December 1 marked a big day for the entrepreneurs of the Nations of Eeyou Istchee. Almost 400 people came to Val-d’Or from as far away as Nunavut to network, celebrate and discuss their future.
The people packed into the Forestel Hotel were there for two events. In the morning, the Secretariat to the Cree Nation Abitibi-Témiscamingue Economic Alliance (SCNATEA) and the Comité de maximisation des retombées économiques en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (ComaxAT) hosted their annual Business Exchange Day. The Eeyou Economic Group (EEG) held its fourth annual Gala Celebrating Cree Entrepreneurs in the evening.
The Business Exchange Day started bright and early, with companies in domains as diverse as human resources, construction, mining and multimedia greeting people from booths outside the main hall. Space was at a premium. Smiling faces and handshakes could be seen throughout the day, as people did business, drank gallons of coffee and made friends.
Cree-owned businesses such as ADC and Eeyou Istchee Tourism (EIT) told many of the patrons about their services. ADC is a human-resources agency providing support staff for mining camps, construction projects and airports throughout the North.
“We send workers from the region to wherever they’re needed,” said ADC spokesperson Rowena Patenaude. “The whole community benefits because we work in partnership with other Cree businesses.”
Like with ADC, it means more than money to the staff of EIT as well. Their goal is to raise awareness of the natural splendour of the North, reminding people that an adventure is just around the corner.
“You don’t need to go very far,” said Robin McGinley of EIT. “We’re a regular tourist agency, but we try to get people to stay closer to home for their vacations. It’s beautiful up there.”
Many Eeyou Istchee leaders were present at the business exchange, including current Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come and former Grand Chief and present President of SCNATEA Ted Moses.
Coon Come spoke to the assembly of entrepreneurs during their business luncheon. He was very upbeat about the future and wanted to allay the fears of many regarding the Plan Nord.
“This is the start of a great adventure,” said Coon Come. “It’s normal to be apprehensive of change, but we are in a new area where no one is excluded. This is a partnership based on equality.”
Moses is equally optimistic. He has seen partnerships fostered by the Secretariat forged with companies far outside of Eeyou Istchee territories, and he sees no slowing down.
“I’m proud of what we’ve helped accomplish,” he said. “It started in the region and now it’s expanding to other provinces. We’re building friendships with Native communities across Canada. Our resources need to increase, and that’s why we’re here today.”
Cree business owners spent the better part of the day meeting non-Cree entrepreneurs in a series of 15-minute micro-meetings. Preliminary deals and business cards were exchanged, and many plans to conduct future business were in place the end of the day.
Things became a little more formal as day turned into night. The venue was transformed into a glitzy ballroom in order to host that evening’s gala award ceremony. Some of the entrepreneurs present for the business day stayed to collect awards and to party late into the night.
The event started off with a literal bang. As it took place on Algonquin land, the first guests to be honoured at the gala were a local drumming troupe, the Washesku and Screaming Eagle Drummers. Their pounding rhythms set the tone for a festive evening.
Moses was around to give a special talk to those assembled. As a token of thanks for his leadership, EEG presented him with a camouflaged hunting kit. He was even given a gag gift of a roll of duct tape, much to the delight of the audience.
Business leaders from across the territory were on hand to celebrate the economic success of Eeyou Istchee. Whether it was human resources or natural resources, food or office supplies, those in attendance were pleased to share the joy of victory.
Sidney Orr was one such victor. He won the award for Economic Developer of the Year for his role as Whapmagoostui Development Corporation president. Orr was a bit surprised, though he felt he’d worked hard enough to earn the award.
“I had a pretty good batting average this year,” he said. “But I know other communities are aggressive and bigger, so there’s a lot of stiff competition. I was very happy with the award because I know the people who got it before me, and what they accomplished for the community.”
The theme of the whole day was about economic growth fuelling social progress – something about which Orr feels strongly.
“Money only solves money problems. We have to care about the long-term social development of the Cree.