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Latest NewsJun 18, 2016

International Indigenous Speakers Bureau Launch

When Shannon Loutitt and Claire Belanger-Parker first saw the need, and shared their visions, for an Indigenous Speakers Bureau, they did not even dream of how the business was going to explode to become an international sensation. They just saw a gap that needed filling: Indigenous speakers were not being paid their worth, and often conferences and corporations didn’t know how to bridge the cultural gap in order to approach them. Enter their International Indigenous Speaker’s Bureau (IISB), cue the lights, crank the sound, and prepare for standing ovations.

“We are literally re-writing the model,” states Claire Belanger-Parker. “It’s a family-based relationship with our speakers — it’s our way of honouring them. We know they are exceptionally gifted, and to be able to bring that to the world is transformative and world-changing. We are simply the portal to get them there.”

“It’s awkward negotiating for yourself in the speaking industry to start with. For Indigenous speakers they often they walk away with a handshake or a blanket or an honorarium of $100,” noted Shannon Loutitt. “The demographic in the world most renowned for oral knowledge sharing is the one demographic that is the least remunerated or honoured in the speaking industry, so being able to help change that is incredible.”

The number one strength of IISB is their negotiating power, through their knowledge and experience in the industry, and an ability to act as go-between for speakers and clients.

“Indigenous people were known for their honouring. If someone came in and offered you their gift — whether oral storytelling or knowledge, for example — they were honoured, they were taken care of. Now, that ability to honour has changed to monetary,” Loutitt observed. “We can’t go out and build them a house or make them blankets or shoot them a buffalo to feed their whole family, as was done back in the day, here in North America. Times have changed. This practice of ‘honouring’ is similar in all Indigenous cultures around the world.  We are putting the honouring back into that knowledge sharing around the world: that’s something I’m really excited about.”

Belanger-Parker explained the speakers have absolutely nothing to lose. IISB is well positioned in the international conference industry and beyond, and part of their goal is to have speakers find themselves in places they couldn’t have imagined.

“It’s a real super-power,” said Loutitt, adding they have already done numerous bookings without even opening their doors. The value IISB brings to both client and speaker eliminates all the hassle, including problem-solving with clients worried about coming up with sufficient remuneration. “We literally open the doors for them to a number of possibilities, provide ideas and suggestions so they may be able to honour their speaker appropriately, access funds, and expand their own resources not only for the speaker but for their own business improvement as well.”

So while they are educating their speakers on industry standards, they are also educating the industry on reaching new goals. Sometimes it is simply a matter of a non-Indigenous client feeling awkward, apprehensive, or lacking cultural knowledge of proper protocol, even with the best of intentions. For the speakers, coming from a culture that emphasizes humility, it's about knowing the value of what they have to share with the non-Indigenous world. The majority of these speakers have been on hundreds of stages, built an extraordinary reputation and recognition in the Indigenous world, but have not yet carried their knowledge and story-telling gifts to the rest of the world.

“What was frustrating for me in the planning industry was sometimes seeing Indigenous speakers who were often more qualified than any of the other speakers, but because he or she did not know the industry, had only negotiated a fraction of what they could have received. Something had to change,” noted Belanger-Parker.

With IISB negotiating for the speaker and translating for the client, awkwardness or uncertainty is eliminated — with business arrangements taken care of, all parties can focus their energies on the event itself.

Their business model has several unique industry secrets meant to honour relationship with Indigenous Speakers and clients. After so many years in the industry as a meeting and event planner, Belanger-Parker knows the expectations, and vows to work with all parties to ensure things go smoothly.

IISB is excited to connect with international Indigenous speakers as their venture grows, and also to create opportunities for speakers to connect with each other with an in-house community of peers who can knowledge-share. IISB’s roster includes many experts, such as a renowned cultural advisor on the Island of Maui who not only advised President Obama but has transformed Maui’s tourism industry. His expertise will inform and inspire Indigenous speakers from other regions.

“We haven’t seen the scope of where this venture will take us. There are 370 million Indigenous people in 70 countries, representing 5000 tribes and 4000 native languages,” said Loutitt. “Suddenly they have a means, through IISB, to connect with each other.”

Not only do they have other speakers’ bureaus and agencies contacting them, television shows are now calling.

“We just were not expecting how big of an opportunity this is going to be for the speakers that come on board,” Loutitt said. “I think it is going to provide a lot of new possibilities that we wouldn’t even think of — not just speaking engagements but television appearances, radio, panels, endless possibilities for Indigenous peoples.”

Belanger-Parker noted we live in parallel worlds that don’t cross often enough, and that’s where IISB comes in.

“Every day when I start my day, I live in English, I live in French, and I live in my Indigenous world.  They are as distinct and different as you can imagine. These worlds are parallel to one another and we weave through them with ease and connect them to one another. Our Indigenous speakers can now find their way to a non-Indigenous audience, an audience that will not only be inspired but will be gifted with a greater understanding of differences, cultures, languages and perspectives”.

“We have to do things that are outside the script, to facilitate bridge-building,” noted Loutitt, noting their model is incredibly personalized and supportive all-around. “One of the coolest things about our bureau is although we have motivational speakers, people are going to be coming to us for the knowledge Indigenous people are willing to share.

“The world is also looking for these perspectives and expertise and now they will be accessible.”

Thus far, the only feedback from clients has been short and sweet: “Outstanding; exceptional; first standing ovation ever.”

IISB’s soft launch takes place June 2016, in celebration of National Aboriginal Day.

Article by, 
Andréa Ledding (Media Consultant)

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