By Elvin Madamba, Program Manager

June, National Indigenous History Month in Canada, offers a rich opportunity to acknowledge the contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples, not just domestically but globally. This commemoration serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of Indigenous voices, particularly in areas like corporate governance and sustainability.

This National Indigenous Peoples Day, I had the pleasure of speaking with accomplished Indigenous business leader and Competent Boards alum Helen Bobiwash (GCB.D and CCB.D), and was struck by how much her learnings can potentially transform corporate attitudes and practices. With over 25 years of experience in accounting and financial management, Helen hails from the Thessalon First Nation and has a wealth of experience in corporate governance and financial analysis, as well as strategic planning and transformation.

Helen has spent over two decades providing accounting and advisory services to First Nations, community economic development organizations, and community-based health organizations. Her work has also included supporting First Nations with financial opportunities stemming from Impact Benefit Agreements. She is Chair of the Audit Committee and Vice-Chair of Health Sciences North, a Director of AFOA Canada’s Ontario Chapter, and a Public Sector Accounting Discussion Group member, among others. Above all, she is passionate about environmental sustainability, biodiversity, and financial well-being.

Integrating Indigenous Knowledge and Perspectives

For Helen, the importance of National Indigenous History Month cannot be overstated. It’s a time to reflect on the far-reaching contributions of Indigenous peoples and acknowledge their pivotal role in preserving the world’s biodiversity. “In 2022, I saw statistics that the territories of Indigenous peoples contain 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity,” she noted, which highlighted the crucial need to include Indigenous perspectives in the boardroom conversation around sustainability. 

She shared her deeply personal connection with nature, saying, “I’ve spent my life on the land, being a part of nature. I’ve learned Anishinaabe teachings about Mother Earth and all the creatures that we share this land with. I’ve learned how all creatures are born with the knowledge to survive, except for humans. Humans need to learn from others, including the animals, birds, fish, and plants. I’ve also learned that water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth. It brings life, but it can also take life. There are many more teachings that I’ve learned about the biodiversity around us, and I continue to learn.”

Helen’s vivid articulation of the deep connection between Indigenous knowledge and sustainable practices underscored that this profound understanding of the environment passed down through generations, makes Indigenous voices valuable and essential in the boardroom.

When asked how companies could integrate Indigenous insights into corporate governance and sustainability practices, she expressed powerful advice. “First, I feel that companies should learn which Indigenous peoples occupy lands where they are operating. Then, let go of colonial attitudes that all people have been conditioned to, the assumption that Indigenous people are inferior. It just isn’t true. Indigenous people are sophisticated and have transmitted knowledge such as science, environmental preservation, community engagement, and governance. This is relevant to governance and sustainability practices for all.”

Understanding Indigenous Rights

Helen also highlighted the importance of familiarizing oneself with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). “I believe that companies, NGOs, and their Boards of Directors should familiarize themselves with UNDRIP and learn how they may use it to guide their interactions with Indigenous peoples. Understand that Indigenous people are not just stakeholders, they are rights holders, particularly in Canada, who can support your corporation’s sustainability or impede it. Work with the Indigenous communities as partners in your operation rather than adversaries.”

The Seventh-Generation Philosophy: Being a Steward of the Future

From Helen’s perspective, being a steward of the future — a concept deeply ingrained in Indigenous identity — is about safeguarding resources for future generations. “The Haudenosaunee have shared their seventh-generation philosophy,” she explained. “In decisions and actions we make today, we must think of the impact on the next seven generations.” This aligns directly with corporate sustainability and underlines the necessity of long-term, responsible decision-making.

Overcoming Obstacles: Helen’s Journey as an Indigenous Leader

Despite her accomplishments and contributions, Helen has faced challenges as an Indigenous leader in the corporate sphere. She acknowledges obstacles such as balancing family obligations, limited networking opportunities, and reduced visibility, particularly for Indigenous women. These experiences have fuelled her passion for increasing the representation of marginalized groups in boardrooms and mentoring other aspiring Indigenous leaders.

She believes that meaningful change begins with understanding and acknowledging the diversity among Indigenous peoples. A single Indigenous board member can provide guidance, but they cannot represent the full spectrum of Indigenous voices. Ongoing conversations and relationships with all the Indigenous communities a corporation interacts with are needed, reinforcing the importance of free, prior, and informed consent.

As we observe National Indigenous History Month, let’s reflect on these invaluable insights and the pressing need for more Indigenous voices in boardrooms across the world. By doing so, we not only honour the history and contributions of Indigenous peoples but also enable a future that is more inclusive, diverse, and sustainable.

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