Frank Parnell, CEO of Tribal Resources Investment Corporation (TRICORP) and visionary co-designer of the Aboriginal Canadian Entrepreneurs Program, brings more than 35 years of management and development expertise to his advocacy of Indigenous economic self-reliance on the north coast of British Columbia. He has led TRICORP from its beginnings in 1989, and since that time TRICORP has directed over $29 million in funding to Indigenous entrepreneurs. In 2016, Frank Parnell was honoured with a Doctor of Laws degree by the University of Victoria for his advocacy and promotion of economic self-reliance and his long-standing community leadership.
Frank Parnell’s childhood and education
Frank hails from the Kunn-Laanaas Clan, and was born in the village of Old Masset at the northern end of Haida Gwaii. In the time of his youth Old Masset was an overwhelmingly Haida community, and Frank recalls only ever having met “two or three white people” before leaving the village. Though small, Old Masset was an economically stable village with one of the oldest Co-op stores in Canada (owned and run by the Haida), a vibrant boat building industry, small hotels, and several locally owned businesses. The boat building industry, focused on the production of seiners, provided work for the community over the winter months when the fishing fleet was idle. Frank’s father was a fisherman, and when the boat he worked on was sent south he found work on a local crab-fishing boat. Frank’s father followed his work over the Hecate Strait to Prince Rupert, and the family “emigrated” out of Old Masset in 1958, when Frank was 7 or 8 years old, to Prince Rupert.
Frank lived with his family in Prince Rupert for only a year before being sent to a residential school. At that time, local indigenous families were forced to check-in regularly with Indian Affairs representatives, and at one of these meetings officials decided that half of Frank’s family would be sent to residential school. Frank spent the next two years in Edmonton, and he says that this was his first exposure to the existence of “other native peoples”. The residential school system was an entirely different environment from Haida Gwaii. It rarely snows in Old Masset, and he was now exposed to the harsh prairie winters. As Frank describes it, Edmonton was “strange and new” and his living situation was very different as well. He would attend classes in the “public school system” during the day, and return to stay in the residential schools at night. The residential school would remain his temporary home until he returned to his family who by that time were living in the small fishing community of Port Edward, close to Prince Rupert. By this time, Frank’s father had purchased his own crab boat, and the family had vacated their small apartment in Prince Rupert for cannery row housing at the Port Edward Cannery Company. Frank lived with his family until graduation from Prince Rupert Senior Secondary, and then left to attend Camosun College in Victoria, B.C. After three years in Victoria, Frank returned to his home village of Old Masset to take a position with the village council.
At that time Frank was employed as a “social worker” for Old Massett. Officially, this position was known as a welfare aid and was responsible for helping individuals in the community to receive their contributions. By this time the economy in Masset had been, as Frank puts it, “depleted”. Most of the local working age individuals wanted employment, and not to simply receive handouts, so Frank decided he would establish a program that linked the assistance with local community improvement initiatives. Frank says that this was his first exposure to “government as a wall”. The government told him that people could not “work for social assistance”, and Frank moved back to Prince Rupert to join the employment training organization HRSDC.
Shortly thereafter Frank gained employment with Canada Manpower, a now defunct governmental department. He worked there for five years, taking all the available training and working up to middle management. Around this time Frank first became involved in community economic development. At the end of his tenure with Canada Manpower he had applied for a senior management position in Vancouver but, instead, decided to stay in the northwest and took a position with the North Coast Tribal Council.
At that time, the North Coast Tribal Council advised Indian Affairs on the delivery of programs to outlying villages. Shortly after Frank joined the NCTC they established a plan to take control over the programs from the Federal government. The plan was a five-year project to divest control to the Council, and involved 7 local villages: 2 Haida, 4 Tsimshian, and 1 Nisga’a. The plan involved the elimination of any direct delivery of programs from Indian Affairs. Instead, the council would take control of program delivery and the funding would flow through the council, allowing them to pool the funding. This action directly led to the creation of a local lending entity called Tillicum. One of the conditions that Service Canada placed upon Tillicum was that they would enable the funding of a local economic development corporation. Within 5 or 6 years, Tillicum had accumulated about $700,000 in capital. At this point Human Resources and Development Canada redesigned the program and tried to appropriate the money Tillicum had accumulated, but following legal proceedings HRDC lost and the money was retained. The success of Tillicum led directly to the creation of TRICORP, and indirectly to the future creation of the ACE program.
The establishment of TRICORP
TRICORP was established to provide loans to individuals and communities, and needed adequate funding to establish a long-term, viable, funding formula. Instead, they received only 20% of the needed capital from the federal government. With the provided funding expected to last only ten years, TRICORP was facing an uphill battle. Instead, TRICORP and other Aboriginal Capital Corporations revolved their funding and those Corporations provided over 1 billion in funding over the following ten years from the original funds, and then 1 billion more over the next ten years, spread out amongst the 32 programs in place across Canada.
The success of these programs occurred over many difficult years that affected the types of lending that these organizations provided. In the 1990’s the downturn in forestry and fishing in British Columbia forced TRICORP to diversify lending practices and led to significant staff reductions. Where there once had been 18 staff, now there were only 5, yet they continued. Additionally, the decision to institute more conservative lending practices allowed TRICORP to continue and succeed.
In 2008, as the worldwide recession was on the horizon, TRICORP was relatively stable. Through partnerships with other Aboriginal Capital Corporations, and additional federal funding, TRICORP invested in several alternative energy funding projects. These run-of-river hydro projects have resulted in a return of approximately 3.5 million from the initial TRICORP investment of $750,000.
The beginnings of ACE
Struggles between the Indigenous employment training provider and the government, and changes to the programs and policies locally, led to a call from the Federal government to organizations interested in delivering training programs in the region. A proposal was submitted by TRICORP, and with Federal agreement, an contract was signed for three and a half years. The delivery of training programs came with a “huge learning curve” and in the first year they worked with Service Canada, with an eye to developing and integrating programs independently. It was at this point that Frank engaged in discussions with Dr. Brent Mainprize to determine the feasibility of a program that could be delivered in community in the northwest. Negotiations proceeded and Frank, Dr. Mainprize, and other UVic representatives looked at existing programs, and how they might be delivered in the north.
The key to the program is “that the program and all qualifications” are recognizable and transferrable to the University of Victoria and other post-secondary institutions. This allows students to leave with more than just the education and knowledge, but also the credentials that make future educational growth possible. Since that time 9 cohorts have passed through NW-ACE. The program has been, and continues to be, extremely popular and the quality of the students has consistently improved over time. One interesting development of the program delivery is that the quality of learning is enhanced, due to the interplay between the cultural and academic contributions. ACE is a “richer program than was initially anticipated” because of the integration of those two environments. ACE is now a well-established program at the UVic Gustavson School of Business, and the graduates have valuable credentials and considerable opportunity. Many students have started their own businesses, others have gained employment directly related to the education received in the ACE program, and other students have moved on to additional education at Northwest Community College, the University of Northern British Columbia, the University of Victoria, and many other post-secondary institutions.
Moving forward, Frank says that the “challenges ACE students face are the same as those facing entrepreneurs everywhere”. In the new economies of the twenty-first century a new vision of entrepreneurship is required. The ability to quickly adapt and pivot within changing economies is crucial to future success, and the program and students will have to adapt to meet those challenges.
Perspectives on mentorship
When asked to identify the most satisfying aspect of his job, Frank talks about the many young people he has mentored and seen grow, develop professionally, and then move out on their own paths. TRICORP recently hired two summer students, one intends to become a teacher and the other is pursuing an education in economics, and he says that “he discussed their futures and offered his advice on working with young people”. In fact, Frank hired the father of one of the young men many years before and he has been successful in his own right and has moved on to a career in consulting. The mentorship that Frank has offered over the years has resulted in a cycle in which the students become teachers, who in turn mentor others to reach their potential. Frank states, “I attempt to pass on all the skills I have [as I] work with individual staff members. When the individual has come to the point where they have learned all they can from me, it is time for them to move on and share their knowledge [with others]”. Frank offers a list of people he has mentored, a CFO, CEO’s of multi-million dollar corporations, the President of the Council of Haida Nations, and consultants for numerous economic development corporations in the northwest. He says that it “feels good to know” that his experiences and mentorship have assisted these individuals to move on to better things, and for them to have developed their own visions and organizations.
He also encourages those considering applying to the ACE program, stating that “within ACE we are teaching the tools to develop [needed] skills and [assisting the student] in moving ahead with the vision of the venture they decide they want to develop; the business venture they feel has the best ability to grow”.
Basketball – Another lifelong passion
Frank Parnell has also had a lifelong involvement with the sport of basketball.
He played basketball from a young age, and has been involved with the annual All Native basketball tournament in Prince Rupert since the 1960’s. As Frank explains, “I was born with one hand, so basically I was unique to the tournament, but I always contributed. I started playing young and initially played with the Port Edward team for four years”. In 1969, Frank’s team won the intermediate division of the tournament. As a player in Masset, he decided to learn about refereeing and coaching from players at the military base stationed on Haida Gwaii at the time. After playing for several years in the senior division, Frank decided to try his hand at coaching, winning the intermediate title in 1981 once again, this time in his first year as coach.
In the 1980’s Frank also started to get involved with the tournament management and public relations. A new committee was set up to oversee the tournament and Frank was involved with the marketing. He worked on the development of a themed tournament program that incorporated advertising, that could be sold to fans and attendees of the tournament. Working with a publisher in Prince Rupert, and developing marketing teams, allowed for the promotion of different businesses to support All Native marketing.
Frank worked on the All Native committee for 20 years and retired about five years ago. Recently, he was honoured in the builder category of the All Native Basketball Tournament Hall of Fame. Though Frank does not attend the tournament as he once did, he says that he still watches when he finds the time, now that it is “streamed online”.
As if his accomplishments were not enough to keep him constantly busy, Frank was also involved in several other important regional ventures. For several years, Frank worked as the president for the local Aboriginal radio station, and was chair of the board for six of those years, only leaving in 2016 because of his TRICORP duties.
Frank was also at the forefront of the push to build the Northwest Coast longhouse in Prince Rupert. Frank was the head of the Northcoast Tribal Council, and was crucial to the vision of the building. As any resident of Prince Rupert knows, the longhouse is one of the architectural treasures of the region. Once housing the local NWCC campus, it now houses the Museum of Northern British Columbia, and is a beautiful example of the reconciliation of historic northwest culture with modern building practices and economic usage.
Aboriginal Canadian Entrepreneurs is very grateful for to Frank Parnell for the support and vision he has provided to the ACE program, and the ongoing support TRICORP provides to the students, faculty, and administrators of the ACE Program. Please follow these links if you are interested in learning more: