Stó:lō Community Futures

Stó:lō Community Futures (SCF) is playing a leading role in building the rapidly expanding Indigenous economy in S’ólh Téméxw, the traditional territory of the Stó:lō Nation. As a member of the Community Futures Network of Canada, SCF delivers financing and other resources for Indigenous people wanting to start, expand, franchise, or sell a business. “We at Stó:lō Community Futures embrace and celebrate Stó:lō cultural values and our mission to support the entrepreneurial spirit in our communities,” says Rocio Zielinski. Zielinski, whose Indigenous ancestry comes from Mexico, is the general manager of Stó:lō Community Futures. “We’re committed to building upon Stó:lō community strengths to create business opportunities, expand existing businesses, build community capacity, and diversify our local economy.” The Community Futures Network is a network of 267 federally funded non-profit lending and economic development offices across Canada that provide small business services to people living in rural communities. Stó:lō Community Futures was established in 1986 and is one of four Indigenous-specific Community Futures offices in British Columbia. Zielinski and her team serve all individuals of First Nations Métis, or Inuit ancestry across S’ólh Téméxw, which encompasses much of the Fraser Valley. “There are 24 First Nation communities and about 15,000 Indigenous people in our service-area,” says Zielinski. “There are over 300 Indigenous-owned businesses across 16 different sectors, everything from art, beauty, retail, land, health and wellness, you name it. They’re diverse and so resilient in what they do and how they innovate to meet the needs in their communities.” Rural businesses and rural Indigenous businesses in particular often struggle to access the resources they need to get off the ground. As a result, rural economies tend to be dominated by a handful of industries, making communities vulnerable when those industries decline or disappear altogether. Consequently, economic diversification is a major priority for these communities and for organizations like the Community Futures Network. What sets SCF apart from other organizations working to support diversification is their grassroots approach. “We are very unique in a lot of the things we’ve done, especially when compared to a typical bank or lender,” says Zielinski. “We focus a lot on the grassroots, on giving back to our community, on being in communities with boots on the ground to ensure that we’re creating relationships.” For many Indigenous people in S’ólh Téméxw, just getting to a branch office can be a barrier to success, as can nervousness entering an office-setting. To better serve their community, SCF set up satellite offices throughout the territory in Sts’ailes, Leq’á:mel, Soowahlie, Kwantlen, Scowlitz, Sema:th, and Seabird Island. As Zielinski says, “We want to be out in the community to alleviate any of the stresses that the community or the businesses might have.”

“We’re always trying to be innovative in what we do to support the community members and businesses out there in S’ólh Téméxw, ” says Zielinski. In addition to their satellite offices, SCF operates at the community-level through a volunteer board made up of local business professionals and leaders both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. “We have representation from every part of our territory on our board. We have chiefs, we have economic development officers, executive members, band managers, it’s an incredibly engaged board with such a strong vision.” Because of this unique grassroots approach, SCF deeply understands the needs of their community members. This not only helps them better deliver their services, but also design specific tools and resources to meet the specific challenges in S’ólh Téméxw. One of those tools is the SCF Micro Loan Program. Launched in 2014 in partnership with the Bank of Montreal, this program helps entrepreneurs with smaller lending needs. According to Zielinski, “the micro loans were incredibly successful because so many of our entrepreneurs aren’t looking for a million dollars. They’re just looking to finance a small piece of equipment or tools for their artwork.” Another important tool is SCF’s Indigenous Impact Lending Program, which was created in partnership with VanCity. Under this program, Indigenous communities, through their community-owned businesses or community economic development corporations, can borrow up to $500,000 to finance things like joint ventures and major projects. “The cap from our mandate is a maximum of $150,000 on our traditional loans, but many of the larger enterprises and partnerships need a lot more financing,” says Zielinski. “Through the VanCity program we’re able to really meet a big need and make a big impact.” Both the Micro Loan and Indigenous Impact Lending Programs highlight another of SCF’s unique strengths: a focus on partnerships. “We’re always trying to be innovative in what we do to support the community members and businesses out there in S’ólh Téméxw,” says Zielinski. “We’re often able to accomplish this through the partnerships we’ve created.” SCF has many other partners in the private sector and with other Indigenous organizations. “These are what help us roll out different projects and programs for our community members that couldn’t happen otherwise.” All of these partnerships, programs, and projects are paying off for SCF and the people of S’ólh Téméxw. Today there is a large and ever-growing community of Indigenous businesses providing for the livelihoods and wellbeing of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people across the territory. According to Zielinski, this is borne out by the local economy’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The COVID response really showcased the resiliency of our community members and businesses. Many businesses chose not to defer payments. Many of them learned how to pivot and adjust. We were able to help many of them transition into e-commerce and help them diversify. It just shows how strong we are.” Zielinski’s message to other Indigenous and Indigenous-focused community organizations right now is to focus on solidarity and support. “Support for entrepreneurs in critical. We all need to come together and support one another and our families and communities. It’s important to look to what positive impacts we can all make for ourselves and the seven generations to come.”