You’re not making your payments, so we’re going to have to take your truck – your business – from you. Kevin Blacksmith of Waswanipi heard this bouncing around in his head as he worked his snowplowing job on Route 113, and wondered if the work would pick up like the Band Council said it would. The government grants he received ran out after year two, and the $3000-per-month payments were impossible to keep up with unless there was work, and soon. That was year three. Four years later, Blacksmith was hearing different news.

“Your sister nominated you for the entrepreneur of the year award,” Blacksmith recalls hearing from his daughter, Cassidie. “And that’s not even the good news – you won.”

The Eeyou Economic Group’s Nature, Trade and Industry Conference in early November in Val-d’or brought together First Nations business owners from around Eeyou Itschee, culminating in a gala where Blacksmith took home the Entrepreneur of the Year award.

The gala and awards ceremony celebrated its fifth anniversary this year, while the business conference that has sprung up around it enjoyed its third edition. Before, the gala was a stand-alone event to honour the entrepreneurial achievements of the Cree community. But the Waswanipi-based Eeyou Economic Group (EEG), which partnered with the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Economic Development Commission (FNQLEDC) for the event, saw an opportunity in the gathering of minds at the gala.

“We thought if we were bringing everyone out for the gala, we should do something constructive, too,” said Manon Richmond, Director General of the EEG. “We really want to solidify business relationships between First Nations. Often we see big gatherings but the Cree involvement is minimal, so we wanted to improve this. It’s a good opportunity to network.”

Five awards were given out this year to acknowledge the range of Cree business enterprises this year. M.Y. Surveying (Mistissini) won emerging entrepreneur, while Mista Hot Dog (Mistissini), of food cart fame, won youth entrepreneur. R & D Eenou Lumber (Mistissini) took home the business partnership award, while Charlotte Cooper (of Waswanipi) won the 25 years of service award. And, of course, Blacksmith took home his own hardware.

“I’m still in shock right now, I don’t know why they picked me,” he said, laughing.

His daughter Cassidie Decontie, Youth Business Advisor at the EEG, laid out his case without the shackles of modesty. Since founding his transportation company, Blacksmith has fought tooth and nail for sustainability and, sometime, survival.

“His truck almost got taken from him,” Decontie said. “It was not easy, especially financially, and all through that time he didn’t give up while others would’ve. He loves what he does and that’s what keeps him going every day. That inspires me also, because I’d love to call my career a hobby as well.”

The selection committee concurred.

“We saw on the nomination form how passionately [Blacksmith] devotes and dedicates himself to being sustainable on his own,” said Richmond. “He created his own job, and we saw how much of a role model he was for his family.”

Since nearly losing his truck, Blacksmith found consistent and plentiful work, catching up on his monthlies and paying off his debt in year five. Now, he’s planning to expand his business with another truck, while balancing the demands of his promotion to foreman at the highway presents.

The EEG awarded the contribution entrepreneurs make to their communities. Small and medium businesses make up a huge portion of the jobs in Cree communities, they said, and entrepreneurs like Blacksmith give back to the community in the way of increased work. Richmond’s goal was to honour those working outside of a 9-to-5 schedule, since their achievements rarely get recognized.

Blacksmith, for his part, said the award was more motivation than achievement, while reiterating the decidedly unorthodox work schedule.

“It gives me more motivation when I get up in the morning,” Blacksmith said. “Hard work pays off. It’s hard work when you drive those things; it’s tiring every day and you sometimes get burned out on those 12- or 14-hour shifts. So it is great that someone noticed.”