The Ottawa Convention Centre is always abuzz with activity. So close to the centres of power, you never know what sort of opportunities are there to be made. The 2012 edition of the Northern Lights Business and Cultural Showcase gave those opportunities a Native spin.
Between February 1 and 4, hundreds of people descended on Ottawa to drum up business, set up associations and share their cultures with each other. And the diversity of those cultures was heady. Walk through its brightly lighted Main hall among the throngs, you find yourself caught between aisles formed by endless booths pitching just about anything. Need broadband internet service in Nunavut? Check. Thinking of building a career as an intelligence operative? CSIS has you covered. Thinking of becoming a heavy machine operator? The Operating Engineers Training Institute of Ontario has a fully functioning mini-backhoe for you to give a whirl. If you listen closely, you find yourself hearing everything from Inuktituk to a cockney accent straight out of a BBC comedy.
There was official business to be had as well. Quebec Premier Jean Charest was on hand to give a speech on some of the finer points of the Plan Nord during a luncheon. Delegates waited patiently for an hour before the current premier and former federal Minster of the Environment took the podium. Charest reiterated some of the main points of the Plan – billions in investment over 25 years over an area twice the size of France. He also focused on environmental issues in the North – balancing economic development with the fight against global warming being a prime concern.
“We’re more affected by climate change because of our North,” said Charest. “The fishing season has become two weeks longer in the span of a year along James Bay. The world economy is moving to Asia, and China alone will become the world’s largest importer by 2014. The North is an extraordinary warehouse of minerals and there will be a sharp rise in demand [for them].”
After the presentation, CREECO’s Jonathan Saganash managed to have an impromptu summit with the premier. Charest shook his hand and praised the Beesum-produced CREECO corporate video which he had recently watched in Oujé-Bougoumou. With the formalities concluded, the trade-and-art show commenced.
The people of Eeyou Istchee were well represented at the event. Engineer Rowena Patenaude was the friendly face greeting people at the Cree Construction and Development Company’s booth. Also present were the leaders of the Secretariat to the Cree Nation Abitibi-Témiscamingue Economic Alliance (SCNATEA). The Secretariat’s liaison officer, Chantal Hamelin, spent the day explaining the aims of SCNATEA.
“This is a tool for the Cree nation,” she said. “For business people who want to work in the territory but don’t know the culture, we can create synergy and find the right people for them.”
One such example was the Youdin Geomatics company. Given the amount of raw material touted by Charest earlier, Youdin will be very busy in the next few years. As geological engineers, they provide everything from the digital topography to the aerial surveys required before mineral exploitation can take place.
A bit further afield, Nunatsiaq News came all the way down from Iqaluit to set up a booth at the show. The newspaper – The Globe and Mail of the North proclaimed advertising representative Bill McConkley with a laugh – is fully bilingual. Roman script for the English, syllabics for the Inuktitut, are written side-by-side in harmony.
SCNATEA were by far not the only economic developers present for the show in Ottawa. Coming all the way from the isolated Cape Dorset near Arctic Bay in Nunavut, economic development officer Clare Kine took the time to share the challenges of creating growth in remote parts of the country. His concerns echo those of many communities, including Eeyou Istchee.
“We face a lot of challenges due to our isolation,” said Kine. “Nutrition and cost of transportation are big concerns. It costs $3000 just to get to Iqaluit, the same cost for two people to go to New Zealand. Improved transport links are our CPR [Canadian Pacific Rail], the same way British Columbia was brought into the country by rail links.” When asked if he had a word for Cree readers, he smiled broadly and said, “Teniki!”
Some of the more serious business was reserved for private conferences put on by large corporations. The complicated logistics of putting on such conferences posed different kinds of challenges for their organizers. One had problems with real-time translation of English into Inuktitut. Another had an attendee loudly complain about the visual presentation, saying she found it pointless to be at a conference where the speaker simply recites the words written on the presentation slides. Aside from some minor snags, the conference went off without a hitch.
It wasn’t all business at the trade show, however. Artisans were represented well represented, with wares of all shapes, sizes and colour on display from across the country. Artisans of Arctic Bay found a very modern way to attract consumers – a bright blue bracelet concealing a USB drive packed with samples of artistic goodies. A notice on the back of the bracelet read “2GB China” – perhaps a harbinger of things to come given Charest’s earlier speech.
Outside the main hall, the pace was a little slower and the din a little quieter. Here were the booths for the artisans, artistic co-ops and adventure tours that are increasingly important components of the economic livelihood of First Nations. An Elder with a weathered face patiently used a fine sanding tool to create a soapstone carving at the Ululaq Inuit Arts.
Further along, a stage had been set up for the day’s various performers. With Parliament Hill as a backdrop, Alex Saunders of Happy Valley-Goose Bay read excerpts from his book Aullak. Later, a pair of traditional Inuit throat singers filled the room with their rhythmic drones. Rising hip-hop star Nelson Tagoona kicked out the jams accompanied by another pair of traditional singers. Tagoona would rap and beatbox while his friends Karen Flaherty and Kiah Hachey kept the competition going with their throat singing.
Capping off the day with yet more friendly competition, Inuit athlete Johnny Isaluq put on a display of Arctic games. He went through various feats of balance before going head-to-head with a volunteer from the audience for a strength competition. Isaluq took the time to remind the enraptured spectators that these games were meant to be done in a spirit of cooperation and friendship.
“You always shake hands with your opponent,” he said. “You have to enjoy life, share and teach it to those who will come after.”
Whether it was to say qujannamiik, meegwetch, or merci, the conventioneers were all more than happy to say thanks for a successful gathering.