Catalyzing Indigenous Innovation

To understand what it means to be an active and energizing catalyst of Indigenous Innovation, we invite you to follow the journey of water, our greatest teacher of reciprocity.

Water is sacred. What we do to the water, we do to ourselves. Water is not only a carrier of our innovations to travel to each other, it is also a point of connection that brings us together.

Water provides us with a model that demonstrates the possibility of what conscious investing can be. 


“Investing in people at the innovation stage means that you recognize an opportunity to support them and their ingenuity through a whole journey.”

- Sara Wolfe, Indigenous Innovation Initiative

In 2015, First Nation, Inuit and Metis leaders with community members set out a plan to support Indigenous Peoples to spark a new generation of Indigenous innovation in Canada. Supported by these Indigenous leaders, the McConnell Foundation and Grand Challenges Canada, the Indigenous Innovation Initiative was born.

The Indigenous Innovation Initiative  hosted by Grand Challenges Canada aims to

  • remedy resource gaps

  • assist in building capacity for Indigenous Innovators

  • launch Indigenous innovations 

  • and scale Indigenous innovations for the benefit of everyone.


“Innovation isn’t always about creating new things. Innovation sometimes involves looking back to our old ways and bringing them forward to this new situation.” 

-  Senator Murray Sinclair, 2015 Indigenous Innovation Summit

The Indigenous Innovation Initiative follows the path of reciprocity to return to innovation. Like the sacred journey of water, Indigenous nations were carried across ancestral waterways for thousands of years by their ingenuity and partnership with the land known as the snexwilh (Squamish Nation), kwitn (Mi’kmaq), cîmân (Cree), and jiimaan (Metis), or ‘canoe’.  Their canoes were carved from trees that were up to 1,000 years old. 

The Haida tluu reached 55 feet, weighed tonnes, and was believed to have travelled as far as Hawaii. Where trees were smaller and portages longer, lightweight boats were often fashioned from durable birch bark, while others were crafted from moose hides stretched over wooden frames. The yaqsuʔmiǂ  by the Ktunaxa, had a reversed prow with the bow and stern pointing downwards to make for easier paddling through bulrush-filled wetlands. Indigenous peoples have always been innovative, and when they journeyed to gather, trade, and participate in ceremonies, it was their innovation that allowed for cultural transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next.


“Without cultural remembering, there is no cultural knowledge, nothing to pass on to next generations, nothing to teach young people and nothing to use as social resources in times of crisis. Without shared cultural knowledge, there are no societies, just groups of culturally orphaned individuals unable to create their shared future.”

(Wesley-Esquimaux & Smolewski, 2004, p. 41, para. 2)*

Indigenous Innovation Team Members answering the question "What does Indigenous Innovation mean to me?

Innovation is an Indigenous value

Indigenous innovation is a cultural remembering based on traditional knowledge and practices applied to a new situation or context.

At the request of Indigenous leaders, the Indigenous Innovation Initiative is hosted at Grand Challenges Canada ('GCC'), in order to ensure GCC can meet the needs of Indigenous peoples. GCC is a Canadian non-profit organization, primarily funded by the Government of Canada, which invests in novel, local innovations that address critical global health, humanitarian, and Indigenous community challenges in Canada and low-resource countries. In 10 years, more than a billion dollars has been leveraged to support over 1,300 innovations in more than 100 countries, resulting in 38,000 lives saved and 7.54 million lives improved to date, with the potential to save 1.78 million lives and improve 64 million lives by 2030 through the use of innovative products and services. Each bold idea integrates science and technology with social and business innovation, and is led by an innovator or change-maker who has been personally impacted by the challenges they are working to solve. 

 The Indigenous Innovation Initiative received $10 million in matching seed funding from the Government of Canada’s Department of Women and Gender Equality. As we activate an innovative giving-as-investing campaign, our actions and intentions model the Indigenous teaching of reciprocity. The Indigenous Innovation Initiative, with the support of Grand Challenges Canada and in collaboration with PowHERhouse Media Group, we are activating an innovative amplification and fundraising campaign to fully leverage these two-to-one matching funds and change people's lives. 


“At Indigenous Innovation Initiative, we believe that Indigenous innovation has the potential to catalyze and transform Indigenous economic and social realities, and supporting First Nation, Inuit and Metis Peoples and communities who are closest to the most complex challenges in society today to develop and test Bold Ideas for Big Impact® will be a game changer. Together, we have the opportunity to fully activate a more inclusive economic ecosystem for First Nation, Inuit and Metis innovators and entrepreneurs – for today and our future.” 

- Indigenous Innovation Initiative

The Indigenous Innovation Initiative launched the inaugural Indigenous innovation seed funding program in Spring 2020 and unearthed a treasure trove of potential. Indigenous innovators applied for seed funding of $100,000 to $250,000 to support development and testing of their bold ideas. Close to 250 applications were received from First Nations, Inuit, and Metis groups in every province, territory, and region across Canada, across health, social, and economic landscapes including innovations to improve and advance cultural knowledge, food security, environmental sustainability, leadership, capacity building, land-based programs, circular economies, all grounded in Indigenous ways of knowing and being.

Only a small percentage of round one applicants will receive funding from the Indigenous Innovation Initiative's initial seed funding. This first group of 10 will be announced publicly in April and is ready to start their innovative projects in a ground-breaking, transformative, and long sought-after initiative to support Indigenous Innovation.

The second group of 10 innovative projects has also been approved and is awaiting funding.

Overview of Round 1 Request for Proposals (August 2020) for Advancing Indigenous Gender Equality through Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship here.

The collaborative team of PowHERhouse and I3 team is motivated more than ever to ensure awareness around this initiative grows exponentially. It is our goal to ensure round one innovators are celebrated and amplified. We will also pursue further interest in and an appetite for fundraising participation by individuals, foundations, and corporate groups through outreach, engagement, and onboarding to create a clear, deliberate, and sustainable pathway for round two innovators and beyond.

Photo by Dianne Whelan 500 Days in the Wild

Photo by Dianne Whelan, 500 Days in the Wild

Reconciliation as an initiative of reclamation

Supporting Indigenous innovation development is about more than just increasing access to capital – it is about wrapping knowledge, networks and support systems around innovators and entrepreneurs so they have the best chance possible to reach their full potential. 

Solutions that result from our commitment to Indigenous innovation not only benefit families and communities across our country but also act as an integral economic and social engine for our society as we learn together from practical and tangible applied learnings to shift the worldview to one committed to the health and wellbeing of all people, to planetary recovery, and the restoration of balance with the land and all things on it.

The Indigenous Innovation Initiative weaves together the following four supports:

  1. Access to Capital – address the resource gap and investment needs of First Nation, Inuit and Metis innovators and entrepreneurs 

  2. Building Capacity – support innovators, entrepreneurs and communities with the knowledge, skills and tools they need to succeed 

  3. Cultivating Networks – connect innovators and entrepreneurs to a meaningful and supportive ecosystem that increases their social capital 

  4. Driving Interest – share innovator and program stories of impact and success to inspire the next generation of Indigenous innovation and entrepreneurship 

Supporting outcomes that matter most to First Nation, Inuit and Metis peoples in Canada, align with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. Investing in Indigenous Innovation is like singing a water song for all of us. We have the opportunity to collectively co-create our shared future through the vehicle of Indigenous innovation.


“Water has to live, it can hear, it can sense what we’re saying, it can really, really speak to us. Some songs come to us through the water. We have to understand that water is very precious.”

– Josephine Mandamin, Water Walker, 1942-2019