2011: Native Business Moves To A Higher Level

It was a year of extremes, when First Nation entrepreneurs were changing gears and moving to another level, making partnerships with corporations in alternative energy and lumber deals with the Chinese. The support of influential people such as former Premier Paul Martin was pivotal in the founding of Cape, an organization set up to fund Native businesses and encourage Aboriginal entrepreneurs. “We raised $50 million dollars,” said Martin. “Our purpose is to back Aboriginal entrepreneurs.” Some of the recipients of Cape investments this year include One Earth Farms in Manitoba, receiving 4 million dollars, and Coastal ShellFish L.P. from BC and Manitobah Muklaksalso also received investment funding.

The success story of the Lax Kw’alaam Band in BC demonstrates the vision of certain Native entrepreneurs. The band opened an office in Bejing a few years ago, so they could negotiate directly with the Chinese. It seemed a bold move at the time, but this year, the band raked in $40 million in lumber sales. Yuen Paul Woo in charge of public relations for the Asia Pacific Foundation told the Globe and Mail, “There is a lot of ignorance about the role First Nations play in resource development projects. I think we are talking about billions of dollars.”

Finding new markets has always been the goal of Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos First Nations. “The Band does not owe its membership dependency; it owes them opportunity. Our goal is to provide a real-world class at business development within Native communities that is balanced with sound business principles.” Alternative energy such as Run of the River is an area where Native business is at the forefront, resulting in partnerships between First Nation Bands and hydro companies. The Tahtlan First Nations recently signed a deal with AltaGas. The partnership created income for the band that will continue for years to come without any environmental concerns. There is also wind energy now being developed, and solar energy is what powers the Sooke Band. They are the only First Nations Band in Canada to endorse solar energy.

Native education was also given a helping hand in 2011 with the construction of several native schools across Canada. “It is critically important that we work together, all Canadians, to eliminate the gaps that exist between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in health, education, housing, economic development, indeed across the board. Clearly this is a moral issue, but it is also an economic issue,” said Paul Martin on receiving the first ever Award for Excellence in Aboriginal Relations.

The good news for 2011 included advances in business and a sense of optimism that now exists in the business sector. Paul Martin speaks of the gap that exists between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. The gap may be closing on a business level, but in health and housing the gap remains and seems to be widening, evidenced by alarming news from the Attawapiskat community in James Bay where 27 people are living in one home, while 90 are living in a trailer and several families call a tent home. The Attawapiskat are living in substandard conditions, with no clean running water and no electricity. Liberal leader Bob Rae visited the northern Ontario community and described it as “our third world.” The living conditions are appalling, and now with winter approaching, the situation has become life threatening.

Timmins-James Bay MPP Gilles Bisson aware of the emergence of the situation told the Toronto Star, “There is an imminent health and safety and safety risk, for the children and adults living in these appalling conditions, and the provincial government needs to step in with the help and expertise required.” Chief Theresa Spence had suggested evacuation for the whole community after declaring a state of emergency in October. Unfortunately, neither the Ontario provincial government nor Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have provided the government assistance that is so badly needed in Attawapiskat. In the meantime, the residents are facing a cold winter with little hope of relief.

A dark cloud is floating over the environmental skyline, and the cloud has a name: Enbridge. The company has a $5.5 billion dollar pipeline that would transport oil from Alberta to Kitimat. They have been opposed by Native bands from the beginning, and National Geographic published a rather critical article in their August issue. “Giant tankers—some nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall—loaded with condensate or up to 2.15 million barrels of crude, would thread between a jigsaw of islands to and from Kitimat.” The article seemed one-sided and Enbridge felt they had not really given both sides of the story. “They didn’t use any of the information we gave them on the safety measures we have in place, particularly marine safety measures that we have been proposing,” said Paul Stanway, a spokesman from Enbridge. “It would mitigate to a large extent some of the concerns they expressed in the article. We’d have very strict conditions on the type of vessel that would be allowed to use the terminal at Kitimat.”

When the dust settled, neither side was any closer to an agreement, and then in November, Enbridge went public with the news that Gitxsan Hereditary Chief Elmer Derrick had agreed to the Enbridge proposal. It took only a few weeks for the signing to unravel as the other bands involved wanted Chief Derrick removed from his position as negotiator. “I’m still perplexed that Enbridge didn’t do their homework,” said Chief Councilor Majorie McRae from the Gitanmaax First Nations. “You can’t tell me they didn’t know that there were four bands out of five who disapproved of the GTS process, model and structure.” Christmas won’t change anything, both sides are back to ground zero. What will the new year bring? Stay tuned. We can only hope they come to some agreement as we hope Harper will send help to the Attawaspikat.