In 2013, seven years after founding BUILD, I co-founded Aki Energy. This non-profit social enterprise employs First Nations communities in green energy and health food initiatives, and reaches more communities every year. The job now is to engage the new Canadian government so that we can remove the barriers preventing the re-emergence of the local economy.
After over a decade in the social purpose field, I have just written a book called An Army of Problem Solvers: Reconciliation and the Solutions Economy. A cross-Canada book tour starts this September. The book talks about problem solvers and what they can do to improve Canadian society. Why are there no gardens in Garden Hill First Nation? What does reconciliation really mean for Canada? In all of this there is a new role for government: it must shift from focusing on problems to focusing on problem solvers.
With a personal mandate to build the conditions for prosperity, Shaun is transforming the framework for building successful social enterprises by leveraging success in the creation of community run and locally owned green social businesses. He is combating economic and employment barriers by establishing a market which addresses the employment needs of Canada’s First Nations communities, while simultaneously lowering the green house gas emissions produced due to poor energy infrastructure and insufficient financial support. His vision is all encompassing, first, targeting and mitigating significant employment barriers such as criminal backgrounds, lack of formal education and substance abuse issues, then equipping segments of the aboriginal community that are most vulnerable to unemployment with training in an extensive range of advanced, modern green energy methods such as, solar power, home retrofitting, and geo-thermal infrastructure development.
Shaun sees these modern energy technologies as the best fit solutions for putting First Nations led local economies at the forefront of a growing national and international green energy sector. As such, Shaun is reversing the effects of decades of a growing poverty and unemployment crisis of Canada’s First Nations peoples. His work weaves together the issues of greenhouse gas emissions, job creation, prosperity and indigenous well-being, by challenging public, private and citizen sectors alike to acknowledge the inherent and undeniable new reality of greener localized economies. His framework is simple yet successful in building livelihoods and sets the stage for scale and replication across Canada and throughout North America.
Using the methodology of building a “prosperity ladder” in collaboration with Indigenous communities across Manitoba, Shaun has a established a growing network of indigenous-owned and operated social businesses mandated with creating jobs for hundreds of individuals and improving the energy burdens of the community in which it serves.
One specific barrier is the issue of unemployment. The CCPA identifies that Aboriginal peoples participate in Canada’s labour market at a significantly lower rate than their non-aboriginal counterparts. In 2006, A Canadian government census found the average unemployment rate of Aboriginal peoples to be more than double the national average, sitting at 14.8%. This translates to more than 5 million unemployed people from the Aboriginal communities in Canada. The CCPA, stresses a need for job training opportunities and an investment in community based organizations which facilitate access to employment opportunities Aboriginal peoples across Canada.
Energy poverty is another barrier to prosperity. The International Energy Agency (IEA) describes energy poverty as the lack of access to modern energy services. A CCPA report out of British Columbia further defined energy poverty as the result of households being required to spend disproportionate amounts of household income on energy needs such as heating. The CCPA report also indicated that aging housing infrastructure has a higher financial impact on low income households than higher income households. These findings were backed by a Green Communities Canada report that stated the average “energy burden” resulted in 7.3% of take home income being spent on utilities for low income families compared to just 2% for high income households.
Shaun first realized a need to eliminate employment barriers specific to Aboriginal peoples in 2005, while acting as Director Energy Policy for the Government of Manitoba. After developing economic incentives for consumers to reduce their energy usage, Shaun was disturbed by the minimal uptake of this program in low income communities – Many of which were predominately Aboriginal and the very homes that were struggling most with their utility bills. Shaun actively consulted with community activists and local non-profit organizations to understand why this program was failing. Shaun soon learned that one of the biggest barriers in First Nations communities was the lack of access to employment opportunities. This realization compelled Shaun to work with the community to establish a social enterprise to address the issue of low uptake of energy efficiency incentives while also addressing unemployment in the community. In 2006, Shaun co-founded Building Urban Industries for Local Development (BUILD) in partnership with Aboriginal community leaders and local community activists. Mandated with the goal of mitigating employment barriers for Aboriginal peoples most vulnerable to unemployment, BUILD provides 6 months free job training in trade professions that are relevant to the green economic market, ultimately impacting thousands of low income households across Winnipeg. BUILD then hires and deploys program alumni into the community, to provide energy infrastructure development services for low income households. BUILD employees, who are majority aboriginal males with criminal backgrounds, benefit from direct and relevant job training programs as well as life skills and employment barrier mitigation support. For example, BUILD provides drivers’ training and licensing acquisition programs for many of its participants in order to better match First Nations workforce skill sets with direct job requirements and criteria. Some of Shaun’s other programs include bank account acquisition and financial management services as well as parenting classes and leadership/apprentice workshops.
Since its creation, BUILD has grown to generate more than $5 million in annual revenue and has employed more than 125 individuals annually with an average trainee cohort of about 80 participants per year. So popular is the BUILD program that each year that BUILD receives far more applications then there is the space to fill, placing several applicants on a 4 year waiting list. Shaun prioritizes participants who would often be turned away from other vocational programs. Many more graduates who are not hired by BUILD go on to secure external employment opportunities or return to more formalized education.
Distilling the successful themes from BUILD, and to address the huge demand, , Shaun replicated his model in 2009, co-founding Manitoba Green Retrofit (MGR), again in partnership with the community. Realizing that BUILD was limited in its ability to compete for local private sector contract opportunities because of its connection to government training funding, Shaun established MGR to act as a private sector competitor with the added incentive to customers that MGR returned its profits back into the community it served either through additional employment opportunities for BUILD graduates, or through the creation of other niche market green businesses for community development.
Shaun was able to continue to utilize government revenue with MGR, using contracted fee for service relationships rather than government funding. As of 2014, Shaun, through MGR employed an additional 40 alumni of the BUILD program and generates an additional $1 million in annual revenue that is invested back into the community and the MGR workers. In 2011, Shaun co-founded The Social Enterprise Centre (SEC), a 30,000 square foot commercial property owned by BUILD and MGR, which housed many social enterprises in the Winnipeg area. In 2013, Shaun further evolved his model of social enterprise creation, co-founding AKI Energy, in collaboration with a group of First Nation’s community elders. Maintaining all of the themes that had been successful before, Shaun leveraged one new distinct component that he believed was necessary for the rapid development of employment opportunities for First Nations peoples. AKI Energy provides training to First Nations communities in geothermal construction and then equips the participants to build their own social enterprises, thus placing them on a path to entrepreneurship, rather than simple employment. Aki Energy already supports 5 First Nations communities to establish their own geothermal companies two of which are the largest geothermal companies in the Canadian prairies. As of 2014, AKI had generated combined revenue of more than $1.6 million with additional contracts totalling $18 million over three years, creating more than 100 jobs for First Nations peoples.
Shaun also mandates that all of his social enterprises contribute to the economic development of the community for which it serves. He achieves this by working to pinpoint the fundamental service needs that already consume community resources, and then develops the a cheaper, greener service alternative, thus supporting a local green economy. With BUILD, Shaun saw that many low income households in the Winnipeg area suffered from high energy bills due to outdated and deteriorating infrastructure. To address this innovative financing mechanisms are used to provide cost effective (and in some cases free) heating and plumbing system retrofits for low income households, drastically reducing their on average annual utility bills by hundreds of dollars a year. Shaun built MGR to also provide low income households with energy efficient upgrades. However, Shaun added bedbug remediation services after it was identified that pest control costs could be converted into valuable employment. Shaun co-founded the Social Enterprise Centre to convert rent being paid by community based non-profits into community wealth generation. This acquisition meant that as owners, the organizations would be able to ensure that rent was a resource that cycled through the community rather than a drain of financial resources flowing out of the community. AKI Energy also reduces the household income spent on energy bills, by building new infrastructure for renewable energy sources, such as geothermal energy. Where Shaun’s other organizations catered to communities in urban centers, AKI works directly on First Nations reservations. In just a single year, AKI Energy supported more than 110 low income homes to reduce their energy bills by a combined total amount of $160,000 per year.
Shaun is also actively influencing private and public sector policies to further support the growth and relevance of his network of green social businesses. For example, MGR’s presence in the private sector has disrupted the traditional practices of his competitors now scrambling to provide comparable benefits after losing contracts to social enterprises. Shaun also actively influences public policy, using his government experience to help draft new Manitoba polices. In 2009, Shaun wrote a white paper for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives entitled: “The Case for a National Strategy on Low Income Energy and Water Efficiency” which outlined how high, up-front costs for energy efficient technologies was creating an energy burden for thousands of low income households in Manitoba. When Shaun’s book, BUILD Prosperity: Energizing Manitoba’s Local Economy, garnered the attention of the Manitoba government, it influenced the government to adopt the Energy Savings Act (passed by the Manitoba Government in 2012). The Act requires provincial energy suppliers to work with social enterprises and to finance the up-front costs of energy and water retrofits, for low income households. The first of its kind in North America, Shaun is confident that this kind of policy trend will support the sustainable growth of environmentally friendly social businesses.
In 2014, Shaun is transitioning his leadership position with BUILD in order to focus more time on expanding the work of AKI Energy, further supporting the development of First Nations owned and operated social businesses across Manitoba and other provinces in Canada. He is also exploring ways to share his strategy with other communities in Canada, already succeeding in mentoring social enterprises in St. John’s Newfoundland and Brandon Manitoba in addition to 5 on Manitoba’s First Nations. Beginning in the spring of 2014, Shaun continues to actively develop applications of his work to other prosperity issues identifying food sovereignty as the next rung on his prosperity ladder.
While in University, Shaun worked for the United Church in an inner city children’s program. Here Shaun observed a women’s group that was selling second hand clothing in the community. The clothing operation transformed into a training initiative that would find jobs for its graduates in the retail sector. This was Shaun’s first exposure to on-the-ground community economic development. Shaun has also organized low-paid workers in the retail industry and taught university economics on First Nations in Northern Manitoba.
Shaun began working with the provincial opposition in 1997. After an election, Shaun’s party gained power and he became a political and policy advisor to senior cabinet Ministers. In 2002 he entered the Civil Service as a senior director. Marrying his interests of economics, indigenous issues and environment, Shaun began to focus on affecting energy policy within the government being tasked with ramping up energy efficiency through consumer incentives in Manitoba, Shaun began to explore and build partnerships with First Nations community activists and stakeholders. While still in this role, Shaun founded BUILD along with other community partners. When leadership within his government job threatened to shift Shaun’s responsibilities away from working with First Nations communities, Shaun offered his resignation as director of the Energy Development Initiative, and was later seconded as Executive Director of BUILD in 2008.