As forest fires forced evacuations of southern Cree communities in early June, the Nation spoke with Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Company (CREECO) president Derrick Neeposh as he worked from his daughter’s apartment in Gatineau.
Most of the parent company’s subsidiaries were operating as usual, but Neeposh reported that Gestion ADC had to evacuate staff from its Osisko mine camp because of nearby fires. Overall, however, he said that CREECO’s prudent approach to long-term business growth means it isn’t stuck “putting out fires” in the workplace.
With a successful portfolio of companies in construction, air transportation, hotel, catering and other industries, CREECO is responsible for managing the Cree Nation’s economic investments. When a $15 million growth fund’s term recently expired, yielding over $120 million after 30 years, the Board of Compensation (BOC) determined it would be wisest to ensure continued wealth by locking in $50 million over the next 30 years.
“Our job is to ensure we’re protecting the capital, not panicking at a time of turmoil,” explained Neeposh. “If we took everything from the growth fund, the impacts in communities would be immediate but then we wouldn’t have that security. To be clear, the funds gained will belong to the shareholders as a whole.”
As the initial investment only stated the money was for future generations, confusion spread after the Cree Nation Youth Council had thought it was meant for them, prompting CREECO to swiftly deliver a letter of clarification. The investment’s remainder goes to “regular funds”, ensuring disbursements to communities exceed $500,000 for at least the next decade.
The BOC currently has over $200 million in investments under various accounts, from which market forces determine how much can be allocated to communities. Establishing a policy that leaves its growth fund untouched could see that investment grow by eight times over the next 30 years.
Keeping an eye on market trends has spurred recent adjustments at CREECO’s most famous investment – the $100 million Odea skyscraper in downtown Montreal. With the real estate market slowing down, a number of the planned condos will be instead converted into luxury apartments that will remain rental properties.
“Buyers are hesitating and we don’t have time to wait for conditions to improve,” Neeposh said. “We want to keep a good sales level – inflation and interest are big factors. It doesn’t change the ownership structure, where 95.5% still belongs to the Cree.”
The project, expected to be completed by summer 2024, is still on target and budget, Neeposh emphasized. As concrete is poured for the upper floors, Anishinaabe architect Douglas Cardinal’s canoe-inspired design is taking shape and the building’s structure should be finished by the end of June.
The Odea project’s prominence is on the radar of other First Nations across Canada, sparking invitations to collaborate in emerging opportunities. There’s even a documentary in the preliminary stages about successful collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous companies that will include CREECO’s partnership with Cogir Real Estate.
However, Neeposh said CREECO is maintaining a slow and steady approach to growth and will focus on finishing the Odea project before moving on to another. This strategy extends to its subsidiaries like Cree Construction, whose new president Danny Pash is currently assessing operational issues, connecting with existing clients and considering opportunities beyond Eeyou Istchee.
“We’re letting Danny take the wheel,” said Neeposh. “He’s on the right track for realigning goals for the company and has been well received by existing and new clients. A priority is completing construction of the two major schools in Chisasibi before the school year starts.”
Air Creebec is also entering a transition stage with the announcement of president Matthew Happyjack’s impending retirement. Although passenger loads have decreased, its core of charter contracts with mining companies and the Cree health and school boards remains strong.
Aircraft ground services company Valpiro is eyeing expansion opportunities in Chibougamau and Timmins while ADC is in discussions with First Nations in Northern Ontario. ADC is working with the Quality Inn in Val-d’Or, of which CREECO attained full ownership in 2020, sharing its expertise in human resources to improve operational efficiency.
In late May, the Quality Inn was recognized with the prestigious gold award designation from Choice Hotels Canada for its 11th consecutive year. Neeposh and the hotel’s general manager Alexandre Audet held a small ceremony, thanking the staff for their excellent service.
“Winning the award demonstrates our ability of continuing that success,” said Neeposh. “We always keep in mind that it’s through their hard work that we achieve success. It’s not always about making money but creating reputation for our companies.”
Although there are currently no Crees in the hotel’s management team, Neeposh is hopeful more youth will pursue hospitality studies to explore the burgeoning careers in this industry. At the Cree School Board’s recent Post-secondary Student Services Conference in Ottawa, Neeposh promoted the growing employment opportunities available with CREECO companies.
“For a lot of students who study in the south, it’s not a priority to return to their communities because of housing and employment,” Neeposh asserted. “When they become educated they end up leaving their communities and families. We want to reverse that.”
CREECO is looking to expand its internship program, which previously helped marketing and engineering students gain hands-on experience. Neeposh believes this outreach could extend to all fields of study, such as having psychology grads improve employee relations or music students – like his daughter Valerie – create corporate videos.
“Our Cree students are so talented,” said Neeposh. “We’ll find ways to work with them, even if it’s through summer employment or during their studies. We’re flexible in providing those opportunities because that is the workforce that will benefit every company under Creeco.”
By Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter