But, that does not necessarily mean that it has been an entirely bad year for the Crees, according to Jack Blacksmith, president and director of Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Company (CREECO).
According to Blacksmith, the majority of the Cree entities are going strong with the exception of one, Cree Construction.
“The construction company is feeling the crunch in terms of the business that is there and in terms of the competition because people are getting a little hungry so their bids are lower than usual,” said Blacksmith.
Because development is slowing down in the sector, Blacksmith said that with less work to go around and more competition bidding for the little work that is available, Cree Construction has been suffering. At that, the company is in competition with what Blacksmith describes as “fly-by-night” companies or companies that pop out of nowhere from the non-Native world, do one contract and then cease to exist.
Cree Construction however is the only entity under CREECO that is currently suffering. Blacksmith said that Gestion ADC, their janitorial services and catering division, and Air Creebec are the strongest companies they have going.
Because of the present market situation however, Air Creebec is going to be taking a hit. As the airline not only has its commercial carrier but also has a chartered service geared towards industry. The chartered plane service will not be seeing as much business due to a market decline in the mining sector in the north.
“Those companies have already informed us that their exploration work is going to be next to nil and they are not going to have any development so that will take a chunk out of our revenue in terms of Air Creebec,” said Blacksmith.
Despite this, Blacksmith said that he still thinks that the airline is still going to perform fairly well and come out strong. The one positive thing going for Air Creebec at the moment is the fact that fuel prices have finally started to drop, making for higher profits.
Because it has done well in terms of its contracts with the prospects of renewals, Gestion ADC has emerged as one of CREECO’s stronger entities.
“As long as there is renewal in terms of upcoming contracts we are okay. If our major client, SEBJ, does not reduce its manpower and everything else, I think we will be fine with Gestion ADC,” said Blacksmith.
Blacksmith is also very involved with the Cree Mineral Exploration Board, an entity that was created with the signing of the Paix des Braves agreement. The idea behind the CMEB was that the Cree could hone in on the boundless opportunities of the mining industries in the north and actually benefit from the natural-resource development in the area.
“We have done our best and in some cases we have done quite a bit of work,” said Blacksmith in regards to the CMEB. Despite their best efforts however, the mining sector in general is performing poorly due to the markets crashing and leaving commodity prices so low. Blacksmith is expecting operations in that sector to be quiet for the time being for the Cree, as they are elsewhere internationally.
“I think we have not felt the full brunt yet of the so-called recession,” said Blacksmith. “It’s going to come to us soon. I know the mining industry is already suffering because it is difficult to find money out there unless you’ve got a pot of gold.”
Still, CREECO has its sights set on new possibilities and ventures for the future and is excited about hearing more about Quebec premier Jean Charest’s Plan du Nord, new economic and social development plan for Quebec’s north. Though Charest has not been particularly forthcoming with the details for the plan, when he announced it in late September he spoke of everything from new hydro development projects to the opening of mineral mines and new road systems linking the isolated communities in the north. Charest also said that the Native populations – Inuit, Cree and Naskapi – will be included “from the start” in the plan.
Blacksmith said that CREECO is very interested in the plan but has not heard much on it since the federal election and then the province delayed the launch of the plan. He was told however that information on it would be made public in January should Charest win and he did.
In terms of other development, CREECO is casting a wide net as the best means of surviving the present soft economy.
“We are looking at joint ventures and at other groups because we have to keep hammering away given the circumstances,” said Blacksmith.
CREECO is looking into opportunities in Quebec with other First Nations as well as working in the mainstream marketplace and expanding into other provinces, like Ontario and Manitoba.
When it comes to unemployment in the Cree Nation, Blacksmith expressed concern. He has people tell him it is a staggering 25-30 per cent and Blacksmith believes that jobs need to be created for the benefit of the Cree people.
“We need plans and developments to start tackling that unemployment rate to give our people opportunities so that they can find meaningful full-time work. Also, we need to provide training in terms of those opportunities because some people lack in terms of skills. Crees need to be able to take on some of those jobs,” said Blacksmith.
So far training programs within the Cree Nation have been successful, such as the Niskamoon program and the various programs offered by the Cree School Board like the mining one. Blacksmith would like to see more Crees get into these programs. With the market slowdown in certain sectors, Blacksmith believes that there is no better time than the present to invest in one’s career by training so that the Crees can be ready for the next major wave of employment.
Though the forestry industry is also on a “downturn”, it will not always be that way which is why Blacksmith believes that it is a good area to train in as well as tourism which he believes could be really developed in the Cree territory.
With the stock market performing so poorly in 2008, the Board of Compensation, like just about everyone else who invests, has had some substantial losses.
“This year was pretty bad but the real bad months were September and October. We lost a huge amount of our investments,” said Blacksmith.
As the value in their holdings has dropped significantly, Blacksmith said that he and the Board were making “cautionary decisions” as it is going to take some time for the value to rise again. Revamping the Board’s investment policies this coming January is also something that he and the Board have been discussing as a means go into the next phase of development in the market. At the same time, Blacksmith stated that their current losses are only “paper losses” and though they are quite large, nothing has been cashed in thus far.
“The holdings we have right now have been really suffering but as long as we don’t panic we will be okay. If we panic and sell them off, it will be a real loss and that shouldn’t be an option at all,” said Blacksmith.
Despite this, he also said that 2008 still has not been a terrible year because most of the businesses have been doing well. Even their smaller transport company, Valpiro, has been bringing in revenues consistently, making for a good bottom line.
The year was also a good one for CREECO as indicated when Blacksmith won the economic developer of the year award from the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers (CANDO). The national recognition from this award really put the Crees on the map with other First Nations.
“That really opened up the eyes of the people across the country. I think that the Crees have been regarded as a real force to look up to in terms of social programs and I think it has been the last few years where the Crees are now a business entity also,” said Blacksmith.
Now Blacksmith said that when he does presentations across Canada, other First Nations know who CREECO is, what it is capable of and that the Crees are business people. The award has also sparked interest among other First Nations for possible future joint-ventures with the Crees.
Looking ahead to 2009, Blacksmith said that one of the major things he will be focusing on is keeping the operations going within Air Creebec so that the airline can make more money. Since the airline will already be losing out due to the mining industry, Blacksmith spoke of looking into the chartering service to see if their rates can be improved as a means of attracting more business.
In terms of their construction business as well as their other entities, CREECO will also be looking into new possibilities elsewhere to see if they can drum up business outside of the province and in other regions.
“We are constantly on the move in trying to create opportunities for ourselves so that we can keep our companies going and keep them growing viably so that their bottom line is relatively good,” said Blacksmith.
Economic development however is something that cannot happen on its own and at that, it has to be a priority within the Cree Nation to see it come to fruition. What Blacksmith is looking to work on is creating or certifying an economic base for the “Cree world” by looking at the sort of opportunities that might exist within the Nation and possibly investing directly in them. Being part of the process in terms of decision-making, regarding the developing of any sector in the Cree world was also another important factor just as ensuring that the Crees are trained to do the work was just as essential.
He believes that part of what has made the Crees so successful is their inherent business savvy and it is something that makes other First Nations look up to the Crees.
“Even non-Native companies come knocking on our door and our door is never closed for any discussion of business. If we see that it is a good opportunity for us, we will try and get involved,” said Blacksmith.
Strategically however, according to Blacksmith, to see economic growth, one of the most essential things right now is that everyone is working together efficiently and that includes both those in politics and business.
“I hope with the Cree world in terms of the monies and the opportunities that they have, that they give some sort of importance to economic development so that we can all together work on a basic principal of trying to solidify our economic base and create jobs and be a force to reckon with in terms of any developments within the Cree territory. I truly think that it can be done if we really start working together,” said Blacksmith.