The wireless warrior's digital dream
Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by Patti Gower and Tibor Kolley.
The Globe and Mail, December 10, 2001
Part 5 of 7: 'They're creative, they're artistic, they're visual'
Raised and educated in Ottawa, Foote knew almost nothing of native culture. As a youth, with a beard and long hair, he was a member of the Steve Jobs generation, the self-starters who had been comforted by postwar affluence and the tail end of a welfare state, and intrigued by the emerging field of computers.
While in his 20s, he had started his Systems Interface and then teamed with Dowdall, an engineering and MBA graduate from Queen's University. In the late 1980s, while working on a project at Indian Affairs, they realized how much high-tech business would be emerging in native communities that hoped to leap into the 21st century. After hiring Bernard, their aboriginal division accumulated $400,000 in business in one year, and enough confidence to launch Donna Cona as a subsidiary to go after more.
“If you look to a lot of aboriginals, they won't look you in the eye. They have a problem with confrontation. Yet they're creative, they're artistic, they're visual. Those things I just said, they're all suited to the Internet. I think it's a fantastic opportunity.”
But none of the partners imagined just how different the culture of aboriginal business had become. Despite his years in government, Bernard did not realize how many native firms were only fronts for mainstream companies, or how they often got contracts simply by sending a letter to the right official. Once their names were in the database, they expected more contracts, and would complain when they didn't get them. "These guys have gotten to the point where they expect business to come to them," he says. "Many believe it's payback time."
Donna Cona, of course, received favours - wage subsidies, training funds and tax breaks - thanks to its aboriginal status, and Bernard, as a status Indian, pays no tax on income he earns for work he does on reserves, even though he has not lived on one for 20 years.
As they tried to expand their aboriginal work force, the three partners soon discovered other cultural hurdles. Some of their new workers were habitually late, or easily distracted at work. Most seemed reluctant to speak their minds, which became a challenge in a computer environment where problems need to be voiced loud and fast.
Dowdall, the finance guy, slowly began to see some of the reticence as part of a greater native fear of assimilation by the white world. Foote, the computer geek, felt that some of the awkwardness was common to techies, native and or not. But Bernard, the salesman, came to see the challenge as an opportunity. Perhaps what made natives a hopeless cause to many companies also made them ideally suited for the new economy.
"If you look to a lot of aboriginals, they won't look you in the eye," he says. "They have a problem with confrontation. Yet they're creative, they're artistic, they're visual. Those things I just said, they're all suited to the Internet. I think it's a fantastic opportunity."
It was also a good opportunity for Donna Cona, which got into the training business, supplying young people both with computer skills and with such employment basics as interview techniques and personal communications.
But by the late 1990s, with the North American tech frenzy in full swing, parent company Systems Interface felt that, to keep pace with the competition, it should be doing triple its annual $6.5-million in business. The partners would have to buy a competitor, merge or sell out. They agreed to sell.
They had no trouble finding a buyer, but Sierra, a $130-million-a-year company, did not understand why it needed a separate aboriginal division to go after native work. Foote suddenly found himself defending Canada's aboriginal affirmative-action programs to the board of directors.
"The president said to me, `We have aboriginals working at Sierra, we have Chinese working at Sierra, we have people from Eastern Europe working at Sierra. Why would we have a separate company when we have our own affirmative environment? Tell me why that makes sense.' "
The company, of course, also realized that it could not buy a controlling interest in Donna Cona without losing the preferential government treatment. In the end, Foote thinks that the board agreed to take all of Systems Interface but only 49 per cent of Donna Cona as an act of charity, in effect "giving something back to the natives" by leaving the rest with Bernard.