the problem,” he said. “It’s kind of a triangle.”
But for this shift to happen, “we need to create the intermediaries — other Ravens out there who will do it because we can only do so much,” Cyr said.