Supporting Indigenous Innovators

Recommendations for the Social Innovation (SI) ecosystem

What is Indigenous Innovation?
The need for Social Innovation in Canada
Valuing Traditional Knowledge supports inclusion
Working together starts with shared values

Supporting Indigenous people in Social Innovation

Indigenous people are not short of great ideas, creativity, ingenuity, or a need for social innovation. Urban and rural Indigenous communities are ripe with the most crucial factors for impactful innovation to spark. What is lacking is access – access to capital, to markets, to networks, to learning and capacity building – all of which are crucial to building a social purpose organization and all of which the Canadian Social Innovation ecosystem has plenty of. We will only have equity when Indigenous Innovators have the same access, the same opportunities, and the ability to seize them as all other social innovators in Canada. Providing resources to Indigenous individuals, communities, and organizations is all of our responsibility.

You can start here – today and now – by informing yourself more about Indigenous Innovation and how you, whatever your role may be, can support it. 

What is Indigenous Innovation?​​

Innovation is about building new ideas and solutions for how we can create the change we want to see in the world.

Social innovation is a term used for solving problems and building solutions for the betterment of local and global communities and ecosystems.

Indigenous Innovation is Indigenous-led, -owned, and -impacted innovation. Indigenous innovation is solving problems and building solutions using Traditional Knowledge – practices, beliefs, and experiences of Indigenous peoples.

The need for Social Innovation in Canada

Canada is at a turning point in its development. People are more aware of the economic inequality, environmental degradation and political conflicts that we increasingly face. On this trajectory, our future stands to be even more complex than our present. Taking on these global challenges starts at home. To be successful in overcoming these challenges, we will require more evidence-informed, community-based, bold solutions.

Indigenous life in Canada requires the greatest improvements and Indigenous participation is essential to the economy


1 Sum of those with “low food security” and “very low food security;” differs from national metric of “moderate and severe food insecurity.”


2 Canadian born non-Indigenous.


3 See Appendix for 95% confidence intervals.


4 Percent of population aged 6+.


5 See Appendix for standard errors.


6 We define “end
the epidemic” as an incidence rate of less than 1 per 100,000.


Source by goal: 1 = Macdonald & Wilson (2015); 2 = CANSIM 105-0547, 577-0009; 3a = Gallant, et. al (2017); 3b = CANSIM 105-0502, 577-0003; 4a, b = StatCan (2013b); 5a, b = Boyce (2014); 16 = Cotter (2015)

Jacqueline Jennings, Raven Indigenous Capital Partners

Indigenous innovators and entrepreneurs are well positioned to support the aims of Indigenous communities. More examples are needed in order to inspire and support new generations to pursue social innovation. 

Promoting an Inclusive Social Innovation Ecosystem

The Social Innovation ecosystem must come together to ensure inclusion of Indigenous peoples if Canada is to excel in social innovation and see the benefits of its investment in the Social Finance Fund.

Inclusion begins with presence. For inclusion, equity and progress, Indigenous individuals must play a substantial role within each of the ecosystem actors below.

Recommendations for the Ecosystem on how to better support Indigenous innovators​

In conducting our research for this knowledge exchange, we interviewed stakeholders from across the ecosystem. The following are recommendations based on learnings from these conversations that can serve to promote inclusion and better collaboration across the ecosystem. See your recommendations based on your role:

Valuing Traditional Knowledge

There is scepticism around Social Innovation and we heard that Social Innovation may be perceived as another passing buzzword, or lip service to a cause. We heard from Indigenous individuals that they did not feel invited to participate in funding processes due to the inaccessible and unrelatable nature of the process.

Enabling greater inclusion for Indigenous Innovation within the Social Innovation ecosystem in Canada, requires making room for Traditional Knowledge – the foundation of Indigenous Innovation –  to be respected and treated with equal validity by each of us and our organizations. Until the unique aspects of Indigenous Innovation are understood, it will be difficult for Western practices and policies to enable its success.

Diane Roussin

Characteristics of Traditional Knowledge System:

1 + -

Local. It is rooted to a particular set of experiences and generated by people living in those places. It has been said that transferring that knowledge to other places runs the risk of dislocating it.

2 + -

Orally transmitted or transmitted through imitation and demonstration. Writing it down changes some of its fundamental properties.organizations and giving these organizations control over parts of projects, campaigns, and creative directions.

3 + -

The consequence of practical engagement in everyday life and is constantly reinforced by experience and trial and error. This experience is the result of many generations of intelligent reasoning, and since its failure has immediate consequence for the lives of its practitioners its success is very often a good measure of effectiveness and utility.

4 + -

Characteristically, it is shared to a much greater degree than other forms of knowledge. This is why it is sometimes called “people’s science”, a term which also arises from its generation in contexts of everyday production. However, Traditional Knowledge is not usually distributed in a uniform or programmatic way within a population, by gender and age, for example, but rather preserved through transfer in the memories of individuals.

5 + -

Focused on particular individuals and may achieve a degree of coherence in rituals and other symbolic constructs, its distribution is always fragmentary: it does not exist in its totality or individual. Indeed, to a considerable extent it is devolved not in individuals at all, but in the practices and interactions in which people engage themselves.

Traditional Knowledge in Social Innovation

Indigenous Wisdom, as Diane Roussin calls it, can be different from Western paradigms. When you operate using Indigenous Wisdom you often get different outcomes.

For example, Western paradigms of leadership are hierarchical – leaders at the top of the pyramid make most of the decisions producing more standardized products and resources. Indigenous Wisdom values thinking inside the circle which is a more networked approach to leadership and decision-making. This approach will produce more customized products and resources that centre the stakeholder.


Indigenous people do not owe you Traditional Knowledge.

Traditional Knowledge is often sacred and therefore not always meant to be shared. Traditional Knowledge is also not eligible for copyrights, patents, or other forms of legal protection as it is not owned by any individual person or persons. For these reasons, while a knowledge exchange and an appreciation of Traditional Knowledge is needed for understanding and inclusion within the Social Innovation ecosystem, it will need to be granted on the basis of a desire for inclusion, reconciliation, and good faith without full knowledge of it.

Working together starts with shared values

“Shifting an ecosystem towards innovation for systemic social change involves moving beyond transactional collaboration and towards transformational collaboration. Fostering a shared strategy throughout the ecosystem distributes risk and builds a shared sense of collective higher purpose and ambition”

(Cahill & Spitz, 2017, p.156).

Social innovation is impactful because stakeholders across the ecosystem can work together based on shared values. Indigenous Innovators bring these values from Traditional Knowledge to their work and these values are also aligned to the values of Social Innovation. These values can and should serve as the basis for relationship formation.

Inclusion + -

Social innovation is inclusive innovation because, if social standing and life are to be improved, the voices of all members of a community or society must be heard, especially those voices whose lives stand to be improved the most.  Ex: Including Indigenous voices and perspectives when designing new programs, funds, reporting processes and making changes based on their feedback. 

Collaboration + -

Inclusion requires collaboration. Coming up with new and creative solutions to problems requires that many perspectives be included and considered as well. Collaboration is the backbone of many other social innovation values. Collaboration between individuals, teams, across organizations and sectors within the Social Innovation ecosystem is essential to its development. Ex: creating consultative partnerships with Indigenous organizations and giving these organizations control over parts of projects, campaigns, and creative directions.

Global impact + -

Social innovation is an approach to changing the world we live in. It has ambitious goals of improving the way we live individually and together on this whole planet. Ex: For Canadian SPOs to thrive and make a global impact we need to leverage the unique aspects of our culture and society – these are where creative ideas will come from. Indigenous innovators have this to offer the Canadian ecosystem.  

Local impact + -

Social innovation is also a way of creating change right in your community. Use social innovation to solve a local problem to help your neighbors or your family, like starting a daycare or developing a new water filtration device. Ex: Local impact and change can benefit all Canadians – community gardens, water filtration technologies, and Indigenous clothing brands that build pride are a few examples of ways that Indigenous innovators can impact their local communities.

Sustainability + -

Social innovation is a approach that is always learning, developing, and improving upon itself. Long-term thinking is especially important for developing robust solutions that can create long-lasting change. Social innovation cannot only consider the immediate impact. Change must be sustainable. Ex: Care for the environment has always been built-in to Indigenous innovation. The Canadian Social Innovation ecosystem and its SPOs could use the ideas and creativity of minds that have long thought in this way.

Creativity + -

Social innovation addresses real, felt challenges. Whether the challenge is new or old, it requires creativity in order to develop a solution that prioritizes impact over marketability. Ex: Diversity and inclusion are two off the greatest enablers of creativity – a fundamental innovation skill. By creating more opportunities for diverse voices to come together and share Western and Indigenous peoples will be able to develop the Social Innovation ecosystem together.

Better collaboration = better outcomes for all

Working together requires inclusion and collaboration – elements which are also essential to the success of Social Innovation and to Reconciliation in Canada. The spirit of social innovation is based on inclusion and inclusive practices, such as co-creation and multidisciplinarity, because social innovation truly happens when all voices are heard and diverse experiences are accounted for.

By aiming for the highest levels of collaboration, we can maximize our impact, collectively.

What you can do to actively include Indigenous Knowledge into Social Innovation

What does Indigenous Innovation need to thrive in Canada? In reality, the answer to this question is complex and multi-layered, but in principle, the answer is quite simple – inclusion and equity are needed. Equity starts with knowing how to promote inclusion. Inclusion will only be achieved when all members of the ecosystem actively choose to work towards flourishing together. An active understanding and appreciation of Traditional Knowledge is one way for non-Indigenous people to promote inclusion within Social Innovation. 

Here are 5 skills you can use to integrate Indigenous Knowledge into social innovation.

Self-assessment + -

Indigenous Innovation requires first and foremost a reflective mindset. This mindset comes with intentional work on an individual level. This can be done by thinking about how our choices and behaviors promote inclusion and reconciliation, how they affect others, and to what extent they are in line with set purpose and goals, all in a day-to-day context. As Elder Jacqui Lavalley of the Chippewas of Nawash explains, “You have to be really aware and honest with your own personal self – you cannot reconcile out here if you have not reconciled within yourself”.   Self-assessment requires that an individual consciously and regularly checks-in with themselves. In doing so, awareness is established, allowing this person to begin to question, “how do my choices promote inclusion?”   For example, when reviewing the results of stakeholder surveys, how often do we ask, “whose points of view does this data represent?”, “is our surveyed data inclusive of marginalized voices?” before we go ahead and make decisions based on it?  Building self-assessment or reflection into our processes and developing regular habits of mind to promote inclusion should be a workplace priority.

Input from Communities + -

There are many frameworks and resources designed and available for non-Indigenous people to learn about the ethical procedures to engage with and promote inclusion of Indigenous people. While these frameworks and resources are useful, they do not surpass the need to engage directly with Indigenous people and communities to learn from the most relevant input possible. There are no shortcuts to understanding how best to engage and work with Indigenous people – a check-box approach is to be avoided at all costs. We must not make pan-Indigenous assumptions across cultures or communities based on research or resources no matter how credible the source appears to be. Instead, we must  go directly to the source – the people and community – within the context of interest, and ask questions. We must welcome the ideas and stories shared and accept them as they are.   Input from Indigenous and all other marginalized communities should be gathered prior to and during the design of Social Innovation and Social Finance systems, services and processes. This input both signifies the Government’s commitments to reconciliation and a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples, and makes it possible. Indigenous communities must be engaged in the design of and benefit from the new programs and measures resulting from these recommendations, particularly in the areas of building capacity and skills, funding and capital, and knowledge sharing and mobilization (Economic and Social Development Canada, 2018, p.44).   Another example of where input from communities is invaluable is in the area of communication. Indigenous innovators are engaging in many forms of social innovation, but they are not always aware of the concepts, terms and definitions that rightfully classify their projects as social innovations in Canada’s growing Social Innovation ecosystem. Without the promotion of shared language, Indigenous innovators participating in the Canadian market may not be aware of the financing and market opportunities that come with identifying their work as a form of social innovation.   Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, input from communities need not only be conducted in research phases of work. One way to consistently ensure that the Indigenous perspective is being considered on an ongoing basis is to develop strong partnerships and hire Indigenous people within the Social Innovation ecosystem’s core and governing bodies – those bodies that make decisions and policies that affect the entire ecosystem.

Non-Indigenous Champions to Take Risks + -

The journey toward inclusion cannot be travelled by Indigenous people alone. Inclusion requires allyship – the support of those with more privilege and greater access to advocate and protect Indigenous interests. Allyship is needed when Indigenous people do not have a seat at the table and when they do, “Settler allies within governments and industry can help build capacity within these institutions for intercultural understanding, contributing to the durability and impact of emerging Indigenous innovations” (Alexiuk, 2013, p. iv). Allies can do a tremendous amount of work towards indigenizing the standard Social Innovation practices, policies, and approaches with the use of Traditional Knowledge. As well, making inclusion a part of visioning strategies can ensure that inclusion is always considered when strategic decisions are being made. As we have learned, there are certain points within the Social Innovation process that are the least compatible with Traditional Knowledge and where insufficient numbers of Indigenous people inform the process  – social finance is a particular area of need. Areas where there is an absence of an Indigenous stakeholder or where there is a great demand for change are where allyship is the most important and where the ally bears a greater risk. For example, when it comes to  funding applications and impact evaluations, the changes that are needed for inclusion in the Social Innovation ecosystem are a distinct departure from standard Western approaches. Allies will need to go out on a limb and based on what we have heard, be willing to provide views that are contrary to the existing paradigm in place and to those that seek to reinforce it. Allies can be the first in their workplaces or working groups to acknowledge Traditional Knowledge as valid and to model openness to learning and changing. This can be a tremendous personal challenge but finding ways to make progress for inclusion, despite this challenge, is what makes one an ally or a champion. The impact of the acts of allies can be transformative – for example, allies within governments and industry can help build capacity within these institutions for intercultural understanding.

Respecting Indigenous Rights + -

  1. collective name for the original peoples of North America and their descendants. The Canadian Constitution recognizes three distinct groups of Indigenous (Aboriginal) peoples: Indians (referred to as First Nations), Métis and Inuit” (Government of Canada).
Here is a checklist that can support the development of healthy relationships between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous people – based on a foundation of respect for Indigenous Peoples’ rights. These are meant to inform decisions when thinking about building relationships with partners and to act as fuel for new and important conversations.  It is imperative that we build this dialogue and strengthen its application. This list is meant to support individuals and organizations in taking initiative to respect Indigenous Rights. Some questions to address in developing parameters and guidelines for respecting Indigenous rights (such as when conducting research, for example):
  1. How do you embed cultural safety training and adapt it for business tools and checklists in a culturally safe way?
  2. How do you ensure the processes employed recognize the impacts of colonization and respect Indigenous rights?
  3. How do we get the message across that this burden of these processes does not fall on the backs of Indigenous communities?
  4. How do we ensure pitfalls and slack actions are avoided, such as thinking, “Okay, I hired one Indigenous staff, now I can go to this person to come up with everything Indigenous we need.” Too often this does not factor in overtime and other off duty protocols the person must engage in.
  5. How do we pay people for the consultations we ask them to do?
Inclusion is nurtured by acknowledging human integrity, by respecting Indigenous rights, by behaving in a manner that supports reconciliation, and by treating Traditional Knowledge as valid. When non-Indigenous people respect Indigenous rights and build relationships based on this respect, they promote safe spaces for inclusion.

Properly Measuring the Sustainability of Social Innovation Projects + -

In many cases, there is insufficient focus placed on cultural and social values in social innovation projects. Efforts to improve sustainability with social innovations will often focus on improving ‘life quality’ as an indicator of success – a culturally-relative term. However, the definition of ‘life quality’ in the context of Social Innovation is often limited to conceptions of life quality that center on citizenship, living standards, resilience, or responsibility, to the exclusion of many Indigenous values (Piccarozzi, 2017). Traditional Knowledge tends to conceive of life quality and of impact more wholistically – where success is intertwined on individual, social and ecological levels. Social, economic, and environmental conditions of social innovation projects are aligned with Traditional Knowledge, as are the self, family, and community as agents of change. Additionally, social impact on an individual level, from the perspective of Traditional Knowledge, includes the wellbeing of the mind, body and spirit. This broader and more wholistic definition of impact, based on Traditional Knowledge, is one that can be used by evaluators of innovation projects to better understand and support the vision of Indigenous Innovators. Innovations that are informed by Traditional Knowledge will dive more deeply into the causal relationships and sequential events embedded within their activities and touch-points to reveal value that is being delivered on a more wholistic level. Evaluations that are informed by Traditional Knowledge will factor these social innovation outcomes. Ultimately, a model that captures Indigenous perspectives and is also understandable to western evaluation practice will enable the greatest impact.

Self-reflection exercise for your daily inclusion practice

In order for each of us to do our part in promoting inclusion in our organizations and throughout the ecosystem we must practice it daily. Here are 4 self-reflection questions you can ask yourself before speaking, deciding, or acting to ensure that you have considered how your choices affect Indigenous peoples.


Ask yourself:



Whose voices are included in what I’ve learned? Whose voices are missing and needed before I can act?


Have I appropriately included Indigenous voices in the planning/early stages of our work? In the delivery of our work? In the evaluation of our work?


Do I have the Indigenous cultural competence needed to make the decision before me?


Can I communicate with Indigenous people to serve them better?

Supporting Indigenous Innovators

Continue developing your Self-Reflective practice
Download the Supporting Indigenous Innovator workbook to begin making self-reflection a part of your every day.
Perhaps can we feature an image of the workbook (attached).

Resources to support your daily inclusion practices.

No matter how you answer the questions above, there is always room for improvement when it comes to inclusion and equity. Here are some resources that can help you and your organization. For a deeper dive into our research and recommendation read our report. 
Diversity and Inclusion:
Cultural competence and safety: Communication tips:
  • Follow Indigenous organizations, advocates, and activists on social media.
  • Be informed by Indigenous media voices.
  • Conduct regular stakeholder research with Indigenous populations.
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