Jeffrey Cyr

This description of Jeffrey Cyr's work was prepared when Jeffrey Cyr was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019.


Jeff is structuring a new reconciliation economy to bring full economic citizenship to Indigenous populations that have been historically excluded and controlled by colonial systems in Canada. In doing so, he is putting power in the hands of Indigenous communities for self-determination and supporting Canadian society’s transition into a new era of Truth and Reconciliation.

The New Idea

Jeff is a bridge innovator who is bringing full economic citizenship to Indigenous populations that have been excluded by paternalistic systems. He is cultivating a reconciliation economy that transfers power to Indigenous communities. In doing so, he is transforming more than 200 years of colonial systems where resources, values and authority have traditionally flowed from Canada’s federal government to Indigenous peoples as wards of the state.

As a new Indigenous financial intermediary, Jeff and his team are establishing a new set of rules, tools and institutions that bridge the space between non-Indigenous private capital and Indigenous-led social enterprises. As such, his creations (a fund management firm, R&D incubator for social innovation labs, and an educational arm, all rooted in Indigenous epistemologies) coordinate and build capacity to reconfigure mainstream economic systems to meaningfully include Indigenous enterprises into mainstream marketplaces. Through these creative channels that foster impact investment, Jeff is building new equity-based growth opportunities for Indigenous entrepreneurs. Their enterprises improve outcomes in Indigenous communities while generating returns for investors. As well, they give rise to other businesses, culminating in cascading effects for communities that historically haven’t had access to equity investment.

The most scalable and systems-changing element of Jeff’s new economic architecture is rooted in how he efficiently and effectively positions the federal government to purchase social outcomes once they are produced by Indigenous social enterprises. He does so by feeding the interests of social outcomes purchasers (federal government departments and foundations), impact investors and Indigenous-owned and led social enterprises. Keeping the community at the center, Federal departments “purchase” relevant outcomes produced by Indigenous enterprises by paying back the original investors that provided the upfront equity. As a result, there is new market value for government cost savings for improved outcomes achieved by Indigenous-led social enterprises while birthing new pathways for Indigenous self-determination across the sectors. Altogether, Jeff’s model bypasses 200 years of paternalistic government control as well as resource-scarce interventions from the non-profit sector that have mostly focused on relieving symptoms. Stakeholders are realigned for reconciliation and Indigenous communities are positively impacted by new investment, improved health and well-being, increased leadership, skills and community control.

The Problem

In 2015, the conclusion of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) made visible the extent to which Canada’s colonial history and residential school system systematically disadvantaged, disempowered, and discriminated against Indigenous peoples. As well, it highlighted how Indigenous peoples continue to face systematic barriers to their social, cultural, spiritual and economic well-being in Canada. An historically paternalistic relationship between settler and Indigenous communities in Canada has made for economic transactions that maintain a colonial mindset. Canadian Indigenous people are systematically excluded from the economy, often lacking resources needed to generate opportunity and wealth. They are “given” things from the government which in turn increases dependency, decreases self-determination and limits options resulting in perpetual poverty.

Major program interventions in Indigenous communities have consistently failed over the last 200 years as evidenced by the continued socio-economic impoverishment in Indigenous communities. According to the UN, Canada is ranked 7th worldwide on the Human Development Index. However, when measured solely on the state of Indigenous communities in Canada, the rank is 65th on the global Development Index. The social interventions used by the government include paternalistic and transactional funding to Band Councils or other entities that have been created by the federal government in Ottawa. They impose external concepts with little local knowledge or control as part of the process. “Experts” and companies parachute into reserves with solutions that are time-limited, not functionally adapted, or are inappropriate.

Legislation impedes financial inclusion, growth and wealth. For example, the Indian Act (Section 89) prohibits the use of reserve land as collateral. As such, banks are reluctant to provide loans if assets cannot be seized in case of default. On many reserves, except the few that have developed self-government agreements, a house may be owned but the land is not – therefore it cannot be sold - which makes it impossible to build equity. Even on the reserves where homes can be owned, there is a disparity between the equity in a house on a reserve compared to a house not on a reserve.

Indigenous entrepreneurs who work hard to succeed do not have access to the same resources as their non-Indigenous counterparts, and, ultimately, do not experience the same results. In 1998, a study by Industry Canada and Aboriginal Business Canada found that over half (56 per cent) of Aboriginal entrepreneurs had inadequate access to equity and/or debt, citing, among various reasons, no local financial institutions, lack of personal resources, and unavailability of venture capital. Nearly twenty years later, a report for National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA) and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) found that the situation continues to affect many Aboriginal entrepreneurs and small- to medium-sized enterprises:

“The vast majority of Aboriginal communities do not have a bank within their boundaries. Notably, as of 2017, the four major banks in Canada (i.e., the Royal Bank of Canada, the Bank of Montreal, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and Scotiabank) collectively have less than 50 Aboriginal branches, banking outlets, or banking centers located on-reserve. [. . .] Individuals who have limited access to mainstream financial institutions often have no or poor credit scores, which exacerbates the challenges of accessing financing from these institutions.”

Overall, the current financial support systems for reconciliation across Canada are unsophisticated, wasteful, and they perpetuate colonial mindsets via business as usual. Government funding is compliance based (high administration costs and inflexible) and non-profits that are philanthropically funded are volatile, unsustainable and survive on only the fumes of the economy. There is no unlocking of the mainstream economy to truly tackle the challenges that are being faced by Indigenous groups. The promise of Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) to ameliorate this situation and enable government financing of social innovation has also proven insufficient. They are complex, take too long to set up and are expensive to negotiate. In 2019, there are only 120 SIBs around the world despite their existence for nearly a decade, and as they are an unattractive solution and inefficient in their current form.

The Strategy

In 2016, The McConnell Foundation proposed a peer input process for AKI Energy, one of its grantees, led by Ashoka Fellow Shaun Loney. AKI Energy, an Aboriginal social enterprise focused on renewable energy, was facing several policy barriers that were preventing its expansion. As a result, a nine-month innovation lab was held to tackle these problems. During the innovation lab process, it became clear that renewable energy was a unique lever around which innovative capital deployment could build the capacity of Indigenous-led organizations and unlock multiple social, economic and environmental outcomes.

Jeff, who participated in these discussions, saw an opportunity for AKI to bypass the government policy barriers by getting the government to pay for the social and environmental outcomes once they had been met. To keep the work moving, Aki could seek out investors to seed the upfront capital that the government would eventually pay back. From his previous work in the government, Jeff knew that the federal government had a “pay-for-performance" policy that rewarded organizations that delivered on social change after the fact, but that most civil servants were unaware and unsure of how to employ the policy. As such, it went largely unused. Jeff worked alongside his peers in the lab to champion the concept of Community Driven Outcomes Purchasing (CDOP) to unlock new capital that would support Indigenous entrepreneurs to create ventures in renewables at a pace that worked for them. The CDOP model was designed to work across multiple stakeholders and reduce cost, risk and eliminate paternal relationships associated with current financing models (e.g. government grant, social impact bonds). It was also designed to put Indigenous communities in the driver’s seat for self-determination.

To actualize this idea, Jeff co-founded the Raven Group in 2017. In this group, Jeff co-founded Canada’s first Indigenous venture capital intermediary - Raven Indigenous Capital Partners (RICP). RICP was designed to target innovative, scalable social enterprises capable of delivering financial, social and environmental returns. Through Raven, Jeff coined the term “Community Driven Outcomes Contract”, which handles the space between (1) the communities who identify the issue they want to solve and what outcomes are central to them, (2) the Indigenous-owned and led social enterprises that create social outcomes, (3) the impact investors who offer seed money to these entrepreneurs, and (4) social outcomes purchasers who buy the end result (federal government departments and foundations). This new financial contract transforms the government from a funder to a purchaser. The value of the impact outcome is the cost savings for the government. This is measured against the less impactful and less effective programs they currently fund. Government repays impact investors (repayment plus interest) based on success.

The CDOP model radically shifts power dynamics and elevates the Indigenous community needs over priorities of outcomes buyers, financial entities or investors. These priorities are determined through a 6- to 10-month solutions lab process facilitated by the Raven Group’s charitable arm, Raven Indigenous Impact Foundation. Communities are supported to prioritize their needs and desired outcomes as well as to map the assets from which they wish to build. Investors and purchasers come in secondarily to recognize their value via RICP. This new closed-loop financial system reinvests profits into Indigenous social enterprise at the investors’ requests, building Indigenous community resilience. It also builds capacity within Indigenous financial intermediaries (such as RICP) to lead the brokering of agreements and new financial models based on Indigenous values.

As of 2019, Jeff deployed the CDOP model with renewable energy related projects in 4 out of 63 First Nations communities in Manitoba. This included the installation of geo-exchange units within 125 residential homes. The social and economic outcomes achieved include reduced utility bills, social assistance costs, and an increase in Indigenous social enterprise, job creation, skill development, energy savings, greenhouse gas (GhG) reductions and direct investment in communities. The First Nations who have employed geo-exchange units passed Band Council resolutions to have all houses heated with geo-exchange. This creates the potential to scale to 1000 geo-exchange units in the next round, with a potential market of 10,000 homes in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The CDOP model is planned to be replicated in British Columbia in the 4th quarter of 2019. As always, the solutions lab process is being used to identify community assets and entrepreneurs to invest in to tackle the priorities of the community. In this case, the core challenge identified is to replace diesel with renewable energy. Notably, the British Columbia (BC) provincial government is actively participating in, and financially supporting, the solutions lab process for the CDOP initiative. This is unique as Indigenous reserves remain under federal jurisdiction and technically outside of provincial mandates. In early 2019, Jeff and his partners also commenced an Indigenous solutions lab focused on diabetes reduction through a CDOP model in two First Nations in Prince Edward Island and four First Nations in Manitoba. This 10-month lab process aims to develop new CDOP contracts for diabetes reduction interventions. Diabetes is a crisis issue in Indigenous communities, and by comparison to clean energy, the upstream cost savings for diabetes reduction are exponential. Altogether, a total of 400 Indigenous communities across Canada could benefit from the deployment of the CDOP model.

While Jeff deploys the CDOP model and preparatory solutions lab processes in various contexts across the country, the Raven Group closed their first pilot impact fund and Canada’s only Indigenous equity fund in 2019. The initial closing of Raven’s fund involved seven investors that have committed $1.75-million: Community Foundations Canada, Inspirit Foundation, Lawson Foundation, Lochmaddy Foundation, Ottawa Community Foundation, Swift Foundation and Vancity. An additional $500,000 from these investors will be included in the fund later in 2019. As a result of early success and interest in the Fund, Raven aims to raise $7-million by the pilot fund’s final closing in October 2019 (up from $5M). The fund’s investments will range from $250,000 to $1.1-million, and the company is targeting returns to investors of 6 to 8 per cent, net of fees. This work is providing new social financial instruments that are applicable to large financial institutions/investors to invest in Indigenous communities, while being market efficient. Jeff has already received interest for one of Canada’s top 5 banks to develop a securitized bank note for the diabetes interventions.

In the short term, Raven Group plans to continue serving as the vessel for investments into Indigenous communities and to partner with Aki Energy social enterprises to lead implementation. As documented, the CDOP has now scaled to new geographies and sectors and governments have started to give themselves the capacity to undertake outcomes purchasing. Jeff sees 2019 as a key inflection point to build more vehicles for investment and demonstrate early success for scale.

In the long term, Jeff aims to continue to expand to new sectors and thematic areas, such as food security and health. What is exciting is the new way Jeff and his team have learned to syndicate the outcomes to each unique Federal department affected by the social and environmental outcomes. For instance, with the renewable energy interventions, Environment Canada might pay for the reduction in GhG emissions, Employment and Social Development Canada for employment training and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada for the poverty alleviation on reserves. Since the government can be slow to coordinate between departments, Raven helps by syndicating the costs via the “Rate Card” (highlights ROI per outcome achieved) to buy when it is a success. This learning unlocks new efficiencies.

Internationally, Jeff often travels to share his vision for a new economic architecture as well as the CDOP model with various Indigenous groups as well as leading educational and research institutions such as Oxford University.

The Person

Born and raised Métis, Jeff has always been inspired by the resilience and creativity of his community. As a young person, he lived in Germany and India which opened his mind to the range of possibilities to address social challenges. Jeff has always considered himself to be one who challenged social systems and pushed against the “muscle memory” of our social norms.

In his professional life, he trained as a negotiator in federal-provincial, Indigenous-federal and international issues. A transformative event for Jeff was in negotiating a multi-million-dollar ($220M/5 year) agreement with the Government of Canada and the National Association of (Indigenous) Friendship Centers. Over a year as Chief Negotiator, he watched the federal government and his Indigenous colleagues fall back into traditional funding mechanisms that were known to be broken. He also witnessed immense financial waste: the government was increasingly spending billions of dollars to solve Indigenous “issues” without any sustainable or demonstrable changes.

In response, Jeff created the Indigenous Innovation Summit – a pivotal moment in Canadian social innovation history. The summit combined mainstream social innovation with community-based Indigenous social innovation. In his view, this clash of creativity sparked widespread changes, enterprises, relationships, funds and initiatives. One in particular was the Indigenous Innovation Demonstration Fund and the Indigenous Innovation platform which he co-created and led at Grand Challenges Canada. This inspired a leap of faith to leave his CEO position to embark on this new entrepreneurial pathway to meet the need for more flexible and adaptable financing for Indigenous peoples via Raven.