While it wasn’t quite business as usual, this year’s Business Exchange Day was a successful networking event for the Secretariat to the Cree Nation Abitibi-Témiscamingue Economic Alliance, the non-profit organization dedicated to building collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous entrepreneurs in the region.
About 200 participants joined the event virtually via the Secretariat’s recently launched Allia networking platform, which enabled them to access the day’s presentations from prestigious guest speakers, visit eight interactive kiosks from the Cree Nation and other entities, and arrange meetings with other participants.
“To see this day with distinguished guests and dignitaries fills me with pride for the small team of the Secretariat,” said their president Ted Moses. “Our team did not let the chaos of life keep us from our mission, which is to bring people together and promote exchange. If you know you’re doing something important, keep moving forward and don’t stop.”
The event on December 9 fell in the middle of a particularly action-packed week for economic activity in the region. Most significant was Quebec’s relaunching of a billion-dollar northern development plan comprised of 49 initiatives to be completed over the next three years.
While most of the funding is targeted towards infrastructure for expanding access to the territory, the plan also supports tourism, workforce training, waste management, internet access and food security. The three provincial ministers who spoke at Business Exchange Day emphasized the proposed improvements to living conditions and environment conservation.
“We’ll strengthen our economy by working together, providing enduring prosperity, taking care of the environment,” said Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière. “We’re not talking about occupying the North – we’re talking about living in the North. I believe in this open dialogue, nation to nation. That’s why there are three ministers present.”
Following news of the imminent closure of Matagami’s Glencore mine, Grand Chief Abel Bosum announced an agreement for developing strategic infrastructure projects to support sustainable ore processing in the community. By optimizing transportation routes and upgrading equipment, the partnership aims to encourage stable development that ensures the region’s vitality.
“It is important to understand what this means,” said Bosum. “The Cree and the people of Matagami are going to put themselves first. Together we will develop infrastructure projects that will provide a welcoming environment for the developer in a manner that respects our commitment to the land and our obligations to future generations.”
During his speech, the Grand Chief described the Cree Nation’s unique vulnerability to the pandemic and the difficult sacrifices necessary to maintain its mandatory 14-day self-isolation law, such as workers unable to see their families for as long as 20 weeks.
He also defended his controversial signing of the Grande Alliance with Quebec earlier this year, which was the reason for the recent hunger strike by Chisasibi resident Heather House (Bosum reportedly called to assure her the agreement was not binding).
“We are seeing that not many people truly understand what the Grande Alliance is all about,” Bosum asserted. “People think it’s just about building a railway. It is a way of creating a vision for the future where the Cree and their amazing communities feel valued instead of opportunistic exploitation of our resources.
“We’re proposing something incredibly ambitious and there will be doubters from all sides,” he continued. “In a world defined by isolation and polarization, we’re proposing something that will not feel comfortable and will require patience where there is so little.”
In response to detractors who say the Cree are “taking up too much space”, Bosum declared that a robust First Nation ready to co-create the future is something Canada has never witnessed. As if to demonstrate that development goes both ways, CREECO (Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Company) announced the next day it was assuming full ownership of the Quality Inn in Val-d’Or.
The award-winning hotel was founded in 2011 in a 50-50 partnership between Trahan Holdings and CREECO, which is owned by the Cree Nation Government and acts through the Board of Compensation. With the hotel’s former president Fernand Trahan moving on to other ventures, CREECO will be solely responsible for its significant contribution to the region’s tourism industry.
“They are the first Cree of Northern Quebec owning 100% of a hotel,” explained Secretariat director-general Chantal Hamelin. “We want to see Crees get involved in economic development in our region. We hope to see more – there’s lots of space. The Crees say they are open for business and the region here is open for Cree business as well.”
While the less committal nature of virtual events resulted in more calling and convincing to secure attendance at this year’s Business Exchange Day, Hamelin received rave reviews for their innovative and value-added approach. Although she was generally pleased with Allia’s performance as a platform, she intends to have more control next time over its meeting scheduling.
“We’re organizing a spring conference on the theme of environment and energy,” Hamelin shared. “In those 49 actions [of Quebec’s northern plan], there are a lot specifically touching environment and energy, so I’ll ask the companies to talk about some real projects. It’s going to be on Allia again unless we can all meet by then.”
As successful as the virtual event was, many acknowledged that it was nothing close to the connections developed by meeting in person. While the pandemic has been an inconvenient interruption for big business, the event’s participants remained united in their optimism about the region’s economic future.
“In 2020, you are only as safe and as strong as your neighbour,” stated the Grand Chief. “We will all come out of this pandemic stronger if we pursue it together. I’m looking forward to 2021 as a year we can start up many of these projects that have been suspended and move forward with our greater ambitions for the future of our people.”