Since 1990, Canada’s Aboriginal economic developers have been meeting almost annually to swap strategies on how best to develop economic growth in their communities, support and advise their communities and organizations.

Eighteen years later, Quebec had the opportunity once again to play host province for the 15th annual conference and related events. Put on by the Cree Regional Authority in partnership with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, the event took place at the Delta Hotel in downtown Montreal from October 6-8 with a charity golf tournament at the Lafleur Golf Course running prior to the event on October 5.

Who and what it’s all about

Consisting of a conference, an annual general meeting, a trade show and various other social activities geared at forming ties between attendees and presenters, Aboriginals from across the country met, rubbed elbows, talked, listened, learned and recognized achievements.

“It’s a little bit special for me to bring all of these people from across Canada to this conference,” said Alfred Loon, Quebec Director for CANDO and Economic Development Officer at the Cree Regional Authority.

According to Loon, the event was a great success that brought together engaging speakers and presenters who provided excellent information to the developers.

For Loon, developing local economies is all about facing challenges, finding solutions and being creative about it. In that light, every conference has its own nuances. The 2008 conference had a particular focus on government, youth and technology.

As CANDO’s directors mingled with the presenters from the conference and the trade show, one prevailing ideology rang throughout the hotel corridors, a belief that a prosperous economic development of the Aboriginal world is not only possible but all about those with the drive to make it happen.

Retiring from the CANDO board after three terms, Gerri Collins looked back on her experiences with the organization and remarked on how much things had changed over the years.

“The most significant change is structure — how we have become more formalized with policies and procedures, developing an improved relationship with the government and every year the conference gets bigger,” she said.

Though no longer an acting board member, Collins will remain committed to the organization and said that she will continue to be on hand at the event for years to come.

“Don’t worry, they are not going to get rid of me that easily,” she said with a warm smile.

Jack Blacksmith, of the Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Corporation (CREECO), was awarded the economic developer of the year award for his contributions to the Cree communities. Upon winning the award, a painting to go with the prestigious honour, Blacksmith beamed with pride.

“Economic development is very interesting and I find (the conference) extremely helpful for all Aboriginals across the country. This is the only way we are going to have self-sufficiency and employment for our young people and so this is a good way to set that up,” said Blacksmith explaining how he felt about his experience at the conference.

Blacksmith could not help but comment on the flurry of networking activity going on throughout the conference and how positive that on its own was because there is such a need for it within the Cree Nation and beyond.

“We can’t continue like the old Indian Affairs used to in terms of devoting 98% of funding to social needs and 2% for economic development. It’s never going to work and it’s going to be a sad situation if it does because of the fact that the Cree people are such a fast-growing population,” said Blacksmith.

An economic developer himself in Whapmagoostui, the Nation’s own Sonny Orr was on hand at the CANDO event.

“I am here because I believe in economic development. I believe in people trying hard and doing their best and succeeding and becoming somebody,” said Orr. “These are all of the things that keep me going because I want to be somebody when I grow up, be somebody that people actually like,” he went on, joking.

Though the CANDO had quite the bevy of speakers, presenters and entertainers at the event, Orr, like just about everyone else at the conference, could not stop raving about the “impressive” presentations made by the 4th annual youth panel.

“There were very inspiring stories about young people who didn’t have very much or had nothing at all and were living on the streets or getting into trouble, being thrown in jail, drug addiction, you name it but they rose above it to become successful business people,” said Orr.

Inspiring youth

The panel consisted of six youths from across Canada who had overcome all odds to develop successful businesses or make outstanding community achievements while also serving as role models for their nations.

Filling in the gaps between the presenters, CANDO brought in actor Nathaniel Arcand, another stellar example of an Aboriginal success story, to act as the panel’s moderator.

Arcand, known for his roles in North of 60, Moose TV, Grey Owl, and most recently CBC’s Heartland, was impressed by all the young speakers.

“They were inspiring stories. I cried a couple of times because they were so heartwarming and touching,” confessed Arcand.

One of the six presenters, Travis Badger from the Sturgeon Lake First Nation in Alberta, presented his story on how he was destroyed by addiction but turned his life around to mentor other youth in Edmonton. Utilizing his skills as a fashion designer, Badger is the Fashion Program Coordinator at iHuman, a youth society organization for high-risk and at-risk youth.

“I had everything but I lost it all because of my choices. But I am slowly getting back into everything. The youth society I work at is helping me too. They are giving me their building and their facilities to work there and work with other youth,” said Badger.

Since getting sober three years ago Badger has devoted himself to helping the youth in Edmonton get on the fast track to get into fashion careers. Not only does he know the industry, but with his life experience, the youth are more inclined to be receptive.

Hailing from the Rainy First Nations of Manitou Rapids in Ontario, Robert Animikii Horton, another youth council presenter, was on the other side of the spectrum from Badger. A social and political activist who is currently working on his MA in Sociology at Lakehead University, Horton has devoted his life to fighting for economic justice for Indigenous communities.

Having experienced economic inequities himself, going from the poverty-stricken reserve where he lived with his mother to another side of his family where it was all about “jet skis, cheerleading and sports,” Horton knows the imbalance Aboriginal youth experience all too well.

“We have an inherent responsibility, given that our youth have opportunities such as this to challenge these ‘realities’ which are perceived as being very static even though they are fluid. They can be changed; we can remake the world every day,” said Horton.

Once he completes his MA, Horton hopes to go on to a PhD in Indigenous Governance.

Representing the Crees and Quebec, Mistissini’s George Awashish of Awashish Outdoor Adventures, had the opportunity to present his own success story through the youth panel.

Now a successful entrepreneur, Awashish started up his outfitting company in 2000. Offering world-class fishing tours and other outdoor activities, Awashish managed to make a business out of the Cree traditional lifestyle by turning what was once his childhood playground into a thriving business. In doing so, Awashish was able to preserve the land and the trapline that his family has held for four generations while preserving his lifestyle as a traditional Cree.

“An outfitting business is pretty much the best avenue for my lifestyle. You can look at the Cree traditional activities that we offer, it’s not just fishing, we are also out selling our culture,” said Awashish.

Trading Wares

Not everyone on hand at the CANDO event was there to represent a First Nations community, there were also others present from the general population who were looking to develop business ties with Aboriginals.

Pierre Chevrier from the Societe de developpement de la Baie James was on hand looking to meet and greet Crees in order to develop better business relationships with those in the communities.

“The CANDO event was pretty much a ‘can’t miss’ for us,” said Chevrier in reference to the unique networking opportunities abounding at the event.

Out to flog what can only be described as one of the most ambitious online business ventures in the history of the internet, Roland Bellerose presented his Aboriginal Internet Platform at CANDO.

Describing his product as “the Aboriginal internet within the internet,” Bellerose’s platform said that it will be like Facebook, eBay, YouTube and Google for First Nations. Though what Bellerose is offering might not be the most tangible product, the new Aboriginal internet platform that he will be launching in early 2009 will serve a large audience and be extremely multifaceted.

“We will be able to give you the ability, the tools, the applications and the features to go in and do anything in the Aboriginal world. It’s something that the media will be able to use, that corporations will be able to use in terms of surveys and information, polling and reaching the community. It is much broader than just networking tools,” said Bellerose.

With the Aboriginal population expanding exponentially faster than any other populations in Canada, there is a need for intensive economic development within Native communities and beyond. Luckily there are organizations like CANDO around to promote growth and development for the generations to come.