Business savvy: Wabun First Nation communities establishing successful mining ventures – by Liz Cowan (Northern Ontario Business – February 2013)

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Wabun First Nation communities are reaping the benefits of a mining boom by establishing successful business ventures in the service industry.

“We are starting to see some real business-like profit and the regular capitalistic type of progress that the other communities have enjoyed,” said Jason Batise, economic development and technical services advisor for Wabun Tribal Council. “For too long, our communities sat and watched other communities be successful.”

The council is headquartered in Timmins and serves the communities of Beaverhouse, Brunswick House, Chapleau Ojibwe, Flying Post, Matachewan and Mattagami.

Matachewan First Nation, located west of Kirkland Lake, has created some successful platforms, including a venture that provides temporary housing for Aurico employees at its nearby Young-Davidson Mine. The company, Ednysian, provides a 300-bed facility with full meal service and housekeeping.

“Ednysian is Ojibway for a place to be when you are not home,” he said. “It has been an extremely successful business model and is profitable and I think our service is great.”

Even though there are agreements with the mine, the business still has to provide quality of service and price. “You have to deliver and we have good really partners,” Batise said.

The camp has been in operation for about two years and is located near the First Nation community. The company has expanded to some of the other mining opportunities in the area by providing temporary modular structures for other uses such as offices. About 25 people work at the camp.

“We do have a soft spot for our First Nation workforce and we do try to hire qualified members of our own band or others,” he said.

“But that is not to say we are not as strict in providing our services. We have had to fire people and we will protect the business for our shareholders. These are not make-work projects.”

The camp has been set up exclusively for the mine which has a three-year contract with Ednysian to provide services. The contract may be renewed or the facility can continue to operate as a hotel and open to anyone. “We are looking at second and to team up with other local First Nations,” Batise said.

When operating in other First Nations territory, they will be encouraged to control the business while partnering with Matachewan.

“With what I know and sitting on the other end of the table, that is what I would ask for,” he said. “I am not going to go in and try to sell something for less than what I would demand.”

Three area Wabun communities have joined forces with Nordex Explosives in Kirkland Lake to form Niimki Explosives. Niimki, which means thunder in Ojibway, is owned 51 per cent by the Native communities.

“The idea is to market the product in all of the territories across Timmins and Kirkland Lake,” Batise said. “We are getting there and we have had some growing pains since it hasn’t been easy to get into the mining companies. When we do joint ventures with companies like Nordex, there is an Aboriginal face to it.”

The First Nations are putting capital into the company and growing it and he said it is not just a paper exercise.

“Some may think the companies we are partnering with are just signing us up but that is not what we are doing. We are trying to grow Niimki into a real powerhouse and we are getting there.”

Batise said it is not hard to find partners, but hard to find good ones. Some reluctantly come to the table while others see the opportunities. Most of the business ventures in the Wabun area involve a non-Native partner.

“A lot of the private sector is looking to partner with us because they see the benefits and advantages of having them at the table when securing services.”

Mattagami First Nation has a 60 per cent stake in a trucking company, Compass Carriers, that currently hauls ore for a Timmins mine.

“They come right through the middle of town,” he said. “You don’t often see a First Nation business being that substantial and visible.”

Matachewan’s business ventures have invested $1 million of community funds and nearly tripled it in less than two years. He credits the band leadership for letting the business practitioners operate with some freedom.

“When a community puts its mind to something and gets it done, this is the reality and this is what we can create,” Batise said. “We are not sitting on the sidelines anymore and we are just scratching the surface.”