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Supporting land-based learning for Indigenous business students

Prof. Dara Kelly-Roy, who is from the Leq’á:mel First Nation, part of the Stó:lō Coast Salish, teaches in the Indigenous Business and Leadership Executive MBA

Gathered around a fire inside a longhouse at the Stó:lõ Nation, Rebecca Kragnes and fellow students in SFU’s Indigenous Business Leadership Executive MBA (IBL EMBA) learned about the potlatch and other aspects of the Coast Salish economy in the very place where transactions traditionally unfolded.

With donor support, the IBL EMBA is delivering select classes hosted by Indigenous communities, providing students with transformative experiences that honour nationhood and sovereignty. Rebecca and the 2023-2024 cohort have been guests to a diversity of nations: Squamish, Lil’wat, Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam and Stó:lō in British Columbia, Chippewas of Rama in Ontario and Whitecap Dakota in Saskatchewan.

“We had the opportunity to visit different territories across Turtle Island where we learned different medicines and different teachings from different regions, which I found so fascinating and really enriched the program,” says Rebecca, who is Cree-Métis and a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta from Treaty 8 Territory in the Fort McMurray region.

Unique learning opportunities for a unique program

Launched in 2012 as the first graduate program of its kind in North America, the IBL EMBA prepares and empowers experienced Indigenous leaders, professionals and managers for today’s changing global business environment. In addition to core concepts covered in most MBA degrees, the IBL EMBA recognizes and respects the knowledge, cultural protocols and history that play significant roles in Indigenous communities and organizations.

“It's an opportunity for our faculty to highlight the great work these communities are doing to create prosperous futures for the next seven generations,” says Stephanie Merinuk, who is a member of Berens River First Nation and manages academic and administrative services for Indigenous graduate programs at SFU’s Beedie School of Business—while currently enrolled in the IBL EMBA.

The land-based classes are designed and supported by Indigenous faculty in collaboration with host communities to showcase a wide variety of economic initiatives. These visits are made possible through the generous support of the Suncor Energy Foundation, which provides funding for student meals and accommodation, rental of community spaces, honoraria for guest speakers, events, workshops and tours.

“This investment from Suncor is uplifting Indigenous business studies within SFU and is having a huge impact on students, along with the communities and organizations they work with,” explains program director Alexia McKinnon, a citizen of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation and herself a graduate of the IBL EMBA program.

Building on the bonds formed between classmates and host nations, students are encouraged to collaborate on new endeavours. One student is developing a retirement plan based on Indigenous values and others are working on a joint venture company that will eventually be entirely First Nations-owned.

Holistic support for Indigenous changemakers

Alexia says that with the help of land-based learning, the program is reaching its full potential to support its students mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually throughout their learning journeys.

“What these students are bringing to life is so inspiring,” she says. “You can see that they are changemakers who are advancing important conversations.”

Rebecca says the land-based lessons directly apply to her role as director of Indigenous relations and community engagement at Bird Construction Inc., where she implements policies that maximize Indigenous participation in building projects across Canada and throughout the organization. 

Growing up on a trapline in northeastern Alberta, she says the visits also helped reinforce values and knowledge gleaned through her own upbringing.

“The land-based classes justified the perspectives I learned from my parents but were never really talked about in post-secondary education,” says Rebecca.

In 2024, the IBL EMBA will celebrate reaching more than 200 Indigenous business leader alumni. Reflecting on this milestone, Stephanie says that the program has had positive impacts throughout SFU Beedie—in the course content and school administration, as well as the campus spaces. For example, one of Stephanie’s first initiatives was to organize decolonizing workshops with the entire business school staff, and since 2023, visitors to the Segal Graduate School building have been greeted by a beautiful Coast Salish weaving created by an IBL EMBA alumnus prominently displayed in the entrance hall.

The world of business is changing and Indigenous voices are starting to be included in decision making tables. It’s crucial for schools to evolve and adapt the programming to meet shifting needs.

What’s Next: The SFU Strategy, a framework for action for the university, prioritizes our commitment to uphold Truth and Reconciliation. Initiatives such as land-based learning are critical in illuminating the truth of Indigenous people in Canada and globally and advancing an inclusive culture.

This story is part of our summer 2024 edition of Engage, our magazine celebrating the impact of SFU’s donor community.
To read more stories, please visit the Engage landing page.