Canada has joined a global Indigenous trade forum that International Trade Minister Mary Ng says will help First Nations entrepreneurs benefit from free trade agreements.
At a ceremony in Ottawa with First Nations, Metis and Inuit representatives from throughout Canada, the minister announced that Canada is joining the Indigenous Peoples Economic and Trade Co-operation Arrangement.
Ng said the move is a "milestone" and will help 50,000 Indigenous businesses find new international markets.
The ceremony, held before an array of totem poles at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., included Indigenous drummers and dancers and Inuit and Metis prayers and ceremonies. The minister exchanged symbolic gifts, including a painting and tea and tobacco, with Indigenous guests.
The event was also attended by representatives of Indigenous people from overseas, including Maori from New Zealand.
In her speech, Ng paid tribute to First Nations' businesses and said support would be offered by the government to help these companies, including those from Nunavut and remote communities, access international markets.
"Indigenous Peoples are the founders of trade in Canada – you are our first traders, our first entrepreneurs, and our first exporters. Today we still rely on the foundations that you and your ancestors have built," she told the audience.
"We have a responsibility to do more to ensure that Indigenous Peoples reap the benefits of today's globalized trade."
There are more than 50,000 Indigenous-owned businesses in Canada and they contribute close to $30 billion to the economy each year.
They include Raven Reads, a company that sends curated boxes of Indigenous-authored books and giftware and has 3,000 subscribers in 20 countries around the world.
Ng said by joining the arrangement, Indigenous entrepreneurs can also share know-how with Indigenous businesses around the world.
She did not specify how much entering the arrangement could be worth to Canadian First Nations businesses.
Liberal MP Jaime Battiste, the first Mi'kmaw member of Parliament in Canada, said the arrangement "integrates Indigenous ways of knowing and being."
"This is not only about making profits but protecting the land and resources," he said.
In her closing address, Metis elder Mary-Louise Perron said the collaboration would help fuse closer links between Indigenous Peoples around the world, and not just through trade.
"We must make sure we are not only focused on 'things' but how we work together," she said.