Economic development officers, local band administrators and various heads of Aboriginal companies met in Montreal February 12-14 to exchange ideas and foster new business relations as a way to strengthen ties that will boost economic productivity.

A large crowd of about 900 people from many of the 633 bands across Canada gathered at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel for the three-day Aboriginal Financial Officers Association of Canada Conference 2008.

A presentation was made by Grand Council Executive Director Bill Namagoose to explain the impact two major agreements have had on the Cree way of life.

A third, the recently signed $1.4 billion deal to make Canada live up to their obligations under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), was heralded as long overdue.

“We’re convinced if we hadn’t defeated the Great Whale project and took part in the sovereignty issue with Quebec, there wouldn’t be a Paix des Braves, and without that there wouldn’t be the federal deal,” Namagoose told the Nation.

Namagoose called on business-minded Crees to step up and be a part of the ever-growing economic Cree world.

“One of the greatest weaknesses of Aboriginal business in Canada is administration,” he said. “If we had more of an administrative capacity in the Cree communities, our self-government would be far more advanced. It bodes well for the future if we can get an administrative arm focused in advance; it would help the overall cause.”

Namagoose cited agreements in Nunavut, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories as similar to the Cree deal in that they are now realizing how little the federal government lives up to its obligations for land claims.

“They thought they would just take our lands and our rivers and they would get all the profits and the Crees would be out of the way. It doesn’t work that way,” said Namagoose.

He talked about the Cree negotiating strategy, called the incremental approach.

“If you have a strategy of all or nothing, you usually get nothing. With the incremental approach at least you’re advancing, you’re going up the river and you’re portaging. You can’t carry all the goods in the same canoe; you have to do several trips. That’s what the Crees are doing.”

Bill 54, or the Cree Policing Agreement, has come under fire recently from angry Municipalite de la Baie James mayors who think it gives too much control to Cree police over the MBJ territory and surrounding non-Native towns.

The agreement, which is a part of the JBNQA and has been in negotiations for over 30 years, would see Cree police respond to calls in neighbouring towns, but only if a Cree were involved and only with the assistance of local police.

Namagoose stressed that Cree police have gone through the same training as the Surete de Quebec, so the worries of people like MBJ Chair Gerald Lemoyne are unfounded.

Recent meetings with provincial MNA’s to gather information on the agreement and to give a chance to MBJ mayors to express theirs, was all for naught, according to Namagoose.

When asked if the bill would be affected in any way because of the MBJ’s concerns, he was terse.

“No. From the meetings we had, they are enough votes to carry the legislation. They will not change or amend the agreement. When we negotiated with the (provincial) government, it represents the MBJ. When you start negotiating with quasi-governments, there will be no end to that process.”

The Youth

Aboriginal Youth Financial Management Conference Awards were given out to three promising youth from across the country.

After receiving their awards, the three high school students were pumped.

“I feel really good,” said Geordy Marshall, an 18-year old student at Eskasoni High School in Nova Scotia. “It makes me feel like I’m a leader and I can contribute my ideas to my community. This experience is the foundation of my future.”

Marshall won for his essay on many problems that transcend Aboriginal borders. Economic development through tourism and drugs and alcohol prevention were some of the topics.

He also wrote about an “open door policy” if he were elected chief, which would allow his community a greater voice in day-to-day operations of the band and more of a say in the Mi’kmaq community’s future.

Marshall’s community is over $30 million in debt, according to him, and he said drastic measures are needed to change that.

“I haven’t seen a chief who wants to accomplish anyone else’s dreams; they only want to think about themselves,” he said. “That’s not the chief I’m going to be. My only dream is to help other people succeed in their dreams.”

Rebecca Sangwais, 17, and Sayla Spence, 15, were also presented with the youth award for their vision of better things to come.

“The most important part is having positive role models and a lot of support from your parents or whoever is raising you,” said Spence, who wants to take business courses once she gets to college.

“It’s also important not to be exposed to alcohol and drugs.”

Sangwais reiterated Marshall’s message.

“We need to have better leadership in our community and to make sure there is accountability as well as fairness and equality amongst our people,” she said.

Sangwais touched on the residential school “hurt” and the need to overcome the grief and suffering to create a brighter future for all with the continued guidance of the Elders.

She also had a strong message to stay away from drugs and alcohol in order for our communities to prosper.

“Coming to this conference has opened a lot of doors,” she said. “There is a lot of talk of more youth needed in the business field and I think there would be a lot of opportunities.

“We need good strong leaders who know what they want and have a good vision to implement it.”

Cree Development

“One of the most important things at this conference is specific to finance,” said Jack Blacksmith, Chairman of the Board of Compensation and Creeco.

“By talking to other people, it helps us in terms of seeing that it’s not much different in the way we do things. You also learn a lot when you compare notes with other First Nations.”

Blacksmith has been involved in a number of business ventures set up to stimulate the Cree economy. One of which is a deal between Crees in Manitoba to teach them various aspects of construction for the Victor Nickel Mine Project. Blacksmith said that one of the conditions of the deal, which has yet to be signed, is to leave some of that expertise with the community so they can use these skills to serve their communities in the future.

“We’re looking to foster better business relations,” said Blacksmith. “Not only for an opportunity for ourselves, but to help them out in certain areas that we’re a little more advanced in.”

Blacksmith also talked about the potentially lucrative deal with a Chinese furniture manufacturer who would purchase large amounts of softwood from the inland Cree communities.

“China is one of the most heavily populated countries in the world,” said Blacksmith. “If we don’t look at that as an economic opportunity, then the train will be gone and we’ll be left behind at the station again. We have to look at opportunities that exist there.”

Blacksmith cited a finite amount of hardwood in China as a major factor in the Asian country’s search for something to replace it.

“The Cree world is a small world,” he said. “Economic development wise, the opportunities are there. But whatever we develop or manufacture, we’ll always rely on the outside world. The Crees have to understand that whatever product we make, we’ll have to go outside Quebec and Canada.”

A load of softwood lumber was sent to the manufacturer in China, called Premier Company, a couple of years ago. Although a deal has not yet been signed, Blacksmith sees this as part of the future to bolster the Cree economy as the Chinese have already started to purchase non-traditional softwood lumber from other parts of Canada and the U.S.

“I’ve heard people say it’s a far-fetched idea, but the reality of economic development is how big you want to make it. If you work hard at it, the sky’s the limit. If you don’t, you are limiting your opportunities.”

Although Creeco did not have a booth on location to take advantage of this annual traveling conference, Blacksmith hoped to fix that for next year.

“This conference opens up our eyes as to what others are doing,” he said. “We have to look at our whole traditional territory and stand up and say ‘that’s our land, our territory’ and that we will develop it the way we see fit, on a more sustainable basis.”

The Paix des Braves should not be relied upon as one of the main generators of cash flow, he cautioned. Once it runs dry in less than 44 years, the Crees will need a contingency plan for the future generations to prosper.

If we don’t look at that as an economic opportunity, then the train will be gone and we’ll be left behind at the station again.

“What ever money we get from the government is never enough,” said Blacksmith. “I think as Cree people we have to make those opportunities our own in terms of the economy. We have to make the tourism, mining and forestry sector our own. We really have to examine those things and see how much more we can participate and invest in those opportunities that exist for us.

“The agreements we signed – those monies will hopefully be used for economic development. We need to create that base. If we don’t have employment and economic development for our people, no matter what we do, we’ll never be strong as a nation. We need to create that economic base for the future of our people and the well being of the communities.”