Mark Selman and Joy Cramer | BCBusiness

Mark Selman and Joy Cramer | BCBusiness
Mark Selman, of SFU's Beedie School of Business, and Joy Cramer, Manitoba's deputy minister of family services

This spring, the first cohort from SFU’s Executive MBA in Aboriginal Business and Leadership program is set to graduate. The timing couldn’t be better

From the Northern Gateway pipeline to the Site C dam, doing business in some of B.C.’s—and Canada’s—most lucrative sectors means navigating the murky legal framework governing aboriginal territories, not to mention the more opaque waters of cultural relations.

Yet while the intersection of business and First Nations’ interests is an undeniable, and seemingly unending, source of controversy, it has largely failed to become the subject of rigorous examination in Canada’s business schools—a situation that has perplexed Mark Selman for years.

“If you read the newspaper, you can hardly avoid the fact that the most critical business issues in the province include how to effectively manage a business with regards to First Nations interests,” says the professor at SFU’s Beedie School of Business and director of Canada’s only MBA program aimed at bridging that gap.

Now in its third year, Beedie’s Executive MBA in Aboriginal Business and Leadership filters business fundamentals through a First Nations lens, catering to aboriginal professionals and those who work closely with indigenous organizations.

While the fundamentals are the same as a typical EMBA—and, Selman assures, the program is just as academically rigorous—course content is delivered in innovative ways, such as holding class retreats in a Squamish longhouse, using textbooks written by indigenous authors and incorporating traditional knowledge in the discussion of business connections and decision-making. Meanwhile, in-depth exploration of the business impact of Canada’s Indian Act and Supreme Court decisions, such as the recent landmark ruling on Tsilhqot’in land title, provide plenty of real-life context in which to teach fundamental principles.

With the first cohort of 23 students set to graduate this spring and another intake of 31 wrapping up their first year, the three-year program has attracted students from as far away as Ontario and Iqualuit, and from sectors as varied as health care, government, social services and law. A central tenet of the program is its recognition of diversity among First Nations in Canada, as well as the professional qualifications of aboriginal candidates who may not meet the educational requirements necessary for a typical MBA.

“We’ve become very experienced at assessing people who have outstanding career records but who don’t have the formal education we would normally expect going into a graduate program,” Selman says, noting that about 90 per cent of students are of aboriginal descent.

Getting credit for his professional experience was a deciding factor in Marek Tyler’s decision to apply to the program. “Had I not been aware of it, I don’t think I would have considered the commitment to an MBA,” says the senior contract manager for the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres and member of Saskatchewan’s Onion Lake Cree Nation. A first-year student, Tyler, 40, says he’s already been able to apply his education on the job and has been impressed with a learning environment that is “culturally safe, culturally aware and competent.”

And while he believes the degree will help him with personal goals at work, Tyler adds that at a time when more corporations are realizing they need to include aboriginal engagement in their business models, it’s imperative that aboriginal leaders are equipped with the skills to be equal partners in those delicate discussions.

Classmate Joy Cramer, deputy minister of family services for the Province of Manitoba (and the child of two residential school survivors), agrees. “What’s interesting is the corporate side, the business side, is catching on faster that there needs to be a relationship with the indigenous community in Canada,” she says. “The rest of society is falling behind—they’re not realizing it.”

That’s not news to Selman, who took more than a decade to convince his faculty the program was necessary and feasible, and to finally put the pieces in place. That meant creating original courses as well as assembling a team of six faculty, administrators and advisors who had the right combination of personal and professional experience to meet the program’s unique requirements. Notable members include consultant and mediator Michelle Corfield as executive in residence, as well as senior Deloitte aboriginal advisor Wendy Grant-John and mining and energy consultant Mark Podlasky on the advisory board.

There are still many challenges, like a dearth of Canadian academic studies on business relations with First Nations and few pedagogical precedents (only a handful of similar programs exist in the world, largely in Australia and New Zealand). Support from the corporate world has also been slow to arrive.

“It’s a complicated situation, to go out on a limb like we did,” says Selman. But as more businesses realize success hinges on having healthy relationships with Canada’s First Nations, he may find he’s not out there alone for long.