Planning for economic development

Successful community economic development begins with good planning. Planning helps communities determine what they want to achieve and how they will achieve it. This chapter introduces the concept of community economic development, discusses plans that can guide community economic development, and offers resources and techniques to support your planning efforts.

What is community economic development?

First Nations community economic development is about increasing economic well-being and quality of life for a community and its members, in a way that reflects the community’s social, cultural and environmental needs and values.

Community economic development focuses on community ownership, control and benefit. Community-owned businesses generate profits that are used to benefit the community and create jobs for community members. Effective economic development decisions are made in a holistic and interconnected manner and promote the community’s overall vision, goals and priorities.

First Nations community economic development does not stand on its own: it is recognized as one important step in building a vibrant community. It is part of what the Anishinaabeg call Mino bimaadzewin, or “the good life.”

The economic development process and the types of opportunities that are pursued will vary across communities. Some common economic development objectives include:

  • creating jobs and opportunities for community members
  • investing in and managing community-owned businesses
  • supporting member-owned businesses
  • bringing financial returns to the community to be used to benefit all community members
  • using community-driven approaches to improve quality of life
  • supporting projects that meet the community’s unique needs, traditions, culture and vision
  • entering partnerships with other communities or industry to access new economic opportunities

A number of different individuals and institutions have a role to play in First Nations economic development:

  • Chief and Council sets and approves the community’s strategic direction and priorities, including the overall strategic direction for community economic development.
  • The community economic development department oversees and implements the community’s economic development plan or strategic direction for economic development, supports community and member-owned businesses and seeks new economic opportunities for the community.
  • Economic development entities, such as economic development corporations, often own and manage community businesses and other economic development projects.
  • Economic development staff, such as economic development officers, carry out the responsibilities of the community economic development department or economic development entity.
  • Community-owned businesses bring in revenues to support community priorities.
  • Member-owned businesses and individuals contribute to the local economy.

The Economic Development Toolkit for First Nations Economic Development Officers, Chiefs and Councils and Community Members published by the Industry Council for Aboriginal Business, provides more information on the roles of Chief and Council and economic development officers in economic development (pages 20-23).

Getting started

Communities with experience in economic development have stressed the need to have a strong foundation in place from which to pursue economic development opportunities. For many communities, developing this foundation requires planning, which will be discussed in Chapter 1, and building institutional and workforce capacity for economic development, discussed in Chapter 2.

Community planning

Planning can help communities determine their vision, values and objectives related to economic development, and the actions they will take to work towards those objectives. Plans often focus on a specific time period, so they can be revisited and updated as time passes and changes occur in the community or the economy.

Types of plans

Strategic plans outline the strategic priorities of Chief and Council. Chief and Council generate these plans, often with input from department staff and community members. Strategic plans generally include goals, objectives and activities for a period determined by Chief and Council.

  • Time horizon: Two to five years.
  • Benefits: Outlines Chief and Council priorities on community economic development; short timeframe allows the plan to be nimble and easily adaptable to changing socio-economic environment; more action-focused and therefore usually easier to track and measure results.
  • Challenges: Often linked to political cycle; may not always reflect long-term needs of the community; requires careful integration of input from staff; often not comprehensive.

Economic development plans focus specifically on economic development goals, objectives and activities. Economic development plans may be created by community leadership and/or staff with relevant expertise, such as knowledge of economic development, strategic planning and financial and business structures, working in collaboration with the community. Expert staff may work in the community’s economic development department or in a community economic development structure.

  • Time horizon: Three to five years.
  • Benefits: Helps focus approach on specific goals and outcomes; can be used by both practitioners and leadership; usually easier than other plans to measure results.
  • Challenges: Specific focus can often leave out important socio-economic aspects of community planning; often requires high level of technical expertise; not every community may require a standalone economic development plan.

Comprehensive community plans outline a vision and direction for a community. While Chief and Council may initiate the creation of a comprehensive community plan, and ultimately endorse the final plan, comprehensive community plans are developed through a community-driven process. A planning committee that conducts extensive community engagement usually leads the process. Comprehensive community planning takes a holistic and integrated approach, considering all elements of the community, including governance, land and resources, health, infrastructure, culture, social issues and the economy.

  • Time horizon: Varies significantly from 5 to up to 50 years or more.
  • Benefits: Endorsement and input from community members helps to ensure a more comprehensive and responsive plan; can be used to address community-specific challenges and opportunities; not linked to political structure or election cycle; can consider full range of community needs and aspirations.
  • Challenges: Requires significant and often lengthy community engagement; each community will have vastly different needs, making it difficult to compare CCPs across regions; long time horizon means plans can become outdated or lose relevance.

We completed a comprehensive community plan in 1983 and from the comprehensive community plan we were able to identify economic development projects. However, the strategy got pretty dusty because we didn’t have buy-in from the community. In 2012, we took it upon ourselves to update the comprehensive community plan (CCP). This time we made sure to include community consultations. The CCP has a number of key pillars and one of them includes economic development, and from this CCP, we were able to complete a long-term economic strategy. Chief and Council endorsed that CCP; they are following the plan and they ensure all of the departments implement and update the plan every second year. Every First Nation should do a CCP as a way to move things forward.

Mary Lynn Odjig, General Manager/Economic Development Officer, Enaadmaagehjik Wikwemikong Development Commission, Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory

A few years ago, a concerted effort was undertaken to explore and implement economic development ventures in Curve Lake First Nation. Because very little was going on in this area, the prevailing feeling at the time was that something had to be done. Led by the Economic Development Committee, a plan was developed that first looked at business opportunities. The team felt some of those opportunities appeared too small, so they took a step back and envisioned higher-level goals. Thinking big was essential to the current – and anticipated – success of economic development in the community.

Shawn Williams, Economic Development Coordinator, Curve Lake First Nation

Planning tools

There are a number of resources available that provide detailed guidance on developing different types of community plans, such as:

When drafting your economic development strategy, keep it a lean and pragmatic business plan model. You don’t need a big document. Keep it concise, clear and polished so that you can see how the strategy ties back to the long-term plans for the community.

Matt Jamieson, President and CEO, Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation

SWOT (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis is a method of analysis that can inform planning. A SWOT analysis identifies internal strengths and weaknesses that a community can build upon or work to address, and external opportunities and threats that a community could pursue or may need to guard against. SWOT analysis can be used on key planning areas, or later on, on specific economic development projects under consideration. The Government of Canada’s CCP Handbook provides a template for SWOT analysis for comprehensive community planning that you can use or adapt as required, as well as a sample completed SWOT analysis.

The First Nations Economic Development Readiness Questionnaire, developed by the Government of Ontario in partnership with First Nations, is useful for assessing your community’s economic development capacity and identifying any gaps your community should plan to address. For example, you may identify that your First Nation requires additional funds for economic development activities, such as hiring and training qualified economic development staff. Planning can reflect this need and give direction for current staff to pursue funding from economic development programs, such as those listed in the “Additional resources” section of this guide.

Performance measurement

Performance measurement is the process of collecting, assessing and reporting on data in order to track progress toward a desired objective or outcome. Including performance measures in a plan allows you to track its implementation, assess its effectiveness and determine where changes may be necessary in future planning exercises. Reporting on performance also demonstrates accountability and transparency. The Government of Ontario resource Measuring Up! Performance Measurement for Economic Development is designed to help economic development practitioners use performance measurement frameworks and improve the effectiveness of their economic development plans. You can request a copy by calling the Agricultural Contact Information Centre, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs at 1-877-424-1300.

First Nations Progression Model

The First Nations Progression Model, developed by Membertou First Nation, is one way to understand First Nations economic development. According to this model, First Nations economic development has three stages:

  1. Capacity building

    Building community capacity to manage economic development processes, including financial and quality management capacity.

  2. Preparation for economic development

    Linking economic development to existing plans, undertaking any additional planning, resource allocation, investment and implementation planning.

  3. Pursuing economic development opportunities

    Pursuing new ventures, establishing partnerships and entering agreements.

The Anishinabek Nation developed The Anishinabek Nation Economy: Our Economic Blueprint around the three stages of the First Nations Progression Model. In Appendix 6 of the Blueprint, the Anishinabek Nation outlines the process they used for its development. This process, and its use of the First Nations Progression Model, may be helpful for your community’s planning activities.

Integrating culture into economic development

Planning provides an opportunity to integrate cultural considerations into the community’s vision and direction, which will guide the community’s economic development approach and the type of opportunities that are pursued. For example, Aamjiwnaang First Nation based its comprehensive community plan around an Elder’s vision.

In a report entitled Guiding Principles for Aboriginal Economic Development, the Purdy Crawford Chair in Aboriginal Business Studies found that “for Aboriginal economic development to occur, the incorporation of culture or establishment of a cultural match is critical.”

Case study: Aamjiwnaang First Nation

Aamjiwnaang First Nation has engaged in comprehensive community planning since 1985, and has been able to incorporate cultural values into its planning. Find out more about their planning process in the “Case studies” section of this guide.

Our community is a healthy tree. To grow economically, you need a well-balanced tree with roots. You need nutrients to feed the tree (this is where the planning takes place), you need pruning and the tree needs to withstand the elements. The roots of the tree are the years of work that people put into building this tree. The seeds are our future generation. This became the philosophy of the economic development process that we now follow.

Carole Delion, Business Development Officer, Aamjiwnaang First Nation

Membertou believes that the pillars of conservation, sustainability, innovation and success support our Indigenous economies. And we believe that you can govern and do business by maintaining traditional ways of looking at things, inherent to who we are as a people, yet adapt to the future by striving to be innovative and measuring that by success, success that translates into profit.1

Berndt Christmas, former CEO of Membertou First Nation

Land use planning

Land use plans establish a vision, objectives and strategic direction for future land use, allocation, management and protection. Land use plans often identify potential community economic development opportunities and the lands that are available for economic development.

First Nations that develop land use plans have greater clarity regarding use of their reserve land, and sometimes surrounding public lands. For example, many land use plans include a detailed map of boundaries, commercial areas, residential areas and areas of cultural or spiritual significance, including protected areas.

The National Aboriginal Land Managers Association (NALMA) and the Ontario Aboriginal Lands Association (OALA) provide tools and resources for First Nations land managers and community economic development staff. Additionally, the New Relationship Trust developed a First Nations land use planning report entitled BC First Nations Land Use Planning: Effective Practices that you can adapt as necessary for your use in Ontario.

Land management

Under authority and responsibilities set out in the Indian Act, the Government of Canada provides land management services related to ownership, use and development of land to most First Nations across Canada. Land management programs have been developed to assume greater control over land resources and environmental management from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to First Nations.

Through the federal Reserve Land and Environmental Management Program, First Nations can receive funding support to assume responsibility for Indian Act land management activities on behalf of the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Community-based land use planning is a component of the program that is supported by the program.

Through the Framework Agreement on First Nation Land Management and ratified by the First Nations Land Management Act, First Nations may opt out of 33 Indian Act provisions related to land management and implement their own land code. This allows First Nations to make laws with respect to land, the environment and resources. First Nations can receive federal support for developing a land code, negotiating an individual agreement and holding a ratification vote, as well as ongoing operational funding for managing land, natural resources and environment. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada transfers land administration to First Nations once their land code comes into effect.

The First Nations Land Management Resource Centre provides services and resources to support First Nations implementing land governance over their reserve lands through the First Nations Land Management Regime.

Off-reserve land use planning

Land use plans for public land in Ontario are prepared under either the Far North Act or the Public Lands Act. In the Far North of Ontario, under the Far North Land Use Planning Initiative, Ontario is working with local First Nations to jointly prepare community based land use plans. The planning areas encompass the off-reserve, traditional land use areas of each of the one or more participating First Nations. The community based land use plans, which are approved by both the participating First Nations and Ontario, use land designations to provide broad direction on what land uses will be permitted in which areas. The land use plans also typically describe what economic development opportunities a First Nations community would like to pursue.

First Nations in the Far North can access funding from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to prepare land use plans. Ontario has created a draft Far North Land Use Strategy to assist joint planning teams in the preparation of these plans and to guide the integration of matters that are beyond the geographic scope of individual planning areas. For more information, visit the Far North Land Use Planning Initiative website.

On public land south of the Far North, existing land use plans are publicly available through the Crown Land Use Policy Atlas. The Crown Land Use Policy Atlas contains a map browser that allows easy access to the land use plans and policies that detail land use decisions in a particular area. In some instances, an economic development proposal may require a land use amendment to allow it to proceed and, within policy, MNRF can work with First Nations communities to consider aligning land use planning with community development objectives. Communities can also apply to use Crown land for economic development projects. Project applications are reviewed under the Crown land Application Review and Land Disposition Process.

Case study: Nipissing First Nation

Find out about how Nipissing First Nation involved community members in economic decision-making through its Business Licensing Bylaw in the “Case studies” section of this guide.


  • First Nations community economic development is about increasing economic well-being and quality of life for a community and its members in a way that reflects the community’s social, cultural and environmental needs and values.
  • Many communities with success in economic development stress the importance of establishing a strong foundation from which to pursue opportunities. For many communities, this strong foundation begins with planning and building institutional capacity.
  • Planning activities that can support economic development include strategic plans, comprehensive community plans, economic development plans and land use plans.

1 Christmas, B. (2002). First Nations Progression Model – The use of multiple lines. Canadian Evaluation Society conference. Halifax, Nova Scotia.