Eeyou Istchee needs 3,000 more jobs in order to match employment levels in the rest of Canada.

That’s one of the challenges addressed by economic advisors, analysts and businesspeople at the first Cree Regional Economic Development Conference in Oujé-Bougoumou September 18-20. Hot topics included the labour market, education statistics and external and internal influences on the Cree economy were discussed, and from the look of things, the Cree Nation has quite a way to go to catch up to the federal or provincial standards of employment.

Four years ago, said Cree Human Resources Development Chairman Henry Mianscum, Eeyou Istchee needed 2,800 jobs to bring its unemployment level down to the Canadian average.

“It was a very bleak picture, to be honest with you,” said Mianscum. “We were hovering at an average of 28 per cent unemployment rate. When you move it up to 2007, we can project another 200 jobs would have been required to meet the unemployment rate.”

Mianscum said the EM I-A hydro electric project is addressing the employment need for the short term on a contractual basis, but that more permanent employment is needed in Eeyou Istchee.

The $3.5 billion Paix des Braves Agreement with Quebec, which is paid out $70 million a year for the next 45 years, and the new $1.4 billion agreement with Ottawa (which has yet to be approved by the consultation process), are two sources of steady income.

Mianscum said that new job creation through entrepreneurial endeavours as well as industry and local governments is needed to boost the sagging economy.

A request was made to the federal government by the CHRD to update the 2003 report. They have not provided the funding yet.

Mianscum speculated that funding to produce another report might have to come out of the $1.4 billion agreement, which is currently in the referendum result review phase.

“In the CHRD territorial programs we have been very successful in securing long-term jobs for many of our clientele,” he said. “That’s because a lot of the industrial sector has been very cooperative and supportive to what we are doing. The number of jobs we have created is probably low in number; it’s steadily increasing, but it’s not as many as we had hoped.”

Mianscum said that the conference was a long time coming and it is important that the lessons learned from the hard numbers presented are examined further to stimulate the economy of one of the fastest growing populations in the country.

“The conference has really struck home. We need to work on economic development as well as the creation of an economic development corporation as is written in the Paix des Braves. That would be instrumental to help the economic growth in our region. Then we would have a good indication as to where our training dollars would go.”

As more than 50 per cent of the Cree population is under 25, the youth and economic development workshop was important, but it was noted during the conference that the best way to reach the young people is not through conferences and job fairs, but rather by going to the schools and promoting available jobs that need special requirements such as advanced math and science.

While the Cree Nation gets smarter in school, it would also open up many individual possibilities for their future job prospects, although today’s picture paints a different story.

“Right now with the public sector all of the positions are being occupied by people who are going to be there for awhile,” said Youth Grand Chief John Matoush. “It’s pretty full in terms of employment. Although there are a few openings here and there, the reality is the opportunity is not really there for the youth.

“A lot of the discussions and feedback was to plant the seed in the youth early while they are in high school. To provide tools they can use and structure things in the way where they are business oriented. That way they can learn early what a business means to a community.”

Matoush talked about a future conference just for youth, where they can plan their own strategies in the overall economic landscape. The number of young people at this year’s conference is one area that could be improved.

“I think the (youth) voice is there. We’re starting to see more and more youth speak out and also taking information and using it to their advantage,” said Matoush, who added that having Ashley Iserhoff as a young Deputy Chief really encourages younger Crees to strive for bigger things.

The prevailing sentiment was somewhat gloomy. There is too much leakage in Cree territory as more and more skilled and un-skilled workers leave for better horizons. Most in attendance agreed that it was important to create more jobs to keep the youth from leaving and at the same time, stimulate the Cree economy by building and expanding into new business ventures – an imperative way of taking control on the way to Cree self-government in the foreseeable future.

Another idea brought forth was the need for increased sharing of information amongst every Cree entity such as the Cree School Board, Cree Health Board and the CHRD. If one hand does not know what the other is doing, the Cree Nation will not be maximizing opportunities presented to them to get ahead in different aspects of nation building. As a result, students, workers, businesses and the economy are the ones who continue to suffer. This needs to change, and fast.

Mianscum was blunt about the issue. “There are a lot of avenues that exist today that we can use,” he said. “We can’t do it by just one entity or one company. We need a multitude of companies and partners to address the crisis of unemployment with our people.”