This year, the Cree Construction and Development Company (CCDC) celebrates 45 years of ground-breaking success. From humble origins, clearcutting paths for power transmission lines and future reservoirs, the first completely Cree-owned enterprise has grown to become one of Quebec’s largest and most successful construction companies.
Founded by the Cree communities in 1976 shortly after the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), CCDC’s original mission was to maximize Cree employment. Although Hydro-Québec was required by the JBNQA to hire Crees, their limited construction training at the time meant that it was mainly lumberjacks from Mistissini and Waskaganish who initially found work.
“Cree Construction was created to provide an opportunity for the Cree Nation to participate in these projects and get their take,” said Robert Baribeau, CCDC’s president since 2012. “Back then it was a lot of slashing – it was the first time I saw people with money in their pockets. Even today, creating employment is the number one objective of the board.”
While Crees have always composed about half of the company’s workforce, the types of positions have become more specialized as the Cree Nation has evolved. As the Cree School Board (CSB) has expanded, new training programs for heavy machinery and other trades have enabled CCDC to take on larger and more ambitious projects.
“Up to the mid-1990s, our guys learned how to operate heavy machinery by working for Cree Construction,” Baribeau told the Nation. “There was not much training back then, even carpenters. Today we have Crees in almost all the trades. In Chisasibi, we’re almost 95% Cree. That goes all the way up to superintendents, foremen.”
The company has invested heavily over the years in employee development, including securing the certification licenses from the Commission de la construction du Québec (CCQ) that are necessary to work in most of Quebec’s construction trades. This development has been so successful, many former employees are now independent entrepreneurs who provide localized services.
“We’ve created our own competition, which is a good thing,” asserted Baribeau. “A lot have bought trucks or heavy equipment. Some employees become our competition, but a lot become our allies. The commitment and loyalty stay even when these guys retire or move on.”
Whereas over a quarter of permanent employees have been with CCDC for over a decade, the company’s early days were characterized by high turnover. As it expanded from brush cutting to housing in the early 1980s, CCDC enjoyed steady growth until about the mid-1990s as it became the go-to company for Hydro-Québec’s northern projects.
However, CCDC became so infiltrated by organized crime in the 1990s that it nearly brought down the company. According to the 2015 Charbonneau Commission report, Quebec’s entire construction industry became so entangled in mafia corruption and collusion that they became “untouchable”.
“They almost killed the company,” Baribeau shared. “In 2001, Cree leadership knew the Paix des Braves was going to be signed so this whole investigation went on. They cleaned up the company, figuring out where the money was getting sucked out. A security company escorted these guys out – those were exciting days.”
As the mob wouldn’t hire Crees, Baribeau started with the company in human resources when the board of directors was focusing on taking it back. Almost overnight, investments resulting from the Paix des Braves more than tripled business, growing CCDC to nearly 800 employees during the peak of Hydro-Québec’s EM-1 Rupert diversion project.
Baribeau steadily climbed the corporate ladder until becoming president in 2012. Although he inherited an accumulated loss of over $20 million, that debt was erased in about five years and CCDC has been profitable since then. While project postponements since the pandemic dampened its growth rate, there are over $300 million in projects coming over the next two years.
“The majority are contracts from the CSB, growing Cree communities,” explained Baribeau. “Because we have a lot of Cree employees, we don’t have to transport or lodge them. The only guys we bring in are the engineers. That’s the last frontier for the Crees – we have engineering technicians but unfortunately not many engineers.”
The pandemic has exacerbated a general shortage of Crees trained in the trades, with many workers refusing to endure the quarantines necessary to work outside the region. A similar industry-wide shortage of equipment and materials motivated the recent purchase of an asphalt plant in a joint venture with Nemaska, Wemindji and Chisasibi, as well as a concrete plant.
“We don’t believe in taking over so when we grow like this it’s out of necessity because there’s nobody around to provide the service,” Baribeau said. “We’re the only fully Native-operated crushing operator. That’s the first business after ADC we’ve started.”
Managing services at mines and other remote camps since 1996, Gestion ADC became the first Indigenous company to make Profit magazine’s fastest-growing company list. While it began as a CCDC joint venture, it’s become an independent subsidiary of Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Company (CREECO). CCDC maintains successful long-term joint ventures with several Cree communities, plus a new one in the Waswanipi territory.
“Joint ventures are a big part of Cree Construction,” said Baribeau. “It’s Crees working with Crees for Crees. CREECO put a lot of trust in us – a lot of our contracts are risky but they’re always there backing us up. Construction never goes as planned.”
As a major employer and significant source of economic spin-offs, CCDC plays a key role in Eeyou Istchee’s economy. However, its pro-development business model means it isn’t always popular among those concerned about recent changes in the region.
“We participate in these new developments because, if you don’t have growth, you don’t have opportunities,” Baribeau asserted. “A big business we’ve been doing is environmental cleanups and rehabilitation of old sites. During the first phases of Hydro-Québec, instead of carrying their shit away they just buried it.”
In addition to current school and access-road projects, Baribeau is optimistic about emerging opportunities under new Cree leadership, who have already expressed interest in expanding their relationship with the company. After all, since CCDC is owned by Cree communities, their success is shared throughout Eeyou Istchee.
“It’s a generation of leaders working together for the good of the whole Cree Nation,” Baribeau ventured. “The projects we generate go back to CREECO and the Board of Compensation, which are redistributed among the Cree communities for their new projects so it’s our own dam stopping the leakage. It all stays within the Cree world.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter