On Thursday Jessica Dumas, a member of the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation, has become the first Indigenous woman to chair the 123 year old Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.
Dumas, 41, runs a consulting business — Jessica Dumas Coaching and Training — that helps businesses create more diversity and inclusivity by holding Indigenous history and awareness workshops as well as doing customer service training on reserves.
She has been a member of the Winnipeg chamber for five years and before that she was a member of the Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce which she chaired from 2014-to-2016.
"Because of the work I do it gives me a really great opportunity to connect the two worlds." – Jessica Dumas on being the first First Nations person to chair the 123 year old Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.
She said she feels like she has found a home in the chamber movement.
"They are such an amazing group of people who make things happen," she said of the chamber. "They have been very open minded. I have told them more than once don’t be afraid to offend me with your questions."
Both Dumas and Loren Remillard, president and CEO of the chamber did not want to overstate the significance or timing of Dumas becoming chair of the Winnipeg chamber as the city at large wrestles with a fraught relationship with its Indigenous community, but they both acknowledged that it can help with reconciliation.
"Because of the work I do it gives me a really great opportunity to connect the two worlds," she said.
Remillard said Dumas and Raj Patel, an Indo Canadian who is the incoming chair, are in their roles solely because who they are and the positive contributions they can make.
But he added, "As a chamber we have been very intentional in terms of our nomination process to tap into the various communities within our larger community. The goal is to be a dynamic reflection of our community. Regardless of your background, we want people to look at our board and our organization and see themselves reflected."
He said because of its efforts to be reflective of the diversity of the community the chamber has been able to attract great leaders from all across the cultural spectrum of the city.
"I hope there are many young Indigenous people who will see themselves reflected in Jessica," Remillard said. "They will see not only the opportunity to potentially lead an organization like the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, but that they can be business leaders, they can start their own company."
Dumas said she believes there is a role for everyone to play in the reconciliation process.
"I hope there are many young Indigenous people who will see themselves reflected in Jessica." – Loren Remillard, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.
"It is about relationships," she said. "The more relationships we can build on every level will increase that understanding and then will have an overall impact on bigger decisions and actions that have to happen."
Dumas came to her own understanding of her Indigenous background as an adult.
"I did not grow up knowing anything about my heritage." she said. "I did not grow up even knowing that I was allowed to call myself Indigenous."
Dumas said she plans to take it one day, one event at a time. She said it has has been good for her that there have been a number of events in rapid succession that has let her get an early taste of what her role can be.
The chamber's sponsorship of last week's Michelle Obama event was followed closely by Thursday's annual meeting and then later this month Carol Anne Hilton, the founder and CEO of Indigenomics Institute is speaking at a chamber event. Dumas said all those events will help her get her bearings quickly.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.