"Our identity is not a constraint, it's a strength. You can succeed, even if you're Indigenous, or even if you're a woman," proclaims Mélanie Paul, an Innu entrepreneur from Mashteuiatsh.
Although the situation is improving, there's still a lot of prejudice toward First Nations, Paul sadly observes.
"Prejudice always starts from ignorance. We judge when we don't understand, when we don't know," she laments, having been a victim of racism herself when she was younger--both in her own community, where her atypical Indigenous traits had people identifying her as white, and outside of it, where she was made to feel that quote"Indians"unquote weren't welcome.
Mutual support and solidarity values
Her personal and professional life has always been driven by a desire to improve living conditions in Indigenous communities. Values like mutual support and solidarity led her to earn a bachelor's degree in social services at Université Laval.
"I've experienced various social issues up close, like poverty, substance abuse, violence and suicide. These problems are often interrelated," says Paul, who worked as a social worker in her community for 2 years before her father invited her to join the family business, Groupe ADL, 20 years ago. She then spent nearly a decade as Vice-President of the company's new incarnation Granules LG. Paul says she spent a long time reflecting on the link between social work and entrepreneurship.
"By creating jobs, we help people escape poverty and suffering. They're given a degree of pride and the opportunity to realize their dreams," she says, noting that she had the good fortune to be born into a family that was financially comfortable.
In 2016, Paul also launched her own company, Inukshuk Synergie, which provides green energy to replace the diesel used to produce electricity and heat in northern communities and businesses that are not on the power grid.
The name of the company is a fitting reminder of the importance of solidarity. "In an inukshuk, each stone is a separate entity but is able to stand up because of the support of the others. Like cooperative values, it symbolizes the mutual support, solidarity and strength that come from teamwork," she explains.
A year ago, she teamed up with a Quebec company called Silicycle to launch another business, Akua Nature, which specializes in extracting and processing boreal biomass, berries and medicinal plants in particular, for cosmetics and natural health products. In Innu, the word "akua" means to take attentive care.
Paul is also working on creating a networking and mentoring circle, Mocassins et Talons Hauts, which will bring First Nations businesswomen together to create partnerships that will help them launch businesses.
A woman of action, in the last few years Paul has been involved as Vice-President of the Ilnu economic development corporation in Mashteuiatsh (Société de développement économique Ilnu) and as co-chair of the Roberval chamber of commerce and industry. She's currently an ambassador in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region for La Ruche, a crowdfunding platform that receives financial support from Desjardins.
What does September 30 mean to you?
"To build a strong and united Quebec and Canada, reconciliation is needed. And not just on this one day. Every day, we must take action to remember and connect with one other."
Is there someone who inspires you?
"My father! He was a great leader and a trailblazer in the community. He worked very hard to break down barriers and make sure the community would not be isolated and in poverty," she says, full of emotion and respect for a man and an entrepreneur who helped create the Société de développement économique Ilnu de Mashteuiatsh and was one of the first Indigenous people to run a Desjardins caisse.
Is there a particular achievement, something you've done, that you're proud of?
"Creating and implementing projects that bring First Nations and non-Indigenous people together. Whether at Akua Nature, Inukshuk Synergie or the Mocassins et Talons Hauts circle, each business model will help build bridges between different peoples and co-create a better tomorrow for future generations."