December 5 saw the Fifth Annual Cree Nation/Abitibi-Temiscamingue Business Exchange Day held by the Secretariat to the Cree Nation Abitibi-Temiscamingue Economic Alliance. If you think that’s a mouthful, it was also an eyeful to see all the networking going on.

You could almost feel the money moving as participants gathered to plan for the next phase of Hydro-Quebec’s development. Millions are at stake and Northern Quebec wants a serious piece of the action.

This time, however, Crees and their northern neighbours have united to ensure the economic spin-offs are widely shared. The event was an opportunity to brainstorm ways of working together to maximize benefits for the north. Many had never met before this Business Exchange Day, which was designed to change that sense of isolation.

Air Creebec president Albert Diamond wears another hat as president of the Secretariat to the Cree Nation Abitibi-Temiscamingue Economic Alliance. “As you know we do not get enough opportunities to meet face to face with those that we do or want to do business with,” said Diamond.

Diamond’s co-president, Guy Barif of the Comite de maximisation des retombees economiques en Abitibi-Temiscamingue (Comaxat), said the initial focus is on economic spin-offs from Hydro-Quebec projects.

“It would not have been possible without the immense collaboration of the Cree Nation business people and the harmonious relationships that have evolved with them,” said Barif. “This fifth meeting of the Business Exchange is an excellent opportunity to consolidate, to exchange and develop favourable links for all.”

Grand Chief Matthew Mukash was unable to make his planned appearance at the event due to bad weather in Whapmagoustui, forcing Albert Diamond to deliver the Grand Chief’s prepared speech.

“As many of you know, this event is designed to promote business partnerships, relationships, and collaboration for businesses in our region. In the past, this event has been extremely well attended, bringing together the Cree entrepreneurs, leaders and communities with the non-Cree business community in Northern Quebec,” said Diamond on behalf of Mukash.

Mukash pointed out that the New Relationship deal with Quebec lead to many of the opportunities between Crees and other residents of Eeyou Istchee.

“In the region there is a great potential for business, development and innovative enterprise. However, this is true about many places. What will make Northern Quebec different? Our ability to work together, to respect each other for what we bring to the table, and our commitment to the longevity of our ventures. The testament of this annual event is that we are not here for a quick buck. We are here for sustainable development that will continue to reap rewards for the region for generations to come. We are here for capacity building in our organizations, and the region which means a greater economy. We are building a labour force of skilled and experienced professionals and workers – a foundation of human resources.”

Mukash said the North needs to go beyond local markets and start thinking globally. “Like with other aspects of our lives, the only restrictions we have to economic growth are the ones we place upon ourselves.”

Mukash encouraged everyone to look to the future and envision new types of development to raise living standards and build a sustainable economy.

Normand Bechard, Directeur of the Eastmain Project for Societe d’energie de la Baie James (SEBJ), said the Eastmain Project and the Rupert River Diversion have already seen benefits for both Cree and non-Cree businesses. He said this will continue until 2012 when the projects are completed.

He said the Crees have been an important part of it since the beginning.

“Right from the design phase, we have diligently worked to ensure that Cree traditional knowledge, as well as the concerns of the Cree and non-Cree populations of James Bay, are incorporated into this major undertaking, the project of the decade. This principle applies to the environment – a key issue we take to heart and address on a daily basis – as well as to the economic spin-offs that can be generated in the host communities, an issue that is as important to us as it is to our regional partners,” said Bechard.

Bechard said the Boumhounan Agreement provides for contracts worth at least $240 million to be awarded to Cree businesses through direct negotiation. He acknowledged some problems in this process.

“Honouring our mutual commitments and undertakings is not always easy; it requires openness, honesty and mutual respect on the part of everyone involved. Until now, however, the solid business relationship we have forged has allowed for the growth of Cree businesses that, as we speak, are carrying out major work and subcontracting to regional enterprises, and are even working with non-Cree companies to increase their production capacity, as is the case with the Wemindji-Norascon partnership and with Vieux-comp-toir, the result of an association between Wemindji and Massénor,” said Bechard.

He said 20 Cree companies have been awarded 30 contracts while other businesses in Abitibi-Temiscamingue have won about 20 contracts. This, he felt, was a good beginning.

Another SEBJ worker said the work is ready to start on the Rupert River Diversion aspect of the project.

Companies signed up for the Business Exchange Day included Wynibec Enterprises Ltd., Farrington Media, Ouje-Bougoumou Enterprises Ltd., MacLeod Services Reg’d, Cree Nation of Mistissini Economic Development, Cree Native Arts and Crafts, Waska Resources, Matoush Enterprises Enr., Chisasibi Business Service Centre, James Bay Cree Communications, Fort George Island Tours, Cree Human Resources Dept., Tawich Development Corporation, Wemindji Telecommunications Association, Beesum Communications, Wabannutao Eeyou Development Corp., Stajune Construction, Waskaganish First Nation, Creeco, Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, Eskan Company and Vieux Comptior Construction.