As the new year brings hope for an end to the pandemic, Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Company (CREECO) is focused on supporting the recovery plans of its subsidiaries while continuing to expand opportunities.
“The challenges we faced at the onset of the pandemic are spilling over into the new year, but we want to make sure that the impacts are minimal, and the opportunities are still there,” said president Derrick Neeposh. “When you look at CREECO as a parent company, you want to make sure all your companies are at a level of performance that ensures they’re not going to go under.”
Neeposh was recently re-elected to a second two-year term as chairman and president of the corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Cree Nation Government that acts through the Board of Compensation (BoC). This year, the election was held virtually for the first time, with an independent lawyer present to certify the process.
“There was a neutral third party to ensure the election was done in a fair and transparent manner,” Neeposh told the Nation. “Our IT department did an excellent job. There were technical difficulties at the beginning of the nomination process, but the lawyer gave assurance to the board members their votes were properly recorded.”
While working virtually has certainly made CREECO’s business networking more challenging, it has also proven advantageous at times, such as a recent information session conducted with the Gwich’in First Nation in the Yukon. Neeposh said they are often contacted by other First Nations, providing inspiration and advice as they explain who they are and how they came to be.
“It’s good to be sought after, in terms of reputation and the experience we bring to the table,” said Neeposh. “A lot of continuous effort needs to be put towards that. The more we’re out there, the more benefit we can bring to our companies.”
One example of this outreach is a recent business opportunity at a mine in Geraldton, at the Long Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario. Although this bid was unsuccessful, the experience expanded CREECO’s network and negotiating capabilities.
Success came close to home in December with the announcement that CREECO and the BoC acquired full ownership of the Quality Inn in Val-d’Or. Since opening 10 years ago in a partnership with the city’s former mayor Fernand Trahan, the hotel has won numerous awards and become a mainstay of the region’s tourism industry.
“When we saw the opportunity to start buying out the shares, we jumped on it immediately,” explained Neeposh. “We wanted to make sure the purchase was fair and not exaggerated. We’re very glad it transpired the way it did. Getting it done before Christmas was also very positive – it was a rough year for everyone, and we felt the timing was right.”
Capital projects have been hardest hit by the economic slowdown, but each company is adapting as best it can. For example, since the reopening of mines, Gestion ADC has been very active in ensuring the safety of employees, educating workplaces about sanitization measures and updating their product offerings to include personal protective equipment.
“The major impact would be more on the construction side of things,” stated Neeposh. “Our construction industry has been semi-idle while the capital projects they’ve been working on have been put on hold. Some of the other companies have continued to move forward – Air Creebec is performing quite well.”
Although restrictions in passenger travel have obviously impacted the airline, its charter flights have continued in both Quebec and Ontario, particularly for local health boards. These kinds of challenges were to be discussed in a late-January planning session among all CREECO subsidiaries.
“I think a lot of the discussion will be around recovery,” Neeposh said. “We’re questioning them on their major challenges, given the past year, and how are we going to adapt in the new fiscal year. We can’t be overly optimistic about when things will return to normal – a lot of it will be adjusting to the new normal.”
As Neeposh begins his second term, his priority is building collaborative relationships among all Cree entities.
“We’re supporting each other and leaning towards having more discussions with our Cree entities, seeking out support for them rather than them approaching us only for business,” Neeposh said. “This pandemic has been felt across every organization and I think maintaining a strong relationship with our fellow entities is going to be of prime importance.”
The relationship between CREECO and the Cree Development Corporation (CDC) has not always been cordial, with disagreements over who should manage compensation funds. Some suggest CREECO should be dissolved to minimize competition between regional and local businesses.
However, Neeposh said meetings with CDC president Davey Bobbish have established an understanding that they should be working together, not against each other, so that the benefits of the Paix des Braves agreement are felt widely across the Cree Nation.
“We’re not going back to the days where CREECO is going to be dissolved in the Cree Development Corporation,” asserted Neeposh. “The announcement of the Grande Alliance gave way for the CDC to put its foot forward towards large-scale commercial projects. We’re getting ready for the work that comes with that – I think that creates a new positive spin.”
As CREECO continues to navigate these uncertain times, Neeposh is thankful for the support of his family and CREECO and the BoC’s board of directors’ continued confidence in his abilities. And he remains hopeful.
“I want to encourage everyone this will not last forever,” Neeposh said. “We’ll get out of this together – that’s the message we’ve been relaying to all our employees. The more we stick together, it gives us more opportunity to come out of this a stronger nation.”