Despite the federal government pumping billions of dollars into housing, education and health care on reserves throughout Canada, the standard of living of too many First Nations remains horrific, with rampant unemployment and substance abuse.
The Assembly of First Nations reports that a young person on a reserve is more likely to end up in jail than to graduate from high school. Suicide rates are five times higher than for young non-aboriginal Canadians. The aboriginal population is the fastest-growing in Canada, with almost 40 percent under the age of 20.
Canadians are frustrated by the unrelenting challenges that seem to make it impossible for aboriginal people to break the cycle of poverty, find decent jobs and foster some sense of sustainable economic development. For my entire life it has seemed like a never-ending problem with no way out. It doesn't make sense and it's impossible to believe it has to be that way.
So instead of doing more of the same, let's try making available to First Nations a Canadian resource that generates much of the prosperity that others enjoy. Let's try entrepreneurship.
Let's call on business owners and leaders across Canada to share their expertise with aboriginal Canadians, and provide them with the know-how to start and sustain their own businesses.
As we see in the rest of Canada, entrepreneurs are a source of innovation, growth and prosperity. They bring fresh thinking to the marketplace, and they fuel the creative destruction that makes market economies resilient.
Studies show that up to 80 percent of new jobs come from companies that are five years old or less. Best of all, it's never been easier or cheaper to start a business than it is today, thanks to resources, knowledge and networks available online.
But, as most entrepreneurs know, sage advice from a supportive mentor can make all the difference when navigating the stormy waters of a business's early years. Scores of organizations across the country, such as local chambers of commerce, make current or recently retired executives available to new business owners. These mentors provide invaluable moral support along with frank feedback and problem-solving advice.
Such support would be tremendously beneficial for aboriginal entrepreneurs. I'm not suggesting that Canadian business owners start flying into reserves in throughout Canada. Thanks to the Internet, they don't have to leave their offices or living rooms. In 2013, you can coach an entrepreneur entirely online via email, social media and Skype.
Building a national network of willing-and-able business mentors is what MentorNation -- the brainchild of Toronto-based not-for-profit Classroom Connections -- is all about. It believes that experienced entrepreneurs, business people and professionals would welcome the opportunity to do something practical about aboriginal poverty.
MentorNation's role is to be the intermediary. It will create an online platform that matches business mentors with aspiring aboriginal entrepreneurs.
MentorNation hasn't built the online platform yet. That will happen next year. The first step is a pilot project to test the materials and processes to be used in the online platform. This includes training workshops to teach non-Aboriginal entrepreneurs how to work with their Aboriginal counterparts.
Just as the organization is using the Internet to provide the mentoring, it is also using online tools to raise its operational funding. It wants to raise $200,000 in the next 33 days from ordinary Canadians. To do this, MentorNation is trying to gather the funds from the startup platform Giveffect.org. This is a new organization in Canada that wants to use crowdfunding to help Canadian charities.
Crowdfunding is fast becoming one of the most fascinating and important tools of economic change today, helping business start-ups and social enterprises. An individual or organization announces a target amount of money and what it would do with that money, and the public is asked to contribute online.
Individuals and new companies have used crowdfunding to raise billions of dollars in debt and equity during the past five years for all sorts of projects. In 2012, crowdfunding raised almost U.S. $2.7 billion around the world, an 80-per-cent increase over the year before.
You may recall the crowdfunding site IndieGoGo. It gained fame in Toronto when Gawker used the site to collect $200,000 to buy the cellphone video that allegedly shows Mayor Rob Ford smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine.
Instead of donating money to watch the mayor on drugs, you can now donate money to help Aboriginal Canadians stay off drugs.
What I love about crowdfunding is that it is so much more than it seems at first blush. To view it simply as tapping friends and strangers for money misses most of the point. Instead, true crowdfunding should be an opportunity -- an invitation to allow someone to be part of an exciting journey to collectively achieve something radical, new and different. Its astonishing power lies in its exhilarating promise of change; its ability to empower ordinary people to accomplish a shared mission. It's motivational, it's fresh -- and, most importantly, it works!
So the MentorNation campaign is not about donating money to a problem. It's about creating opportunity among First Nations for a home-grown solution, empowering individuals and unleashing energy and optimism in people who have been waiting a long time.
Go to www.giveffect.org to learn more and donate.
A version of this article first appeared in The Toronto Star.
Don Tapscott's most recent book is Macrowikinomics. He is participating in the MentorNation crowdfunding campaign.