What executives can learn from an indigenous worldview

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In May 2021, 215 indigenous children were found buried in an unmarked grave at a Canadian boarding school. That moment catalyzed Canadians to acknowledge the systematic silence and displacement of indigenous peoples. It is time for all people, including business leaders, to recognize the voice and worldviews of indigenous peoples around the world.

Canadians were shocked with the discovery of 215 indigenous children buried in unmarked graves in a dormitory in Canada. This tragedy not only preoccupies the people living in Canada, but is symptomatic of the systematic marginalization of indigenous peoples around the world.

From the 1880s through 1996, the Canadian government funded programs that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families and placed them in church residential schools. The children were often mistreated and when they died their families were either not informed or could not bring their children’s bodies home.

This treatment of indigenous peoples is not limited to just Canadian history: it applies to most indigenous nations with colonial pasts, including the United States, Australia, and South Africa.

Business leaders can learn a lot from an indigenous worldview

What makes this subject tragic beyond the appalling story of abuse and death is that it silences a worldview that could lead to better business and better societies.

The world is currently facing self-inflicted planetary crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss. For example, the earth has lost 68% of its wildlife since 1970. But an indigenous worldview presupposes harmony with the land. The land, inhabited by indigenous peoples who make up only 5% of the world’s population, contains 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

The principles that establish an indigenous worldview can change the way companies see themselves and how they relate to the world.

What is an indigenous worldview?

To speak of a single worldview misrepresents indigenous peoples as it misrepresents western corporations. There are many indigenous worldviews as there are many indigenous peoples. However, there is one aspect of indigenous thought that seems to be widespread due to the association of many indigenous peoples with the land – from Native Americans in tribal areas to the Xhosa in southern Africa.

In particular, an indigenous worldview is relational – from people to things and even to ideas. An indigenous worldview recognizes that relationships take time to form and generate mutual responsibility. The economy is part of the natural environment and the community: it is not outside of them. To speak of one automatically speaks of the other. So when companies harm the community or the environment, they harm themselves. The earth is not just a planet: It is “mother earth”, who gives and receives everything that it has.

A relational perspective also applies to time. Past, present and future are connected. Past and future shape the present; the present cannot be seen from the context of past and future. The concerns of ancestors and future generations are just as important as the concerns of people today.

In contrast, a Western approach to business often treats people, things, and activities as discreet and separate. That is, companies are separate from each other and from society, and transactions are governed by markets and contracts. Business partners negotiate what they give and receive, and value and success are determined by watches and calendars.

Inviting an indigenous worldview to preserve land

I asked Diane-Laure Arjaliès, Associate Professor of Accounting at Ivey Business School, about her experience working with indigenous communities. Arjaliès is working with a number of partners to develop a Conservation Impact Bond, an advanced financial instrument that offers investors returns for the preservation of the land. A tree, she argues, has value not only when it is felled but also when it is in the ground because it helps maintain biodiversity and ecological resilience.

The main challenge in building this new form of financial instrument is that there is no market that can value the resources remaining on land. The value must therefore be negotiated with the people who will benefit from the maintenance and the investment. This includes NGOs, investors, equity investments, indigenous peoples and researchers.

This particular bond was aimed at preserving 150 acres of land in the Carolinian Life Zone in southwestern Ontario, 30 acres of which is in traditional Chippewas of the Thames First Nations (COTTFN) territory. Over the past two centuries, the forest cover in this area has been reduced from 80% to 11% and the wetland density from 28% to 5%. The region is now home to more than 50% of the endangered species in Canada.

Although all partners agreed that conservation is an important goal, they disagreed on one basic principle: whether land, water and endangered species could be priced. And even if they could agree that this type of financialization helped conservation efforts, their opinions about the fair price differed widely. The Chippewas of the Thames First Nations recognized the importance of all species that are part of an integrated system with land and water. One species – plant or animal – could not be rated higher than the other as they were all interdependent. However, an inherent pricing principle requires pricing by value.

Rather than simply compromising, the partners agreed on some basic principles based on an indigenous worldview. These included:

1. Consensus-based decision making. It was important to hear all of the voices and perspectives. During the team meetings, everyone was encouraged to share thoughts and ideas. You didn’t learn a lot from the loudest in the room, but often from the quietest.

2. Not everything that is valuable can be measured. While Western business approaches value “things”, the partners realized that the “flows” and “connections” between things were not often seen or appreciated. A single species doesn’t seem to have much value until you see the critical connections it makes between other species.

3rd The importance of storytelling. Living stories were often able to change hearts and minds when the numbers and dates couldn’t. Stories could illustrate ideas that connected people and crossed time. History and future have a higher value when they are contextualized through stories.

Arjaliès recalled that the process had taken much longer than originally expected, especially with the COVID-19 outbreak. The partners needed time to build trust and really listen to each other. And they’re still not done.

Yet they have ended up in a place of mutual understanding and respect, and there seems to be a way forward. In the end, the partners are optimistic that they will develop a set of principles that can truly integrate indigenous and non-indigenous worldviews in order to preserve the earth’s resources for future generations.

Learning from the past to guide the future

Much has been written about the harsh truth of how colonialists treated indigenous peoples. Too little has been written about how much can be learned from an indigenous worldview – a worldview that can change the way companies see themselves and act in the world.

At the moment, sustainable development seems elusive. However, by learning about an indigenous worldview, business leaders may make meaningful progress toward sustainable development.

The discovery of the 215 indigenous children is tragic. It should be a catalytic moment to awaken our senses to a community of people who honor their past by making sure it shapes their present and future. Business leaders can learn from an indigenous worldview – especially to work towards a desirable future not just for business, but for everyone.

A first step to find out more

To learn more, I encourage you to read the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, including six relating to the boarding school system. You may also want to have credit for the area where you live or work. This is a way to not only show respect for your ancestors, but also to signal your appreciation for the country and community.

Here is mine.

I live and work in London, Ontario, on the traditional land of the Anishinaabek (Ah-nish-in-a-bek), Haudenosaunee (Ho-den-no-show-nee), Lūnaapéewak (Len-ahpay-wuk.) Lies) and Attawandaron (Add-a-won-da-run) peoples, on lands associated with the London Township and Sombra Treaties of 1796 and the Dish with One Spoon Covenant Wampum. For generations, these peoples have cared for their community, land and waters, and continue to do so. I want to pay my respects to their elders and recognize their status as Turtle Island First Nations.

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