Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. Ian Ross is the editor of Northern Ontario Business [email protected].
Achieving economic self-sufficiency is the driving force behind an entrepreneurial-minded First Nation corporation in northwestern Ontario. Jeremiah Windego, CEO of the Naicatchewenin Development Corporation (NDC), knows Aboriginal communities like his need to take matters into their hands in striving toward creating a local economy that’s eventually free of government handouts.
Windego said Canada’s First Nation population is growing at a rate four per cent annually but Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada funding has been capped at two per cent since 1996.
To Windego, the writing is on the wall, First Nations must make their own breaks. “If we don’t start going in a new direction, at some point that cheque isn’t going to show up, then what do we do?” Forestry has traditionally been an economic driver for NDC but mining poises an “unprecedented time of opportunity” to diversity their investments.
A big part of NDC’s game plan is wealth creation through business ownership and industry partnerships that create more jobs, trains its workforce, and put Aboriginal people in managerial positions.
The corporation is part of the Naicatchewenin First Nation, located northwest of Fort Frances.
Formed in 1997, NDC serves as the economic development arm for the community and for others that want to engage in partnerships.
The modus operandi is to refuse to let opportunity pass them by, said Windego.
“When we realized we couldn’t wait for business to come to us, we needed to go after it, and we couldn’t let our size (population 375) and location hamper our progress.”
It’s become a familiar sight to watch drill rigs roll through towns as that area has become an exploration hot bed.
The corporation is focusing its efforts on the consumables side of the mining industry by diving into the service sector.
At NDC, Windego said they’ve assembled a team of strong-minded “alphas” that lives and breathes economic development and fosters an entrepreneurial spirit to compete in business.
The corporation and its various ventures make up about 60 employees with more than half being Aboriginal.
“We’re growing a small army of First Nation executives and we have a passion for project management,” said Windego.
Their business partnerships are founded on mutual respect for the company and its shareholders, and the company’s acknowledgement of Aboriginal people’s inherent right to the land and its resource.
“Our people are a product of survivors. We owe it our ancestors to defend what was created for us,” said Windego.
This past spring, Naicatchewin announced the signing of a joint venture agreement with Cabo Drilling.
Teaming up with the B.C. driller should allow them to soak up the company’s expertise in underground and reverse circulation drilling and apply it to Naicatchewin’s own fledgling company, Arrowhead Drilling, a small, but growing three-drill operation.
Windego said they’ve already trained more than 100 drillers, 60 per cent being First Nation members, since 2011 and hope the Cabo deal delivers more opportunity and capacity to manage contracts.
“If we get some talented guys on the equipment, our goal is to have First Nation owner-operators and take on a larger share.”
Naicatchewin leaders take a holistic view toward economic and community development.
They’ve established a pattern of setting up their own micro-economy with a series of deft acquisitions and startup companies.
“As a manager, I like to plant a lot of seeds and really see what grows,” said Windego.
He said it’s no different from the business supports that exist in the Little Italy or Chinatown section in Toronto.
Among the corporation’s ventures include a consulting and engineering firm, a logging outfit, a commercial fueler, a water bottler, a catering company, a security firm with contracts at various mining and exploration sites, a lawn furniture factory and a UPS store that frequently prints maps for the mining industry.
“All people need food, water, shipped mail, engineering, and if we can pass that dollar around from one company to another it helps all of them,” said Windego.
The latest venture is Northern First Nation Health Care Services which provides pharmaceutical services and addiction treatment services.
Located on Vickers Street in Thunder Bay, the facility houses a pharmacy and methadone treatment clinic.
Within this culturally-specific program, “we wanted to make sure we give First Nation people a seat at the table,” said Windego.
Clients can get breakfast, receive treatment, see a doctor, and be provided with aftercare service such as job counseling.
“I like to say when you’re ready, we’re ready,” said Windego. “I don’t care if it’s with a feather or a bible, we’re going to provide something that hopefully helps.
“You can have all the investment you want, but when you go from people having nothing to having jobs, a lot of that comes with the risk of substance abuse and different addictions. We understand those things happen.”
NDC also provides consulting services to other communities, often stepping in as mediators and negotiators in First Nation-mining industry consultation talks.
“We make sure the paperwork is right, that meetings are set up and that somebody is co-ordinating on behalf of the leadership and community members,” said Windego.
In Naicatchewenin’s case it’s paved the way for early stage memoranda of understanding (MOU) with Mineral Mountain Resources, Rainy River, Osisko and has opened talks with other juniors.
Windego finds Aboriginal communities that receive huge financial windfalls through land claims or flood settlements often spend it on immediate needs or liabilities without setting something aside for the future.
Buoyed by their various business interests, the corporation intends to create a trust fund that, Windego hopes, will generate annual revenue equal to or greater than the money provided by Ottawa.
Dealing with government can be difficult unless First Nations have a strong bargaining hand, he said.
“When you negotiate from a position of weakness, the end result is take it or leave it. If we can be self-sufficient through investment and business that will give us the position of negotiating from strength.”