It was off to Thunderbay, Ontario, home of Paul Shaffer, David Letterman’s musical sidekick and some guy from the Mighty Duck’s. No one there dared cheer for the Devil’s unless they wished for the more than likely physical demonstration of displeasure from the proud Thunderbayites.

I was there as part of the Aboriginal Economic Renewal Initiative Conference on working partnerships. The conference was organized by Moose Factories own Merv MacLeod of MacLeod Wood Associates.

I think the most memorable quote of the conference was Lloyd Girman of West Group when he said, “You’ve got to learn how to manage your Whitemen.” Girman, himself wasn’t Native and looked pretty Caucasian to us all. It wouldn’t be the first time Girman captured my attention. It turns out that he was a former VP of SNC Lavilan and also had worked for the Manitoba Government. Girman believes there is a fine line between business and government. He said, “There isn’t a deal that the government doesn’t have its hand in someway.” Girman went on to explain this was why SNC Lavilan was one of the largest contributors to the Liberal Party. “If you look at Corporate Canada, some of the companies are a small government unto ourselves.”

Girman believes that Aboriginal people in Canada have a considerable amount of power. He said the court cases show that Natives control 20 per cent of Canada’s land mass and corporate Canada has a desire to make money. “We’re talking major deals where the Natives are significant shareholders,” said Girman.

Girman shocked a few of us when he said money was not an issue saying the Quebec teachers Fund has to place $10 million a week and the California teacher’s Fund has to place $100 million a week in investment monies. Girman wasn’t interested in small amount like $1-2 million dollar projects but said a big deal of $1.2 billion would get his interest. “If there’s a solid deal out there we know it. I’m here to sell you money,” he said, “If it’s interesting. I’ll find you.”

Girman pointed out that a great many people were on hand to sell money. “The CIBC is here. Do you think it’s because they suddenly got a social conscience? No, every major organization has an Aboriginal unit these days. It’s because 50 per cent of something is better than 100 per cent of nothing. And I’d rather have 20 percent of five things than 100 per cent of one thing,” he said. Girman ended saying, “If we settle for less then that is all we’ll ever get.”

I would have to say that the Cree are lucky to have a person like Albert Diamond around. Not only has he turned Air Creebec around and made it a profitable concern he is a great spokesman for the Cree. Diamond started off by saying he hates to be the last speaker in a panel. He said it was like being Liz tailors eighth husband. After the laughs Diamond got serious. He said the most important thing is information. He said he goes to mining conferences to see what is happening and to learn. He searches the internet to find out about mining companies to see if they have an interest in Eeyou Istchee.

Diamond recommends such things as taking decision makers from any business out to lunch, go golfing with them and have a meeting where you can get as much information as possible.

Other places to find information involve joining the local Chamber of Commerce. “People there are business people and they’ll ask you what you heard about a certain project,” said Diamond. He calls this a promising lead.

To make his point Diamond talked about a $19 million dollar deal Air Creebec received. He said that the airline started working on the proposal in June 2002 but signed the deal on February 18, 2003. Diamond’s advise is to tell potential clients what you can do but in the context of what they need. He said image is critical and at Air Creebec five out of six pilots are native and all three flight attendants are native. Diamond said this was remarked upon by one of his clients as a positive thing. Diamond said there is still room for improvement as out of the 43 maintenance people only one is Cree.

It is a proud moment for him as he helped to realize an airline that started 20 years ago as a partnership with Austin Airways and grew to be a wholly owned Cree enterprise.

All in all, AERI should be proud of the work that they have done in promoting not only partnerships but fostering understanding between Natives and non-Natives.