There were signs for a potential confrontation leading up to the Cree Regional Economic Enterprises (CREECO Inc.) board meeting in December. Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come’s plan to radically re-organize control of its business operations raised fears that the proposal would kill the fundamental principle of community control over Cree business interests.

Since the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed in 1975, control by the beneficiaries has been treated as an article of faith. The question was whether they could find middle ground given the outside world’s plans for massive industrial development in Cree territory.

In the end, the CREECO Inc. Board of Directors wasn’t convinced. It passed a motion asking that that the Grand Council withdraw Resolution #2011-07 – at least for now. CREECO Inc. and the Board of Compensation said it needed more information and alternatives to the present plan. And it asked the Grand Council and CRA to find a middle ground that might consolidate Cree business interests, protect treaty rights, and still preserve those institutions that provide a voice for the beneficiaries of the James Bay Agreement.

Coon Come said the Grand Council and Cree Regional Authority passed Resolution #2011-07 to implement a section of the “Paix des Braves.” This section, he said, committed the Cree to move its business interests under a new roof called the Cree Development Corporation (CDC). This would streamline the management of CREECO Inc., minimize the competition between regional and local Cree business, and make it possible to take advantage of new business opportunities presented by Quebec’s Plan Nord.

Coon Come said CREECO Inc. was focused on local economic and business development. He understood this was the reason why CREECO Inc. had been created. But times had changed, Coon Come said. Quebec business and industry had already moved into Cree territories to develop forestry, mining and oil but without Cree involvement. As a result, he said the Cree had missed out on partnerships and investment opportunities that could have earned them billions of dollars.

Instead Coon Come said some Cree companies were losing money. The Grand Chief blamed the present structure of CREECO Inc., which he said put Cree regional companies in competition against community-based companies. They should rather, he claimed, be competing against or entering into partnerships with non-Cree businesses in resource development.

Regardless, Coon Come said, the Cree needed to centralize control of its business interests. “We need to have a comprehensive economic development plan,” to ensure the financial future of the Cree people by taking advantage of opportunities presented by Quebec’s Plan Nord. The present system (the Board of Compensation and CREECO Inc.) was created to handle economic and business conditions of the past. It was time, Coon Come said, for the Cree to re-organize their business and economic development operations to manage their money, investments and businesses for the future.

Coon Come said the first step was to dissolve the boards of the Cree CREECO Inc. and the Board of Compensation (BoC). All of the assets of these two entities, including the companies and staff under the CREECO Inc. umbrella, would need to be transferred to the new CDC. The BoC would keep its Heritage and General Fund “for passive investment only.” But the CDC would be able to access the Fund to use as needed.

To make this possible, the Board of Compensation and the board of directors of CREECO Inc. would need to pass resolutions to transfer their assets, confirm the change in their mandates, and clarify their roles as investment brokers acting for Cree beneficiaries. Most important, the BoC and CREECO Inc. would no longer provide a direct role for beneficiaries to take part in the management of Cree regional businesses. The CDC would need to pass resolutions to create a new board of directors for the new entity.

Coon Come said the CDC board would have 11 seats: a Cree chairperson, five Cree directors appointed by the Grand Council and CRA, and five more directors appointed by the Quebec government. Quebec’s appointments would open doors to major corporations but also establish “closer working relationships” with big business, financial institutions and entrepreneurs in the province. Coon Come emphasized that the Cree would control this new board since each of its directors would have two votes compared to the one vote given to each non-Cree board member.

The proposal did not get a receptive audience at the CREECO Inc. board, which was being asked to dissolve itself and surrender control of their businesses and investments.

Jack Blacksmith, President of the BoC, said he spoke for all 21 members of his board. “None of the Board of Compensation members agree with the CDC plan,” he said. Furthermore, Blacksmith continued, the Grand Council’s plan to create CDC was “costing money in lost opportunities.”

Eastmain Chief Edward Gilpin raised two concerns. First, the CDC “replaces the communities and puts the CRA in control with communities as only beneficiaries – not controllers.” Furthermore, he asked, how can the CDC make money when it would be subject to provincial taxes that would “eat up profits.” At present, Gilpin said, Cree businesses were 46 per cent tax-free and would be giving that up by going with the CDC.

CREECO Inc. Vice-President Darlene Cheechoo said she wasn’t against development. “But at what cost?” She said the CDC plan represented an undefined and uncertain future. She wondered if the CDC’s creation would undermine Cree treaty rights, asking whether there are any other alternatives to CDC.

“I don’t want to cause or create division,” Cheechoo added. “I’m asking to know more. Having explored the alternatives, we need to know which is best for our Nation.”

Not everyone was against the CDC plan. Abel Bosum said small community-based business hadn’t been very successful. CREECO Inc. was supposed to concentrate on creating big businesses that would compete with Quebec companies and had some successes such as Air Creebec and the recent purchase of the Quality Inn in Val D’Or. However, he added, the Paix des Braves was supposed to signal a “new relationship with Canada” and lead to new business opportunities, job creation and ensure the financial future for all Cree.

“But we need partners,” Bosum said, “and it doesn’t matter whether it’s in wind power or any other kind of development. Energy, mining, forestry – these are the main sources of wealth.” These were commodities that could generate future wealth. Quebec’s Plan Nord is going to happen, he said, and the CDC was one means of making sure that Cree business could get into the game early.

Chisasibi Chief Abraham Rupert said that while he didn’t understand the CDC plan yet, “I think people have to know more about it because it means economic development. Hopefully we can make it so local companies don’t compete with regional companies.

“Right now, for example, take Cree Construction. Local communities have set up their own construction companies. Right there, there’s competition. You’re competing against your own regional company at the same time you’re trying to create local economic development.”

Jack Blacksmith said the Board of Compensation fully supports economic development, creating jobs and training Cree workers. “But you can’t do that by giving all our money to CDC, dissolving the Board of Compensation, the Board of CREECO Inc.. That’s what we don’t agree with. We believe there is a way to do this without dissolving any entity because these are important institutions that can play a real role in creation of the CDC and economic development. But to dissolve it and give all the money to CDC, my board can’t agree to that.”

Grand Council Executive Director Bill Namagoose said he’s heard all the concerns and questions before. But he says time is running out. This isn’t the first time the Cree have had a proposal to develop a comprehensive business plan, consolidate their resources, and fine-tune the existing business organization. To him, the Cree have a choice. They can either be players in the Plan Nord and benefit, or cling to a 40-year old model that’s gone past its “best before” date.

“The world has passed us by,” said Namagoose. “The world has passed by the Board of Compensation model, where we administer a tiny bit of money that we received in the 1970s. We spend $150 million on it every six months for 18,000 people compared to 6,000 who signed the James Bay Agreement in 1975. Then we have the Plan Nord coming in and we can’t have these little bits of money – capital – sitting here and there. We need to pool our capital because that’s what (Premier Jean) Charest is doing. He’s bringing in American capital, pooling Chinese capital, pooling Quebec capital into a massive fund to develop the North.”

“You’ve got to be players in development, to control that development. To do that, you’ve got to be players in their boardrooms. The only way you can into their boardroom is with capital. They’re not going to invite you just because you’re Cree or you’re a nice guy. You have to put capital on the table. We have to graduate from the little leagues and join the big leagues.”

Namagoose may have a point. But as the CREECO Inc. refusal demonstrated, the CDC backers will have to do a better job of explaining how more people will benefit by putting economic power in fewer hands.