It’s a Good Thing: This new MBA program at UVic puts Indigenous reconciliation first

It's here to challenge the lack of Indigenous perspectives informing business programs across Canada.

UVic First Peoples House credit_UVic Photo Services

Credit: UVic Photo Services. UVic First Peoples House

It’s here to challenge the lack of Indigenous perspectives informing business programs across Canada

In boardrooms across Canada, in any given moment there’s a discussion ongoing about this organization’s commitment to Indigenous communities or that company’s action plan for reconciliation. A lot of the initial interest—before Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—was spurred by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), adopted by the UN’s General Assembly in 2007.

UNDRIP set a framework of minimum standards for “the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world.” In 2019, B.C. became the first jurisdiction in Canada to pass legislation implementing UNDRIP, though it took until this March—and the release of an 89-point Declaration Act Action Plan—for the provincial government to make clear how exactly they’d do it. This summer, the province ponied up $8.4 million to fund development of a reconciliation framework for B.C.’s community social services sector.

Leslie Varley has spent decades in the sector—working as a consultant, a bureaucrat and director of Indigenous health for the Provincial Health Services Authority. Since 2016, she’s been executive director of the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres (BCAAFC), an umbrella organization that delivers programs and services for Indigenous peoples across urban B.C. The BCAAFC is tasked with implementing this new reconciliation framework.

One of the key challenges facing Varley and the BCAAFC is building leadership capacity within Indigenous-led nonprofits, which are growing in scope and responsibility with each passing year. And much of the responsibility lies with the education system. With this new funding, the BCAAFC is able to develop a new MBA in collaboration with UVic; billed as “the world’s first MBA in Indigenous reconciliation,” the UVic program is set to launch in the spring of 2023.

Varley—whose late mother was a member of the Nisga’a Nation—spent her formative years on Digby Island, and knows the challenges of colonial education all too well. Early in her career, she helped develop training programs for band managers and native court workers, as well as training materials for those needing high-school credits to go on to post secondary education.

“I went through the school system myself; I know how racist the education system is towards Indigenous people,” says Varley. “There’s always an assumption that we’re dumb— and it’s really hard to participate in a system when you’re feeling so alienated from it.”

Even when not overtly racist, says Varley, schools can alienate Indigenous students by not speaking to their unique needs. She recalls what it was like when she went back to school in 2012, to get an executive MBA in Aboriginal business and leadership from SFU. “I was in that first cohort, and they didn’t have enough Indigenous perspectives informing the curriculum,” she says, noting how the Nisga’a Treaty was highlighted as “a really effective modern day treaty,” and how the accounting class was simply an off-the-shelf course. “We learned how to calculate bonds. I thought, This is ridiculous. How many of us are ever going to need this again?”

The hope with the UVic MBA (developed from the ground up) is that it will help foster Indigenous leadership in the nonprofit sector, where a new generation of talent is waiting in the wings. “We anticipate that, within five years, 60 percent of our current [executive directors] will be retiring,” says Varley. Half of the space for the inaugural MBA class is reserved for the BCAAFC, allowing 25 leaders from the Friendship Centres to attend; the other cohort will consist of Indigenous leaders within the ranks of government and not-for-profits.

“The province has made a commitment to reconciliation,” says Varley, “but people are really struggling to understand: What do I need to do to adjust my nonprofit society so that it can be culturally safe and relevant?” As B.C. works to support the “survival, dignity and well-being” of Indigenous people here, this new program offers a promising head start.

Nonprofit Impact

Nonprofit organizations, including the 25 Indigenous-led Friendship Centres represented by the BCAAFC, are a vital part of the B.C. economy:

  • B.C. is home to more than 29,000 nonprofit organizations
  • They employ more than 86,000 people
  • And contribute $6.7 billion to B.C.’s economy