This is not your father’s Societe de developpement de la Baie-James.
In the not-too-distant-past, the SDBJ, which was formed in 1971, did little or nothing for Crees to help bolster the Eeyou economy and foster a better relationship for Cree business. Things are changing these days.
The SDBJ released their development plan for 2008-2010 in late April and it contains a few pleasant surprises in what appears to be a shift in attitude towards Eenou business.
“One of our main priorities is to increase the economical cleanup on the territory for the benefit of each community. That’s our first goal,” said Raymond Thibault, President of the SDBJ.
That “clean-up” includes multiple investments into Cree businesses that are looking to boost their financial capacity and, in return, offer SDBJ a minority partnership in the form of profit-sharing.
The SDBJ’s mission is to foster, develop and aid economic initiatives in the territory. It also invests in natural resource projects such as mining and hydro and it takes care of management of infrastructure, the road network and the airports, amongst other things.
“We have the capacity to invest in private companies,” said Alain Coulombe, Development Director for the SDBJ. “We have venture capital for that. Right now we are contemplating investing in privately-owned businesses in the Cree communities but we can’t say which ones. We are looking for those types of projects from Crees.”
The SDBJ is also planning on releasing its plan in English – a first – and translating all of its documents in the future as soon as they are released.
When the mining sector dipped a few years ago, the SDBJ almost closed its doors, but a lot has changed since then.
“We are making more effort now than we did in the past to try and discover interesting businesses in the Cree communities so we could help to support their growth and diversification,” said Coulombe.
“We are going to increase our efforts in the near future by hiring an economic development agent who will specifically be responsible to work with the Crees and Cree businesses to find a way to get the SDBJ more involved.”
The SDBJ has a further Cree connection as former Waswanipi Chief Robert Kitchen sits on the SDBJ’s board of directors.
Part of the reason for the shift came in 2000, when the Quebec government gave the SDBJ different organizational tools that enabled it to invest in businesses.
Then in 2003, Quebec cut funding altogether to the SDBJ, leaving the company to fend for itself.
“In 2000 the government gave us different tools to deal with businesses on the territory, including Cree enterprise,” said Coulombe. “It enabled us to partner with companies instead of having to be the sole owners of newly-developed companies. We had more flexibility.”
SDBJ’s operating budget of $20 million annually is bolstered by big investments ($15 million) in risky capital funds that reap modest returns. A large part of cash also comes from investments into hydro projects and the mining sector, which has been booming in recent years.
Coulombe said that the SDBJ’s new direction is tailored to Cree reality more than ever.
“We are also going to adapt our services to their economic reality,” he said. “We realize that some of our services in the past worked for non-Cree enterprises, but they were not so good for Cree enterprises,” said Coulombe.
“We’re going to be ensuring that the Crees are adequately consulted whenever there’s a program or legislation that affects people,” said Grand Council of the Crees Grand Chief Matthew Mukash, who had not yet viewed the report when reached by phone.
“There has been a shift in attitude in the past few years with the Paix des Braves and the latest agreement with Canada,” he said. “It all has to do with working together.”
Although Mukash is happy that the SDBJ has changed its outlook on Cree business, he said there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Certainly there is a will to work together,” he said. “But it’s important for the Cree people to come up with their own strategy and come up with a plan on how they would like to see their territory developed. It has to be sustainable and not impact the land too much.”