WEBEQUIE, Ont. — Eric Jacob sprinted to his pickup truck following an abrupt late night call. A seldom-seen shipment of large appliances had been strewn across an icy lake after a truck toppled on the winter road to his isolated reserve in Ontario’s Far North.
Determined to salvage the valuable inventory of the reserve’s only store, grocery manager Eric rounded up some buddies to make the four-hour round trip to fetch the damaged ovens and refrigerators and deliver them to the 840-person community.
“We did that all night,” he says. Fortunate to have any job on the poverty-stricken Webequie reserve, Eric is in an enviable position, one with security and benefits. And he takes it seriously.
Starting as a stock boy nearly 20 years ago, the 38-year-old climbed the ladder to become grocery manager at the Northern, the lone retailer on the reserve, which sells everything from milk to dining tables, at about three times what they would cost in Thunder Bay, a two-hour plane ride south.
Eric doesn’t resent that his boss is not native to Webequie, not even Native.
His aspirations are more enterprising. He envisions a business empire, the kind that could start cash flowing within the community to resuscitate a lifeless economy.
The man willing to drive through the night to save sales for a faceless corporation is desperate for the chance to apply his work ethic to a venture he could proudly call his own.
Eric spots value, opportunity and potential customers in everything in Webequie, from scrap metal to wild rice. On this destitute reserve, he is what passes for an entrepreneur.
“I’d like to take over Webequie,” he chortles. “Be the guy. It could happen.”
But the aspiring entrepreneur faces an overwhelming series of social, institutional and financial barriers unheard of for startups elsewhere in Canada.
An unprecedented interest from Corporate Canada in digging for riches under the frozen muskeg to Webequie’s east could be Eric’s chance to get just one of his many business ideas off the ground.
The 5,000-square-kilometre Ring of Fire, said to contain $60 billion worth of gold, copper, nickel, chromium and other metals, could transform the area. It promises to bring road access, jobs and opportunity for aboriginal-owned businesses, so the community would no longer depend on that one store for all of the necessities they can’t find on the land.
But not all of Webequie is as eager as Eric for the money-making opportunities that roads and mining companies could bring. The community’s chief and council are wary of the effects of development on their cherished land and animals and the traditional culture they strive to maintain. They’re unfazed by the glacial pace of negotiations between First Nations, governments and miners over the project, saying they need more time to form decisions, prepare their underdeveloped community and secure government funding for their business plans.
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