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Aboriginal trade may cross the oceans

BUILDING BRIDGES A visit by a Canadian Aboriginal delegation brings with it the possibility of economic cooperation with their counterparts in Taiwan

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

In a traditional ceremony held on Jan. 17, Walter Mackay, an economic and business development adviser of the Chiefs of Ontario, left, passes a pipe to Elijah Harper, Commissioner of the Indian Claims Commission, right, during a visit to Taipei.


For many Taiwanese Aborigines, making a living boils down to a choice between being a farmer, a traditional dancer or a construction worker. A high unemployment rate, coupled with other economic disadvantages faced by many Aborigines, has stigmatized many Aboriginal regions. For most Aborigines, the idea of owning their own business is a far-fetched fantasy.

For some, however, the situation is a bit brighter. An alternative, Aborigine to Aborigine foreign trade partnership might instill a new vitality to the local Aboriginal economy, according to Canadian and Taiwan officials.

Last week, a Canadian Aboriginal delegation visited Taiwan, bringing with it the idea of building a bridge to an economic partnership with their counterparts in Taiwan.

"Management expertise, investments and a variety of products are the areas we are looking at," said Walter MacKay, an economic development adviser in Ontario.

"For a number of Canadian Aboriginal products and businesses, there is a market for both sides to relate to, through the very nature of being Aboriginal," he said.

Mackay is former vice-chief of the Assembly of First Nations, a national body representing Canada's population of 700,000 Aborigines.

According to MacKay, First Nations people are now a growing economic force in Canada. Aboriginal Canadians own enterprises in fields as diverse as food manufacturing, transportation, public construction and mining.

Building bridges

In 1998, the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Taiwan's Cabinet-level Council of Aboriginal Affairs (CAA, 原住民委員會) on cultural and economic exchanges.

The memorandum was originally meant to foster the organization of a Canadian Aboriginal Festival in Taiwan that year, as well as a series of exhibitions that were held in 1999. This year, the Canadian delegates said, the memorandum will expand into a second phase aimed at building more economic and non-government organization (NGO) links between the two sides.

"We have established a very strong relationship with Aboriginal people here. The next part is secondary from an Aboriginal viewpoint -- that is, we can start on business now," said Mackay.

Also included in the week-long Canadian mission were James Richardson, national director of Aboriginal banking at the Business Development Bank of Canada and Elijah Harper, commissioner of the Indian Claims Commission. The group met with local Aboriginal officials in Taichung and Pingtung.

The Canadians said one common problem facing Aboriginal people who plan to start businesses is securing bank loans.

"The Canadian Aboriginal banking experience has had the same problem. What we can do is to offer solutions," said Richardson.

According to Richardson, loans to Aboriginal people can be facilitated with the involvement of NGOs to provide guarantees to banks, as well as to bring expertise to business management.

The focus of Canada's First Nations' economic activity is on environmentally-conscious businesses -- the so-called "green products," said the delegates.

"We have a special relationship with nature and we don't want to cause damage to Mother Earth," said Harper.

He said companies run by First Nations, for example, have produced a strain of wild rice that grows naturally, without chemical or environmental side effects. When a hydraulic power project was underway in a reservation area, they worked on developing eco-friendly construction skills. "We call it green power," said Harper.

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