As is the case around the world, the economy in Eeyou Istchee has contracted during the Covid-19 pandemic – throwing revenues, jobs and development timetables into disarray.
“There’s a lot of backlog in construction,” CNG Executive Director Bill Namagoose acknowledged. “Hundreds of millions of dollars are backlogged in community development for the Cree School Board, the Cree Health Board, the Cree Nation Government and the Cree communities, and that impacts construction jobs in Cree communities.”
A big factor is that the external expertise and workers needed for larger construction projects like schools and clinics are unavailable due to pandemic restrictions. Accordingly, the CNG is focusing on housing and smaller projects that can be completed with local oversight and labour.
Only when Cree communities can bring in outside labour and professionals will communities begin delayed projects. “Our economic recovery plan will be the recovery of those projects, removing the backlog will stimulate the economy,” Namagoose said.
“Once the pandemic restrictions come down, we can activate it. We have the budget, it’s just a matter of going to public tender on those projects when workers can access Cree communities and do deliveries.”
That matches larger economic trends since the start of the pandemic. According to data from Statistics Canada, $11.6 billion was spent on single- and multi-unit residential buildings in January 2021, up 13% from February 2020 levels.
However, non-residential construction was 12% below pre-pandemic levels. Industrial building spending was down 12% in January from February 2020 levels, and commercial building spending was down 17%. More than 3 million Canadians lost their jobs early in 2020, but even with more recent second-wave layoffs, more than two-thirds of those early losses had been recovered by this February.
Namagoose said that the usual Cree unemployment rate is 14%, but he expects that number was higher through the past year. Statistics Canada data shows that the national unemployment rate reached a high of 13.7% last May but had dropped to 8.2% by February 2021.
Despite closing offices in Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City, the CNG made no layoffs – nor did band councils, the school board or health board. Those who were able worked from home.
Economic recovery is being powered by massive federal and government spending. Crees have access to all the programs, benefits and services offered by the federal and provincial governments.
Namagoose also noted that investment funds are available from Canadian Aboriginal corporations. The Eeyou Economic Group, for example, administers $300 million that can be accessed for business development loans in Cree territory.
“Cree businesses, hang in there,” Namagoose offered to those who have been impacted by economic downturn. “We hope to have community development back on track soon, that should help local businesses.”