The Cree Construction and Development Company (CCDC), the first totally Cree-owned enterprise, is celebrating its 35th year in business. It grew out of a need for housing in the Eastern James Bay Cree communities. But it has grown since those early days to become more than what the Crees envisioned. Today CCDC is a nationally recognized company involved in many projects in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.
As it gained experience and expertise it went on to build roads and infrastructure. It did renovation and maintenance work as well as some environmental projects.
In 2009-2011, CCDC will have trained over 400 Crees in the various industry related jobs.
Some Crees who worked for the company used the experience and knowledge they gained to start their own companies. It is something that the CCDC is proud of and it has reason to be.
The company has helped to create part of a larger and healthier Cree economy through employment and the potential spin-offs from projects it undertakes. One only has to compare past and present unemployment figures to know that the CCDC is a viable and necessary part of the Cree Nation.
The last fiscal year saw a net profit of almost $9 million for the CCDC. Its sister company ADC made only $72,486 but it has been touted as a company to look out for. Profit magazine recognized the CCDC as one of Canada’s fastest growing companies and it is the first Native-owned company to make the Profit 100 list.
The people behind the organization
The Cree Construction and Development Company (CCDC) has come a long way since its humble origins as a small company that performed clear cutting.
From millions to mega millions in business annually, CCDC is a homegrown Cree success story. But where would it be without the major minds and go-getters who stand behind the organization.
Digging deeper, the Nation wanted to get a closer look at those behind the scenes either working directly for CCDC, working in conjunction with them at the parent entity, CREECO, or those working alongside the construction giant to ensure that Crees get the training they need to fill the available jobs.
These are their stories and insights into what CCDC is and why, year after year, this Cree-owned, -operated and -driven organization is a resounding success.
William MacLeod, CCDC President
According to company president William MacLeod, CCDC is a two-fold organization with one hand focusing on the community and industrial projects that have been the company’s bread and butter for the last 35 years. These projects include housing, community infrastructure, such as sewage and roads, the construction of local institutions that include clinics, schools and municipal buildings and then other commercial buildings. Outside of the community, CCDC has gained a pristine reputation building projects for Hydro-Québec and also in highway construction, having built the Route du Nord.
At the same time, CCDC is looking to move with the times as – thanks to the province’s Plan Nord for natural resource development – a massive mining boom is about to hit the James Bay region and it is CCDC that will be leading the way when it comes to making these projects happen.
“We have to tackle this opportunity and be ready for it and that’s exactly what we are gearing ourselves towards,” stated MacLeod.
“We are already looking at the construction aspect of these projects. The mines need to be built and so do the buildings, roads and airports as well as all of the other required infrastructure. We are ready to do that particular project whether it is under Cree Construction or a joint venture process. We’re even ready to do the catering services.
“At the same time, we are also looking into the mining aspects of this as there is interest there. One particular company has already asked us if we would be capable of doing extraction,” said MacLeod.
MacLeod said the CCDC is interested in the prospect of carrying out mining extraction since it is similar to what they have already done, but it would require a significant capital investment as the machinery required for this kind of work runs at about $1 million a pop.
At the same time, the kinds of projects slated to happen within Eeyou Istchee all are looking at about 25 years of operation and so this kind of long-term commitment is the type of enticement that the CCDC needs to take the plunge into new areas.
In a sense it seems logical as the CCDC already has its catering and janitorial services company, Gestion ADC, vying for contracts within the mining camps for camp management and catering contracts. While this may result in joint venture projects through ADC, the CCDC is almost guaranteed to get a piece of every pie.
At the same time, the CCDC’s opportunities for expansion seem limitless as it is being pursued by other First Nations within Quebec and across Canada that are experiencing their own natural-resource development booms. With projects already underway in other provinces, the CCDC is in demand not only for the quality work it does but also because of what it can do for a First Nation when it comes to sharing knowledge.
“We have been asked by other First Nations for assistance because we have 35 years of experience in the business of construction and catering. They want us to help them in those particular fields, be it for mining, hydro development, construction or other long-term projects. All of the stuff that has been happening in Eeyou Istchee for so long is now happening in these other communities and they don’t have the resources or know-how so they are looking to an Aboriginal company that has the experience.
“While it took us 35 years to get here, they would like to do it in a shorter time. Whether that can be done, I don’t know, but we are more than willing to help,” said MacLeod.
When it comes to a company like the CCDC, it is important to look at just how much the company has grown in its 35 years and exactly what they have accomplished since 1976.
In the beginning, the CCDC took on contracts on behalf of the Crees since that was what was mandated within the Agreements that the Cree had negotiated with the Crown, province and Hydro-Québec, but now the company has far surpassed the work that was simply reserved for it. Today the Cree entity competes with mainstream businesses, wins contracts and makes major profits that go back into the Cree nation.
MacLeod said half of the contracts that the CCDC worked on came from the public-bidding process and that last year, about 70% those contracts came from bids for work that the company originally made.
The CCDC isn’t just bidding against other construction companies from the Cree world, but also against mainstream companies that carry out work throughout the province. The same goes for Gestion ADC, which is winning out against major companies like Sodexco and ESS Compass.
Employing sometimes 500 people at a time during peak seasons and handling $100 million worth in contracts annually, MacLeod said the CCDC does so much when it comes to employee development that it creates a lot of its own competition.
This is because, someone who joins the company as a labourer will be trained and learn to do his/her job with confidence and then move up the company ladder. At a certain point that onetime labourer may be confident enough to leave and become an independent contractor, something that MacLeod sees as a good thing.
“Some of them have become specialized in their own specific fields, like housing, and others become general contractors. They become our competition at a local level or they become a sub-contractor or even work with us on a consortium basis. In the long run, it actually fulfills the CCDC’s mission as we are developing people in the entrepreneurship field and that’s what we have been doing in the past,” said MacLeod.
While the CCDC has physically built a great deal of the Cree communities, it has also formed many of the individuals who are standing strong within the communities today.
CREECO on CCDC
Jack Blacksmith, the Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Company president, sees where the CCDC fits into CREECO as it was the first Cree entity to emerge and in a sense, the reason for other entities to emerge.
Blacksmith explained that the CCDC was the first regional company that was created by the Crees in 1976-77 and it was formed so that the Crees could get a shot at some of the Hydro-Québec contracts. This happened at a time when the Crees didn’t have many skills when it came to operating machinery but they made do and started with clear cutting.
It was the CCDC that brought in the opportunities to hire subcontractors and then assist their own communities in getting these contracts. Blacksmith said while the CCDC has seen its growing pains, what it has accomplished is truly spectacular.
“It has been very successful and as we talk today, it is probably one of the oldest construction companies in all of Quebec. So, it has existed for a long time, and, like I said, when we started to acquire expertise with other project managers in Cree construction, we were able to do other things. We built the Route du Nord – it was Cree Construction that did that. We participated in dam repairs and dyke rebuilding. We did housing, sewage and built offices, airports and schools. This company has grown to become an incredibly good company for the Crees,” said Blacksmith.
At the same time, when it comes to CREECO entities, it was the CCDC that blazed the trail for CREECO’s other entities and created the reason for the existence of many of these businesses. CREECO itself wasn’t even formed until the early 1980s, years after CCDC was already in business.
It was the expertise that the CCDC acquired when it came to setting up contracts and negotiating them that the other companies were able to draw from.
“There’s not a single contract that we would walk away from because we are recognized as a good company. And if we land those contracts, there is no problem finding the expertise necessary to help us with these contracts,” said Blacksmith.
A prime example of this was how the CCDC originally formed a joint venture with an ailing company called Gestion ADC to provide janitorial and catering services. The CCDC eventually bought the controlling shares of that company and turned it into a successful 100% Cree-owned operation that is leading in its field.
According to Anthony MacLeod, Director of Gestion ADC, the catering and janitorial services company was a perfect fit as a subsidiary under the CCDC since the industries at times go hand-in-hand, particularly where work camps are involved.
“When you look at a project, the first thing you look at is the work itself and then the construction workers who need to be housed. For that you need facilities and their upkeep plus you have to feed these workers and this is where we come in,” said MacLeod.
MacLeod explained how one became part of the other. Originally, the CCDC started up a joint venture with Domco Food Services in 1993 to provide these services to a project. Initially Domco was in a 50-50 partnership with CCDC but when the company began experiencing financial difficulty in 1996, CCDC bought out Domco’s shares to create a new 100%-owned Cree company.
Since that time ADC has flourished, expanding significantly and being recognized time and time again for its excellence.
In 2008, ADC was recognized as one of Canada’s fastest-growing companies by PROFIT magazine as part of the 20th annual PROFIT 100. The company ranked 27th among Quebec companies and 196th overall.
What is particularly interesting about this is that ADC was the first Native-owned company to make this prestigious list and so being awarded this honour raised the company’s profile across the country.
Taking over Gestion ADC also opened up a whole new field of employment for Crees in Eeyou Istchee as those with a flair for cuisine could find stable work in the many cafeterias that the company operates. Crees without job skills found themselves suddenly employable in the janitorial division and so these two areas have made an strong impact in the northern job market.
“We are a more diversified field than construction because this is an area that is very gender equalized. Construction tends to be very male dominated whereas cleaning and catering tends to be a little different,” said MacLeod.
And, while Gestion ADC can work hand-in-hand with the CCDC to provide services on sites at work camps, it does not necessarily work exclusively with the construction company. Looking towards the future, MacLeod said the company has already set its sights on the new mining camps that will be opening up in the upcoming years as well as other Plan Nord projects that will require camp-management services.
At the same time, ADC is being sought after by other First Nations looking to acquire services from the company while trying to learn from their business model. MacLeod’s division has no shortage of new potential on the horizon when it comes to future projects.
“We want to have a solid foundation in our home territory,” said MacLeod.
Looking at 35 years of success for Cree and now other nations
According to Christian Sinclair, Director of Development, Marketing and Promotions for CCDC, he is proof of what the company can do for other First Nations as he came to work for the company through one of their joint ventures outside of Quebec.
Originally hailing from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (Swampy Cree) in northern Manitoba, Sinclair was actually working for the Tataskweyak Cree Nation that had formed a joint venture with the CCDC known as United Cree Construction (UCC). For the last four years that UCC has been working on projects related to the next hydro project called Keeyask Hydro Dam, a project slated to start early next year.
“CCDC has met or exceeded those expectations of what it wanted 35 years ago.
The way we have done business has created a competitive market where other Cree businesses are also doing well in Eeyou Istchee. The CCDC model is something of interest to other First Nations across Canada and we have shared that expertise with them.”
According to Sinclair, another exciting opportunity is upon the Cree once more with the Ring of Fire mining projects that are slated for northern Ontario. Already it has been estimated that the region is so abundant with valuable minerals that the projects could be ongoing for the next 100 years.
“We have taken the lessons we have learnt in the past and shared them with potential partners. That is one of our strengths and something we use to assist other First Nations in creating viable and successful companies. CCDC will continue to assist them when they negotiate with governments and businesses. Cree Construction has gone into the mainstream and the most recent project is the Lauder Stewart Project worth about $16 million,” said Sinclair.
And, because the CCDC has a Manitoba base in the Taskewan Cree Nation, expanding further across the provinces can be much more easily facilitated.
“CCDC sees its experiences as a brand it wants to promote across Canada. The company wants people to know that it respects what they want as a people and a nation and it approaches this in a humble way that doesn’t boast of achievements but shares knowledge and experiences in a traditional way. It wants to share a chance for a bright future not only for a community but for the youth that are the future,” Sinclair stated.
But of course, Sinclair isn’t CCDC’s only imported employee. Along with having a largely Cree workforce, according to engineer Farid Amarene, who is CCDC’s Director of Cost Control, Development and QMS, the company has employees from all over the world.
“CCDC is a very multicultural company. There are workers from Algeria, like me, from Argentina, Senegal, Trinidad, Morocco and Spain. These people are all engineers and this company is very attractive for engineers, there are 18 of us at this company” said Amarene.
Amarene started at CCDC as a project manager years ago and then became the director of QMS, which is an international Quality Management Standard. According to him, the CCDC is the first Native company to have achieved the QMS ISO standard.
“Certain clients in the North demand that the companies working for them are ISO certified and Hydro-Québec is one of those clients. We also have other clients who demand this standard. To become ISO certified it requires an external firm to come in and audit all of the processes of a project,” said Amerene.
Having this certification has no doubt put the CCDC on the map as a quality company but also raised the bar when it comes to the kind of quality available in the North.
Expanding to the youth
While the CCDC has provided opportunities for hundreds of Crees over the last 35 years, as it continues to grow it has also provided room for up-and-comers in the Cree nation to blossom; Bella Loon, CCDC’s Director of Human Resources, is one of them.
At 33 years old, Loon has found herself among the executive in CCDC, having rapidly climbed up the corporate ladder.
“I started working for CCDC five years ago as of September. I started off as a coordinator for Human Resources and in less than five months I was promoted to supervisor of the HR department. Another three months after that I was promoted to Director for the department and so within the first year of being employed by CCDC, I was promoted to a senior position,” said Loon.
Shortly after obtaining her Business Administration certificate from Algonquin College in Ottawa, Loon began working for the CCDC, having been recruited by the company. She was able to take advantage of the company’s coaching and mentoring program to ease her into her job and quickly learn the ropes. It is this kind of on-the-job training that gives the CCDC its strength.
“I can’t honestly say that construction was the area that I had always wanted to go into as my focus was training and development. When I looked at my options, the CCDC, when compared to other employers, offered me the best chance at pursuing that interest.
“Obviously I came in not knowing much about construction as a business and that is where the coaching and mentoring came into play. This is something that we need to continue to develop, not only to help young professionals go into their desired careers but also to help guide others who may be undecided when it comes to choosing a career,” said Loon.
It is with that in mind that the CCDC is creating and then strengthening its new workforce in preparation for the massive boom that is coming with the Plan Nord projects. Between the Plan Nord, the public-works contracts from each community and then the ongoing demand for housing, the need for workers not only great but growing.
“We were looking at what the strategy would be for our focus over the next few years, especially with the mining industry booming. When it comes to construction within this field, we have to reposition ourselves as employers to be able to identify the best course or strategy to follow so that people of the Cree nation will benefit from the upcoming employment opportunities,” said Loon.
With that in mind, Loon said that part of the company’s strategy will be to see to it that workers get the kind of training they need from within their own communities as while some may be willing to travel for training, it can be costly and not everyone one is willing to do it. The CCDC instead is more interested in bringing the training to the workers and, with the volume of workers the company is looking to hire over the next few years, there will certainly be a demand for that training.
“Looking at the different numbers that have come out in terms of the kind of workers we are going to need and comparing them to the market right now, it is tough to say exactly how many people we will be hiring but I can say that it will be in the hundreds,” said Loon.
Getting the training to the workers
It is one thing to want to hire a new Cree workforce to ensure that the people of the land get to benefit most from what will be happening to their territory, but training that workforce to be ready in time is a whole other story.
Thankfully that story is unfolding at this very moment in time as the entities within the Cree nation are coming together to make that happen with programs like the Cree Jobs Partnership (CJP).
“The Cree Jobs Partnership is a training society partnership that is formed between CREECO, Cree Human Resources Development and the Cree School Board. The purpose of the CJP is to create 420 possibilities for Aboriginal peoples within the CREECO companies, but more specifically within Air Creebec, Gestion ADC and CCDC,” explained Stephen Forward, coordinator for the CJP.
According to Forward, the Partnership is training in the air transport, camp management and construction sectors and these programs are getting a large financial boost from funding partners Emploi-Québec and Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Canada (ASETS).
Through the CJP, training has already begun in some of the communities so that workers will be ready as the demand for workers grows, specifically in the construction and camp management fields.
A prime example of this is an on-the-job training program that Forward said was already up and running in Chisasibi where the CJP is working to train cooks in a cafeteria in conjunction with an educational institution.
“There are really key benefits to this kind of on-the-job training program as people get to earn a living while upgrading their employability skills. This is a really good training program for an Aboriginal community as so many of the people that we train are young but already have families and so they can’t afford to go to school and not have an income,” said Forward.
Part of the CJP strategy is that it allows for a lot of flexibility when it comes to training, and this is something that neither partners CHRD or the School Board has the ability to offer independently. It is this kind of program in particular that will allow for these programs to be delivered on-the-job and outside of formal institutions that are far away from James Bay.
At the same time, Forward recognizes that it is a unique circumstance that has brought this wonderful opportunity forward. Only the entities within CREECO would actually have enough positions opening up collectively to be able to acquire this kind of funding while at the same time have enough work to fuel the job market for years to come. Plan Nord aside, the Cree communities have endless amounts of work to be done ranging from housing to municipal buildings to roadwork. Then there is the construction of the 10th Cree community, Washa Sibi, that is yet to happen.
“Another important point is that the CCDC has played a crucial role in development. While it is looked at mainly as a construction company, the development part of its portfolio is very important. In speaking with William MacLeod, he has emphasized development many times,” said Forward.
“We can train an institution, we can train building construction technicians and these individuals may end up being dispersed throughout the territory working for local bands, maintenance departments, local construction companies and the CCDC. We also work with their joint venture partners and so the locally owned construction companies in Eastmain, Chisasibi and other communities are also part of our program because we can draw their employees in and train them. From a development perspective, the CCDC is a good company to work with in terms of training employees,” said Forward.
Through the kinds of partnerships and joint ventures that the CCDC has made throughout the Cree world, the land and its people have been changed for good and for the better.
According to Robert Kitchen, who sits on the Board of Directors for the Nemaska Eenou Company, working with the CCDC has led to a series of projects in everything from road maintenance to construction to infrastructure development.
While Kitchen explained that the company has seen its ebbs and flows with the kinds of work they have done over the last 20 years things are looking very positive right now because of its history.
“One thing I am very proud of is the transfer of knowledge that we have had within the community. That was one of the things we focused our energy on, training a lot of the young people who are there, the young women and men in the different fields that we are involved in.
“One example I can give is the technical service and maintenance that we are doing at the airport, this is all done by Crees. Our road maintenance, 95% of this is done by Crees, either from Mistissini or Nemaska. This is what we have been able to accomplish with our partnership,” said Kitchen
And, the Nemaska Eenou Company is just one example of how partnering with the CCDC over the last 35 years has led to further development and growth within the Cree communities.
In its 35 years, the Cree nation’s premier entity has given birth to many different careers, businesses, partnerships, joint ventures and major projects that it has literally changed the face of the Cree nation through development.
Its success and consummate preparedness for the future have gone hand-in-hand to make the CCDC not only a Cree success story but provide a framework for other entities and businesses.
What may have started out as a bunch of Crees banding together for clear-cutting contracts in the mid-1970s has become a Native success story that will no doubt inspire generations of Crees and other First Nations across the country for years to come because when it gets down to it, they did it. They have arrived.