While it has always been said that two heads are better than one, imagine the potential of a few hundred heads gathered in Val d’Or for a two-day event that will focus on construction in Eeyou Istchee?

The idea behind “Build With Vision,” the upcoming Cree construction conference on March 10-11, is to bring together every community, Cree governance, the Cree entities, and minor and major industry players to see how the local industry can be improved.

“I think that it is our responsibility to ensure that the Cree Nation knows about the wide-ranging careers that are available in construction,” said Rodney Hester, a business development coordinator for Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Company (CREECO).

Promoting employment within the industry is just one aspect of the event. It will also focus on getting Crees properly accredited to industry regulations, construction within the communities, a trade show and displays of heavy machinery.

If that is not enough to get interested bodies through the door, HGTV’s own Mike Holmes from Holmes on Homes will be the headlining guest speaker at the event.

According to Hester, despite all of the talk about the poor economy, construction will be booming in the north. Between the ever-growing Cree population’s need for new housing and expanding facilities, the new justice centres that will be built in each of the communities and new infrastructure, there will be a lot going on.

The problem is that many Crees lack the training to be able to tap into the boom and reap the benefits due to the shortage of tradesmen in the north. Among the Crees who have completed trade programs related to the construction industry, many have not completed the necessary apprenticeships to become certified journeymen. Because of the lack of certification within these trades, certificate-holding tradesmen from elsewhere are brought in so that the projects can be up to industry code.

“We should be participating fully in the construction within our own territory,” said Hester. He also pointed at how there is also a lack of professionals within the industry such as architects, engineers and inspectors.

Because the event will address everything from training to the industry, the Cree Regional Authority (CRA) and the Secretariat to the Cree Nation-Abitibi-Temiscamingue, who are hosting the event, have also called in a steady stream of partners to help pull off the event. CREECO will be partnering up for this event as will the Niskamoon Corporation, the Cree School Board, Vieux Comptoir Construction Inc., SEBJ and Hydro-Québec.

Since the conference wants to bring together all of the bodies involved in construction within the region, the municipalities of Val d’Or, Rouyn Noranda and Amos will also be sponsoring the conference. Representatives from all nine Cree communities will be on hand to take part as will Cree Construction, many other local companies and a bevy of keynote speakers.

With his mind never far off from developing the Cree economy, CREECO President Jack Blacksmith will be speaking at the event.

“This is just one venue in terms of trying to capitalize on the situation of construction programs for the overall development within the territory,” said Blacksmith.

He will also provide a follow-up from the 2007 Cree Regional Economic Development Conference along with the results and recommendations that came out of that event. Since construction was a focal point at the 2007 conference, the event served as almost a precursor to the upcoming industry-specific construction event.

Employment shortfalls are not the only area that Blacksmith sees as needing to be addressed.

“It’s not easy for us as people to go to the banks and get acknowledged that we are good companies and the banks or financial institutions can take a chance with us. So if we start talking in a more professional manner with all of these institutions, maybe we will advance more quickly,” said Blacksmith.

Without the backing of a financial institution, many companies find themselves unable to proceed with certain projects that require warranties or certain terms of bonding. Sometimes this can also result in a project not being finished on time and loosing money.

Blacksmith is aware of some enterprises or joint ventures within the communities that have had such experiences and he wants to discuss the issue at the conference.

There will be three major workshops at the conference to address separate but related aspects of the construction industry – human resources, the perspective of the construction industry and actual construction within the Cree communities.

Cree Human Resource Development’s Coordinator of Territorial Programs, Michael Petawabano will be working in conjunction with others, including Hester, to present the HR workshop.

“We want to promote the skilled Cree trade workers, and promote these trades to the Cree youth who can train for them. It’s also about finding better uses of our financial resources from the government and the agreement in order to meet employment and training needs. We are looking to promote positive interaction between Cree entrepreneurs and local workers, regional governments and entities,” said Petawabano.

In reference to the lack of apprenticeships that many Crees have not succeeded in doing – due to the lack of accredited tradesmen to apprentice under within the region – Petawabano said that this creates a lack of autonomy.

Band councils can create their own bylaws when it comes to certification, which means Cree tradesmen can find work within the communities but are not recognized outside of Cree territory.

Discussing the actual construction industry within the Cree communities, Emmett MacLeod, Coordinator of Technical Services for the CRA, along with others, will be holding a separate workshop. From his perspective this conference is not just about doling out information but also gathering it from the participants.

“It’s all about exchanging information and developing strategies. We can sit there and discuss problems all day but what we really want are solutions to work with and directions to go in. That to me is one of the core opportunities of the construction conference,” said MacLeod.

The third workshop will focus on the perspective of the construction industry and will look at industry regulations and how these regulations can impact construction development within the Cree communities. This workshop will be facilitated by Niskamoon’s Kathy Shecapio and will be presented by lawyer John Paul Murdoch.

At the end of the conference, Albert Diamond, head of Air Creebec and president of the Secretariat, will give a presentation based on the findings of the workshops and the other events at “Build With Vision”.

Though he recognizes that there is no way to predict what will be discussed in the workshops, Diamond is hopeful that strong recommendations come out of them.

“Hopefully it will be very constructive that we will be able to start making changes. One of the reasons why the CRA went ahead with the conference is because everybody is saying that we have been doing the same thing year in and year out with more and more money. The costs keep escalating and the quality is starting to disappear on the workmanship,” said Diamond.

Diamond said that he sees a large number of professionals working in the communities doing what the Crees are unable to do. This means that Cree dollars are leaving the communities. The costs incurred for these individuals’ flights and accommodation also adds to the cost of a project, leaving the Crees with less.

He is also hoping that this event might bring about greater communication between the Cree businesses, entities and partners and the suppliers they go to for building materials. The idea is that the Crees could save a lot of money if they were purchasing materials for 100 houses in nine communities instead of for 10 houses in one community.

Like many within the communities, Diamond wants to see the funds from the Crees’ various agreements with Quebec and Canada stay local and not be squandered.

“Sure you do have some Crees being hired but the question is how you make sure that all of the workers down the road are Crees. This is what we are hoping will be said at the conference. If they don’t say it, I will,” said Diamond with a big laugh.

The Cree construction conference, “Build With Vision”, will take place at the Forestel Hotel in Val d’Or and is open to everyone. For more information, to reserve a booth or register, contact The Secretariat to the Cree Nation-Abitibi-Temiscaminque Economic Alliance at 819-824-9888 or email cusson.caroline@cablevision.qc.ca