Clint Davis is on the phone from his cottage on Lake Simcoe, Ontario, where his wife and three young children like to spend their weekends.
The 45-year-old lawyer and banker is explaining how a young Inuit man from Goose Bay, Labrador, ended up at Harvard University and, more recently, as vice-president of TD Bank’s aboriginal business group, which helps finance new aboriginal business ventures.
His mind goes back to another lake and another cottage – the one where he spent his summers as a boy with his grandparents catching and cleaning fish at the family fishing camp.
“I live in southern Ontario and we talk about going to the cottage,” he said, “and it’s a home with stainless steel appliances and everyone has electric lights. The cabin that I went to, there were no roads, no electricity. It was a wood stove and you had to pump water.”
Born and raised in Goose Bay, Davis is Inuit from the Nunatsiavut land claim region.
In 2005, the Nunatsiavut Inuit became a self-governing nation under the Labrador Inuit Lands Claims Agreement.
Davis is, in some respects, one of the products of that agreement, because his community, which received $250 million under the treaty, helped pay for part of his education.
“I was raised by my grandparents,” Davis said. “My mother was quite young when she had me. My grandmother raised me.”
His grandfather made a living from the land – hunting, fishing and trapping – then later got a job as a cook for the military.
Every summer, he and his grandparents would spend two days travelling to their remote family fishing camp to harvest fish.
He credits his grandparents for pushing him to get an education.
“My grandmother had Grade 11, my grandfather had Grade 6,” Davis said. “But they believed education was extremely important, and so did my mother. I have a wonderful relationship with my mom, and she has been instrumental in my life as well.”
Davis did well in high school and was accepted at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, where he earned a degree in business administration.
On the urging of a business law professor, he went on to pursue a law degree from Dalhousie University.
“My community paid for my first two degrees,” Davis said.
One way he has repaid his community is by chairing the Nunatsiavut Group of Companies, which brings him back to Goose Bay at least a couple of times a year.
After graduating with a law degree, Davis went to work for the federal treaty negotiations office in Vancouver from 1997 to 1999 and became a senior adviser to federal cabinet ministers.
At the urging of a friend who went to Harvard, Davis applied for and won Canada-U.S. Fulbright and National Aboriginal Achievement Award scholarships to help pay for a master’s degree in public administration.
“They have a very robust native program, in particular the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development,” Davis said.
After Harvard, Davis spent four years with BMO as national director of aboriginal banking and then spent five years as president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB).
It was while at the CCAB that he set about trying to address what he felt was a serious lack of information about the economic contribution that First Nations make to Canada’s economy.
Canadian banks have long recognized the economic development opportunities that exist within Canada’s aboriginal communities, especially those that have won land entitlements and self-governing powers, either through the courts or through treaties.
But those opportunities have been hard to quantify, Davis said.
“It was driving me crazy because aboriginal people are some of the most over-analyzed and over-studied groups, but it’s usually because of some of the social ills that they are experiencing,” he said. “I wanted to tell the story that, in fact, there’s growth happening on the economic side.”
Working with TD Economics, the council undertook a survey of more than 1,000 aboriginal small businesses and First Nations economic development entities. The study found the number of self-employed aboriginal people in Canada to be 37,000 in 2006, an increase of 38% since 2001.
The study sized the aboriginal business market, now estimated to be worth $30 billion in 2016.
“It doesn’t include the big land claims,” Davis added. “This is just the steady churn – year in, year out – from operating companies [and] gainfully employed aboriginal people like myself. We actually have spending power.
“The economic study that TD Economics did proved that aboriginal people are not a drain on the Canadian taxpayer but, in fact, we are net contributors to the economy.
“Abject poverty certainly exists in our communities, but we’re also net contributors to the economy.”
Brian Titus, who has known Davis for more than a decade, said the 2011 study was important because it signalled to the non-aboriginal business community just how important First Nations have become as business partners.
“Nobody knew that First Nations at that time were contributing roughly around 10% of the GDP,” said Titus, CEO of the Seabird Island Band’s Sqéwqel Development Corp.
He said Davis has been a significant player in aboriginal business development in Canada.
“He is pretty much in the forefront of aboriginal development across the country,” Titus said.
Davis’ work with TD Economics eventually led to a job with TD Bank as vice-president of aboriginal banking, a role he has held since 2012.
Some of the deals the bank has been involved in include a $200 million financing for the Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, which bought out its operating partner in the River Cree Resort and Casino complex.
“They were able to raise that capital in the open market,” Davis said.
Davis sees huge potential for aboriginal businesses in B.C., including partnership agreements with resource companies and real estate development in urban areas.
“Real estate development is a huge opportunity, particularly in the Lower Mainland,” he said.
Across Canada, the number of new aboriginal economic development offices and commissions is growing at a rate of about 20 per year, Davis said.
That’s encouraging, he said, because the positive changes within First Nations communities can be dramatic when they decide to address some of their problems themselves through economic development, rather than through government channels.
“If they’re experiencing high levels of unemployment, etc., it doesn’t make any sense to simply wait for government to come in and try and solve it. They actually have the ability to make the difference, and it’s remarkable to see when communities do that.”
When he’s not working, Davis enjoys running and spending time at the family cottage on Lake Simcoe, which is not far from his home in Toronto.
“I’m probably going to run the half-marathon in October,” Davis said. “We have three young kids and they suck up all your time. All the activities that we like to do in terms of skiing and bike riding, that’s the real focus of my time.”