OneFeather brings financial services to Indigenous communities

With the launch of a payment app, the mobile tech company aims to overcome the barriers that keep First Nations, Metis and Inuit people from accessing their own money.

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After an Indigenous man and his granddaughter were handcuffed and detained by police for trying to open a bank account in downtown Vancouver in 2019, Lawrence Lewis, co-founder and CEO of OneFeather Mobile Technologies, knew something needed to be done.

Appalled by the fact that suspicions arose when the pair tried to prove their identity using their government-issued Indian status cards, a birth certificate and a medical card, Lewis and his company set out to reduce the systemic barriers that prevent other Indigenous Canadians from accessing financial services.

“There is a large number of Indigenous members who do not have a bank account, which makes it difficult to pay bills, or access their own money,” says Lewis, who is a member of We Wai Kai Nation.

For Lewis and his company, the solution was to help Indigenous Canadians achieve financial stability through a dedicated banking solution.

Launched in 2014, OneFeather already offered digital voting services for First Nations, Métis and Inuit elections and voting events. Earlier this month, it added the OneFeather pay app, designed to provide greater access to financial services for First Nations peoples, Métis and Inuit living on or off reserves, with the goal of helping to prevent traumatic or discriminatory situations like the one in Vancouver from taking place. Lewis describes it as “an Indigenous solution that recognizes and celebrates Indigenous identities, in a way that is respectful, fast, easy to use, and is secure and safe.”

At the moment, 15% of the country’s Indigenous population is not served by a bank, and as many as 44% live on reserves in isolated and remote areas that make it hard to access a bank, according to the company. Experiences of racism also makes accessing financial institutions and government services difficult.

In addition to those barriers, Indigenous people are also more likely to face discrimination when setting up an account, because many Canadians have never seen an Indigenous identification or status card before. As a result, many Indigenous people end up cashing their cheques at alternative money lenders that charge hefty fees, Lewis says.

With the OneFeather app, people from Indigenous communities can create digital bank accounts without having to set foot inside a bank or go through an external identification verification process. Users verify their identity by submitting a selfie and using their federal First Nations status card number and date of birth. Lewis believes the set-up is simple and user-friendly and is not worried about those who are less technologically savvy, adding that Indigenous people regularly visit their elderly and can help set up accounts for those that need it.

Once their profile has been verified, users can link a pre-existing bank account to load a OneFeather pay card to shop online or make purchases anywhere major credit cards are accepted. In the future, OneFeather plans to integrate other banking solutions like pre-paid credit or debit cards, deposits, withdrawals and mass payments to members.

The OneFeather pay card also provides users with an Indigenous-only rewards system that allows them to collect OneFeather Tokens (1FTs) – transferable tokens that users can send their Indigenous friends and family, who can exchange them for services and rewards. Eventually, Lewis says users will be able to exchange 1FTs for a wide range of benefits, including status card renewal service fees and merchandise in a future digital Indigenous marketplace.

To celebrate the launch, OneFeather has collaborated with the Indigenomics Institute and Raven Capital Partners to provide the pair who were detained in Vancouver pre-loaded OneFeather pay cards and 1FTs for a scholarship in honour of their lived experience.

And in a pilot project, OneFeather has partnered with Empowered Nations, a Vancouver-based startup incubator, to provide seed funding for Indigenous entrepreneurial students and alumni, giving away pre-loaded cards and 1FTs throughout promotions this summer.

At the moment, the OneFeather app is offered in English. Due to the number of Indigenous languages spoken in Canada, it is not currently able to offer its services in those languages, though Lewis says it is something it is working on for the future.

The company also has plans to become a “one-stop-shop solution” that integrates its existing digital voting solution with services for Indigenous businesses and online status card services, whereby First Nations members can renew, replace or apply for their status card. Through its existing services, the company is already working with over 200 nations across the country and has over 300,000 Indigenous people in its database.