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Vancouver startup launches robo-advisor for Indigenous communities

The company behind the platform aims to address unmet need for financial and investment services
James Russell, a B.C. Métis citizen, founded LIVO Financial, a robo-advisor platform designed with people from Indigenous communities in mind

There has long existed financial segregation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.

Only a fraction of First Nations reserves have access to financial services, and an estimated 15 per cent of people in First Nation communities don’t have bank accounts. In some cases, Indigenous people may feel or may be made to feel unwelcome in mainstream financial institutions, and may fall behind in financial literacy education, according to Prosper Canada.  

A Vancouver tech startup aims to tackle some of these challenges. LIVO Financial, a robo-advisor platform that launched late last year, specifically aims to provide financial tools and investment portfolios for people from Indigenous communities across Canada.

“We saw that the Indigenous community as a whole is pretty underserved when it comes to financial services, so we started out wanting to build something that could serve the community – like a financial hub for Indigenous people,” said James Russell, founder and CEO of LIVO Financial.

As a Métis citizen from B.C., Russell said he understands many Indigenous people on reserves in Northern B.C. and in other remote areas in Canada have to drive hours just to visit a bank, and lack access to investment tools and opportunities.

“We decided: Can we build something that not only will teach people about investing, but enable them to invest in a really simple and easy-to-understand way? This is the whole idea behind LIVO Financial,” Russell said.

Like many other robo-advisor platforms, investors can link their bank accounts to LIVO Financial – which has partnered with OneVest Management Inc. – and receive automated, algorithm-driven investment services based on their financial situation and goals.

But LIVO also has some unique features designed for Indigenous communities.

These include allowing users to set up an account using their certificate of Indian status. Their investment portfolios are also named in Cree – the most commonly spoken Indigenous language in Canada.

“Because not everybody in the Indigenous community has a driver’s licence or B.C. Services Card … so to make the ID verification process simpler, you could use the certificate of Indian status as your level-one ID,” said Russell.

He said other feedback his team received from Indigenous groups is a desire to be seen. That’s why they named their funds in Cree: To increase investors’ comfort level, and to show their dedication to serving this community.

LIVO and OneVest have also based their investment portfolios on themes particular themes – such as climate – that tend to be prioritized, valued or emphasized by Indigenous communities.

“Our goal is to be the largest digital-first wealth manager in the Indigenous community in Canada,” said Russell.

Easier access to finance with digital tools

LIVO is not the only B.C. tech company trying to bridge the financial gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities through the use of digital tools.

OneFeather, a Victoria-based Indigenous technology company, launched its OneFeather Wallet app in 2021. Similar to Apple Pay, members from Indigenous communities can tap the app to make payments, but users do not need to link it to a bank account. Instead, they can choose to use the reloadable OneFeather Pay Card.

Avneet Takhar, product marketing manager at OneFeather, said the app does not only save members transaction fees and travel to banks – which can be challenging for those in rural areas – but that it also protects users from sometimes uncomfortable and even discriminatory interactions and processes.

“There are barriers to identity for identity verification at a traditional bank. This means they may be required to already have a bank account, and also have a credit rating. How can you provide this if you’ve never had a bank account in the first place?” Takhar said.

In 2020, Maxwell Johnson, a Heiltsuk First Nation member, was arrested alongside his 12-year-old granddaughter when trying to open an account at the Bank of Montreal (TSX:BMO) after a bank employee questioned their Indian status cards and phoned 9-1-1.

“This, of course, brings a lot of trauma up in the community.… So with identity verification, we digitally verify rather than in person, and we know what a status card,” said Takhar.

“They’re not getting these perhaps unusual questions that you can get in traditional banks that can be quite traumatic sometimes,” he added. “We understand their struggles and we’re just making things as easy as possible for them to access the money that they’re entitled to.”

She said the app has been well received in Indigenous communities and more than 13,900 apps have been installed to date. The company plans to launch a new direct pay feature so users can receive direct payment from third parties.

Long way to go to bridge the financial gap

Experts told BIV they think it’s great to see tech companies stepping up and offering creative solutions to help address financial challenges experienced by Indigenous communities. They also noted a significant amount of work remains to be done.

“I think that would help. I don’t have a good sense of how big an impact they’re having,” said Lawrence Schembri, senior fellow at Fraser Institute and author of The Next Generation: Innovating to Improve Indigenous Access to Finance in Canada.

People in Indigenous communities face numerous obstacles to access to finance, partly due to geographical challenges and a low degree of financial literacy in some places, according to Schembri.

“There has been progress across a number of different fronts. Conventional financial institutions, like banks and credit unions, have made some progress in terms of providing financial services to Indigenous Peoples, and the government has tried to facilitate access as well. But it’s really not enough.”

Financial technology companies can help bridge the gaps that exist, but communities that don’t have high-speed internet access, or older generations of users who are less conversant with technology, may find it more challenging to use fintech tools, added Schembri.

In addition to the tech platforms, Schembri said he hopes to see larger financial institutions step up to address the financial needs of Indigenous communities in a greater capacity by helping to finance Indigenous-led solutions.

“Typically, the most successful endeavours in the Indigenous space are those led by Indigenous Peoples themselves,” said Schembri.

“The gap is immense, so we need what I call the next generation of Indigenous financial institutions – an Indigenous development bank, which would be like the Asian Development Bank.”

And for Indigenous communities that have accumulated wealth and are able to invest, he said he’d like to see more money reinvested in Indigenous communities.

“There’s little evidence that much of it is being reinvested where it’s needed most in Indigenous communities to address the gap in terms of physical capital for infrastructure, such as schools, roads, hospitals, things like that,” he said.