All 93 delegates agreed that 10 years was too long a time to have another Cree Economic Conference. The last one was in 1997 and had only 36 delegates in attendance. Times have changed, however. Communities realize they need to be proactive in economic development.
And it’s more complicated than simply signing a piece of paper with one level of government or another, as keynote speaker Dr. Billy Diamond said in his speech.
“Right now people are looking at the Rupert project, the public works projects that are coming from the Paix des Braves funds and now potentially the new federal agreement – this is not economic development,” said Diamond. “Economic development does not mean: give a contract to the local development corporation by negotiating with yourself. Economic development does not mean: sell all your rivers, lakes, mountains, streams, creeks or land so you can keep injecting money into social housing.”
It means that traditional methods of Cree economic development are being questioned. In other words, “We have to let business people take care of business and the politicians take care of politics,” said Diamond. “When the band councils, the Cree Regional Authority or even Creeco get directly involved in business activity they are harming their people. They are using the funds that are intended for everyone’s welfare to compete against individuals. I am tired of submitting bids on projects only to find out that I was competing with my own money!”
The Creeco Report identified a need to develop long-term joint ventures or partnerships that transfer knowledge and skills to Cree entrepreneurs along with a healthy share of profits. The report called for more support for the private sector, including a fund that can work to complement other existing funding sources outside of Eeyou Istchee.
Such a venture-capital fund was discussed when the Paix des Braves Agreement was being sold to the Cree people but hasn’t been implemented. In fact, the Cree Development Corporation was created with this in mind, but it has never received a sufficient portion of the Paix des Braves funding to even begin to think about becoming the “economic engine” of the Cree communities that it was vaunted to be.
Conference delegates were restricted to Crees, even though many non-Cree companies were interested in participating. Creeco justified the policy by saying Crees needed to sit down and talk among themselves for a change.
“One of the things we always wanted to do was to have a Cree conference and with the report formulate something that was a Cree direction,” said Creeco Chairperson Jack Blacksmith. “Not something that comes from one person in an office. Hopefully the politicians will now take this and go forward from that.”
The conference looked at all aspects of economic development, including quality-of-life issues that are critical to a healthy, well-rounded community. It was emphasized that to create and retain non-public sector jobs, support must be available for businesses to help them start up or expand.
“Give our entrepreneurs the opportunity to remain connected with the community,” said Diamond. “You cannot have an entrepreneur without a community; that is the market. It is the same as you cannot have a Cree without a community.”
One of the key areas of concern was that the emphasis on education has to increase dramatically if the Cree labour force is going to be prepared for employment. The 2005 Cree School Board statistics show poor academic performances at all levels of education. The drop-out rate is also quite high for the Cree student population overall.
“In regards to students who graduate from high school, from technical or professional studies, from college or from university, there is a need to provide these graduates with suitable and meaningful employment,” reads the Creeco report. “We need to consider the messages are we sending when we don’t accommodate our successful graduates.”
The Report recommends that a study be undertaken to quantify the total economic costs of the Crees’ high drop-out rate. It must emphasize the lost dollar value but also the lost human resource value potential.
Another area was the concern of whether or not Cree economies locally and regionally would be able to create sufficient job growth to employ the huge Cree youth population.
Said Diamond, “Cree territory is not growing but Crees are. These means we have to start expanding our markets. We have competitive businesses; we even have non-Native partners and joint ventures. Why are we only in our back yard? How come I don’t see signs at construction sites in the south with the logos of our companies? I am not talking about the far south either, but nearby in Val d’Or, Chibougamau, Roberval, Amos and even Matagami. You mean to tell me that the market is so tough in Matagami, we can’t get in? We have no choice: we have to start accessing these markets instead of allowing the entrepreneurs from these markets to come work in our homes. It makes me feel like the girl whose boyfriend doesn’t want to introduce her to his parents. I am not that kind of girl!”
The conference identified some problems in this regard as the creation and enforcement of MBJ by-laws within the territory is causing serious issues for the Cree and their development. “There is a need for the Cree to be more assertive over the land and resources within their territory,” the Report observed. “People are looking to the leadership to respond to this.”
An analysis of the conference shows a desire among Cree entrepreneurs for a real economy but pressures must be placed on the leadership to create the conditions suitable to the creation of a larger business class.
Another conference is already in the planning stages and more Cree entrepreneurs will be invited to attend and show what they can offer the Crees. In the meantime, “Buy Cree First.” is the new rallying cry.