‘We are businessmen’: First Nations entrepreneurs far from idle – by Claudia Cattaneo (National Post – January 12, 2013)

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The Idle No More movement presents one face of Canada’s First Nations: combative, frustrated with government, impoverished, opposed to resource projects while claiming entitlement to revenue sharing.

Aboriginal entrepreneurs such as Wilf Lalonde present the other face. He’s a Cree from northern Alberta who sees big opportunities to work in and profit from oil and gas and other resource projects, and strives to make First Nations self-sufficient.

It’s a side of First Nations that gets little notice next to the constant stream of grievances and the anti-development tough talk. But it’s alive and pushing to make room for itself, fighting tensions between First Nations about how to deal with the extraction of resources on traditional lands and over who gets to benefit, and struggling to find funding and to convince the corporate community that aboriginals have the capacity and the resolve to deliver.

Mr. Lalonde wouldn’t comment on Idle No More, saying it’s political and he is no politician. He’s taking a different path to prosperity.

“We are businessmen,” Mr. Lalonde, a member of the Driftpile First Nation near Slave Lake, said in an interview in Calgary this week, where the group of aboriginal companies he leads, as yet unnamed, has set up an office to be close to energy company headquarters, bid for contracts and act as the go-to-guys for skilled and unskilled aboriginal labour.

“I think [Idle No More activists] are talking more of a resource share, but I am not sure that will ever come about,” he said. “I think what will happen here is they have to create their own economic opportunities to be self-sufficient and run their own self-government.”

Mr. Lalonde is building on a growing number of entrepreneurial successes among Canada’s First Nations. It started in Fort McMurray, with the leadership of chief Jim Boucher of the Fort McKay First Nation, and then trickled down across the country as other First Nations took notice of the upside of business ownership.

The Fort McKay Group of Companies began in 1986 with one janitorial contract. It has since mushroomed into a series of enterprises that offer logistics, site services, fuel and lube delivery, environmental services and land leasing operations to oil sands developers.

Nathan Elliott, president of Insightwest Research, a Regina-based research and consulting firm that works closely with First Nations wanting to participate in the resource economy, said aboriginal business in the Wood Buffalo region around Fort McMurray, where there are five major bands, has grown in value to more than $1-billion a year in 2012, from $700-million in 2009.

Indeed, some businesses are now so large they are no longer competing as aboriginal enterprises, but going toe-to-toe with other service providers and beating them on contracts, Mr. Elliott said.

“The [Northern Gateway] pipeline quagmire, Attawapiskat, the hunger strike, are depictions that are in many ways unrepresentative of the successes that are going on in this country today,” he said.

For the rest of this column, please go to the National Post website: http://business.financialpost.com/2013/01/11/we-are-businessmen-first-nations-entrepreneurs-far-from-idle/