Everyone who starts a business needs to know about legislation. For Indigenous people who start businesses on First Nation, however, there are more layers of laws and rules to wade through. And while this can complicate the process, it’s still possible to start a successful business on-Nation. 

What do you mean by ‘legislation’? 

Most businesses are governed by some sort of legislation (ie. set of laws). If you’re starting a co-op, you need to know about the Co-operatives Act in your province. If you’re starting a non-profit, there’s an Act that governs those too. 

For an Indigenous person who starts a business on First Nation, however, legislation doesn’t stop there. There are Acts that may apply to your business that those operating businesses off-Nation don’t need to know about.  

So though legislation is dry and often hard to interpret — especially when you have more than one to contend with — if you want to start a business you need to know which ones apply to you and what they say. So here’s a quick look at the legislation you’ll need to look into if you want to start a co-op on a First Nation. 

The Indian Act 

The Indian Act has dictated what Indigenous people on Nation can and cannot do for much of Canada’s history as a nation. Anyone operating a business on a First Nation has to contend with it in some way. 

This archaic set of laws still impacts things like ownership and use of First Nations land, taxation, and business financing, because it was never set up with the well-being (economic or otherwise) of Indigenous people in mind. 

As Chief Darcy Bear of Whitecap Dakota First Nation explained it, “the Indian Act was meant to segregate us from society. Keep us out of sight, out of mind, while every other jurisdiction around us had the opportunity to build infrastructure, economies, jobs, opportunities, and even hope.”

So though it still exists today, there are ways First Nations can get out from under Indian Act regulations. 

Alternatives to the Indian Act

There are alternatives to dealing with the Indian Act, and each Nation can opt into these newer laws. Opting in to these means certain parts of the Indian Act no longer apply – and this is consistently a good thing for business. 

So what are these alternative Acts? Here are the options: 

First Nations Land Management Act (FNLMA) 

So, first the bad news. Any land on a First Nation is owned by the Canadian government, no matter what legislation you choose. But, by opting into the FNLMA, Nations can develop their own land codes and make their own rules about how the land is used. It also makes getting things like environmental assessments and permits easier and faster. 

First Nations Fiscal Management Act (FNFMA) 

With the FNFMA, First Nations can develop their own property tax system, like municipalities can. By collecting property tax the band can pay for things like infrastructure and economic development, generally making the community more business and investment-ready. 

First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act (FNCIDA) 

This one gives First Nations the option to adopt commercial and industrial regulations on-Nation that match the rules of the rest of their province. This gives more certainty to on-Nation projects. 

First Nations Good and Services Tax Act

If a Nation opts into this Act, they can create and collect their own goods and services tax, equivalent to the GST. (They can also rename it, so it’s not called the “FN-GST” ?) 

Is opting into these Acts a good thing? 

It seems so! Whitecap Dakota First Nation, for example, has opted into all of these Acts, and will soon be completely self-governing. It has also achieved substantial economic growth and business success. 

Chief Bear said that, had his Nation still been completely governed by the Indian Act, it would have missed out on big economic development opportunities. Instead, his community has built a casino, hotel, golf course, an early learning centre, infrastructure like water treatment plants, and more. 

Which ones will apply to our business? 

If you’re going to start a business, you need to figure out which legislation will apply. If your First Nation hasn’t signed onto any alternative Acts listed above, it has to follow all parts of the Indian Act by default.   

That’s why a good first step, if you’re thinking about starting a business on a First Nation, is to go to the band leadership and ask which laws will apply. The local government will know if it is still governed entirely by the Indian Act, and if it isn’t, will have the land, tax, and other codes it has developed that will apply to your business.


For more on starting a co-operative on a First Nation, visit yourwaytogether.ca