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The Cold Lake Advantage

One Alberta First Nation is giving new meaning to the notion of entrepreneurial spirit

Oct 7, 2013

by Tim Querengesser

Joyce Metchewais, 71, sits in one of seven buses now owned by Maynard & Sons Bus Lines, an on-reserve business
Photographs Curtis Trent

Eleven aboriginal workers gather in a circle as Trevor Davies, a non-aboriginal manager at the Dehchen sawmill, located on the LeGoff reserve, stands on a large patch of cracked earth. “We’ve got some elders here to help us pray and help us be successful,” Davies says, breaking the silence. He and the others have assembled this June morning to break ground on a $1-million wood-post production plant, which will create an expected 15 to 20 jobs. Two elders come forward – a man holding a deer-skin drum and a woman clutching tobacco. They speak in Dene, then in English. “I know that one day the government won’t look after our children,” says Elise Charland, the female elder, “so we have to look after our own children.” Then, with unfortunate timing, two CF-18 fighter jets from Wing 4 Cold Lake thunder past low in the sky.

The tobacco is offered, the drum is beaten and a shovel (with its price tag still attached) is forced into the soil. Then the employees move toward a nearby work trailer where coffee and donuts await. Sitting on the trailer’s wood steps are 49-year-old Becky Piche and 45-year-old Rodney Blackman, both workers at the mill. In 2010, Piche moved from Edmonton to the LeGoff reserve, where she was born, for what she describes as the “positive cloud” now engulfing the place. And a year before that, Blackman, who was born with spinal meningitis and had never had a job in his life, was offered work at the mill by his uncle. “I was on disability pension,” Blackman says, eating a jelly donut. “I just stayed at home [and] there was nothing much for me to do. Now I come to work every morning. I love this.” Nearby the two is Real Marchand, Blackman’s uncle, smoking a cigarette. Like Piche, he also returned to Cold Lake from Edmonton after a fire decimated the mill five years ago. “We had to start all over again,” he says. “There’s been mills off and on for years but they never lasted – but this one’s a real going concern.” Then he points at Blackman. “That bugger sprained his leg once,” he says. “Do you think he’d take even an hour off work? Before he started here he was 40 years old and he’d never had a job in his life.”

Marchand’s sentence captures both the stereotype of aboriginal people – they don’t have jobs – and the challenge that the success of the Cold Lake First Nations presents to it: Once they have them, they refuse not to work. But just how did the First Nation get here?

“All the other First Nations can claim rights, but they don’t have a map. We can enforce our rights; industry has to consult with us or we can say no [to developments]. That’s the only difference. We have a map.” – Dean Janvier, economic development officer, Cold Lake First Nations

In 1952, Ottawa annexed 11,700 square kilometres of land that members of the Cold Lake First Nations had lived on and used for centuries, to create the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range. Almost immediately, the local hunting, trapping and small-scale farming economies that depended on that land were destroyed. So too, metaphorically, were the people. Former hunters lined up at the band office for social assistance cheques, while others left for Edmonton or just checked out by getting drunk. But the action eventually provoked a powerful reaction, too – a land-claim that resulted in a $25 million settlement in 2001, and a traditional territory defined on a map. Thanks to that decision, and several Supreme Court of Canada decisions on aboriginal rights, industrial players must now consult with Cold Lake First Nations before they extract bitumen within the nation’s defined territory. What that in effect mandates is a co-operative relationship between the two.

The irony is that without Canada’s decision to annex the land to create the weapons range, the Cold Lake First Nations would likely be stuck where the 45 other First Nations partly or fully within Alberta are today: signatories of numbered treaties that are frequently ignored by government. That neglect has allowed industry to do business on what used to be (and, in many people’s eyes, still is) their land, and handcuffed their ability to generate wealth from and make a living on it.

That’s not a problem in Cold Lake. That difference is immediately apparent when you arrive at LeGoff reserve by highway, and drive past the mammoth Casino Dene (and the future site of a 130-room resort hotel to be built beside it, scheduled to open in 2014), and the sparkling new headquarters for Primco Dene, an oilsands services firm that’s the largest (by headcount) aboriginal-controlled business in Canada. Together, these businesses generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year, and enhance the nation’s ability to determine its own future. More importantly, perhaps, they illustrate the fact that while oilsands reserves are more abundant in Fort McKay and other northern Alberta aboriginal communities, the settlement that the Cold Lake First Nations has is a game changer. “Cold Lake is the only First Nation in Alberta that has a territory that has been defined and agreed to by the federal and provincial governments,” says Dean Janvier, an economic development officer with the First Nation. “All the other First Nations can claim rights, but they don’t have a map. We can enforce our rights; industry has to consult with us or we can say no [to developments]. That’s the only difference. We have a map.”

James Blackman’s pen runs out of ink as he signs the dozens of paycheques his company issues every pay period. Today, on his day off, the president and CEO of Primco Dene is in his corner office in the glittering new two-floor, 20,000-square-foot Primco Dene Business Centre, which overlooks Casino Dene and houses head offices for more than a dozen businesses. At the age of 22, Blackman was the youngest councillor ever elected in Cold Lake. That was 17 years ago, when unemployment on the three reserves – LeGoff, Cold Lake and English Bay – that make up Cold Lake First Nations hovered above 75 per cent. Soon after that, the First Nation signed the settlement, and Blackman says it quickly allowed the government to leverage access to the wealth being extracted from oil reserves. Today, Primco and its business divisions employ more than 800 people, more than 80 per cent of them aboriginal.

  • Trevor Davies, general manager of the Dehchen sawmill, stands atop posts created in the newly-built post plant on the reserve Trevor Davies, general manager of the Dehchen sawmill, stands atop posts created in the newly-built post plant on the reserve
  • Thanks to a land claim agreement, trees cut by industry to access bitumen are given to Cold Lake First Nations for use at the sawmill Thanks to a land claim agreement, trees cut by industry to access bitumen are given to Cold Lake First Nations for use at the sawmill
  • James Blackman,CEO of Primco Dene,a company that, by head count, is Canada’s largest aboriginal enterprise James Blackman,CEO of Primco Dene,a company that, by head count, is Canada’s largest aboriginal enterprise
  • Casino Dene opened in 2007. In 2014, an upscale hotel and conference centre will be added Casino Dene opened in 2007. In 2014, an upscale hotel and conference centre will be added
Photographs Curtis Trent

“There was no jobs, no money – I had all of this energy and thought I could change the world, and I realized that a government needs money,” Blackman says, reflecting on why he’s chosen business rather than politics to make his mark. “Indian and Northern Affairs isn’t going to cut the mustard. So we knew we needed an economy, and our economy had to be developed to our own band businesses so that we can develop the cash flow, so that we can pay for the things that we need and to enhance the lives of Cold Lake First Nations members. So we start businesses, and we start ’em small. Now we’re made up of 20 to 30 different ones on the First Nation.”

Blackman credits an “aggressive approach” towards leveraging its settlement advantage, but says he isn’t convinced that’s the only secret. There’s also, he says, the First Nation’s resolve to capitalize on opportunity. Industry is going to extract resources whether the First Nation participates as a partner or as an adversary, he says. So, building respect with industry by delivering on promises and offering a workforce with bona fide aboriginal workers (“Our clients want to be part of our success because they like the good story, they understand that we’re hiring many First Nations people in meaningful jobs,” Blackman says) is something from which both sides can benefit. “Now it’s whether you jump on that wagon or not,” he says. “Just because you jump on the wagon doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with what’s going on. What it means is that your concern is the well-being and health of your community.”

Blackman says Cold Lake First Nations businesses, from Primco Dene and its nine divisions to the casino, to dozens of others, are already making “hundreds of millions” in revenues each year. He thinks that in less than a decade the figure could eclipse $1 billion. “Those are the type of revenues you need to create the net wealth that’s needed to sustain a nation,” he says.

Joyce Metchewais says much of what you see on the reserve these days started with a school bus. The 71-year-old Metchewais, a former chief of Cold Lake First Nations, was sent to residential school in 1949 in St. Paul. She saw this as an escape. “Life was good until my father could no longer go trapping,” Metchewais says, her jewel-crusted watch sticking out among the oil patch workers and uniformed RCAF pilots at a Tim Hortons in Cold Lake. “Then he began to drink a lot and became an alcoholic. He was abusive to my mother. In a way going to residential school was a blessing, because I didn’t have to put up with that.”

In 1959, when Metchewais graduated from the school and later returned home, the small farms that people had kept before her departure had fallen fallow and the traplines had disappeared, all replaced by the air weapons range. Most importantly, the community’s spirit had evaporated. “All we got for giving up all that land was welfare,” she says. “Alcohol use increased, family violence and breakups were rampant. It was just all the perils of the welfare system.”

Metchewais was determined to avoid the pall, and her solution was to become an entrepreneur. In 1968, she and her husband won a contract to transport school children on the reserve to its day school. They quickly raised $1,000 and bought a van. “We were probably the first business on the reserve,” she says, adding that there was little choice not to go into business for yourself back then. “Nobody in town would give you a job if you were an Indian.” In the 1970s, as their business, Maynard & Sons Bus Lines, expanded its fleet, Metchewais watched as First Nation members realized Ottawa’s promise to return the land that had been annexed for the range wasn’t going to be honoured. In the 1980s, as anger took root, Metchewais continued growing her business, and by the late 1990s, when the First Nation took their land-claim case to the courts, she was a registered nurse and the owner of a company with six busses. Her husband had been chief, and she had been a councillor. Then, in 1999 she was asked by elders to run for chief. Without campaigning she says, she won. And that’s where things got interesting.

When she walked in the door of the band office, Metchewais says, the First Nation had nearly 80 per cent of its members receiving welfare. With her entrepreneurial background and her knowledge of the many oil sands projects on the weapons range, she pushed for stringent bookkeeping and for people to seize the opportunities all around them. It’s here that you realize why she quietly concedes that she’s known as a “tough chief” in the community, and remains unpopular with some. “I made them go to work,” she says, giggling – a laugh that doesn’t quite fit the comment. On welfare checks distributed from the band office, Metchewais says she would place Post-it notes, asking boldly, “Why isn’t he or she working?” And at meetings, “I would tell people I wanted them working, so they could stop lining up at the band office to beg.”

In 2001, when the Primrose Lake land claim was settled, the First Nation received $25 million in compensation. But equally important were the consultation guarantees placed upon industry, which was operating on the land the courts had determined had been taken unjustly from the community.

Aside from the settlement, and the first enterprises, like the bus line and a catering company, the First Nation’s biggest step toward self-sufficiency was the construction of Casino Dene, in 2007. That required pushes on various fronts, including the province, which ultimately set up the Indian Gaming Commission and developed host First Nation gaming guidelines. Without that, Casino Dene couldn’t exist. Metchewais, who was out as chief by 2005, beat down doors to have the facility built, but says she wanted it built on Cold Lake’s terms, not those of outsiders. At one meeting with potential developers from Las Vegas, she says she walked out. “They were so goddamn greedy,” she says. Instead, the casino (which one insider reveals pumps about four times more money into the community’s coffers than do federal transfers) was built, using loans and the band’s own money. “I knew that was a cash cow for sure,” Metchewais says. It’s now paid off in full.

Back at the Sawmill, Judy Nest, a councillor with the Cold Lake First Nations, has come to support the groundbreaking for the wood-post plant. The mill’s growth mirrors the community’s success, Nest says. Following decades of court battles, the First Nation settled with Canada, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and this included recognition that it had never ceded its use of what became the air weapons range. Among many other benefits was guaranteed access to wood (Dehchen does not cut trees from logging; rather, it uses trees salvaged from clear-cuts done by industry) taken from the air weapons range. “When we negotiated with Canada … we said, ‘We also want all the trees that come out of there, those belong to us,’” Nest says. “So when we talk with industry [today], we get those trees for nothing” (aside from transportation costs).

It’s another small difference between Cold Lake First Nations and others in the province. And yet it’s proving decisive. “Obviously there’s an advantage having the resources, but there’s communities all around northern Alberta that have resources,” says Trevor Davies, the mill’s co-manager, after the groundbreaking party has ended and workers have started cutting and loading wood. “Maybe they’re not making use of it or taking advantage.” Cold Lake First Nations is, he says.

Indeed, in his six months with Dehchen, Davies says both jobs and profits have doubled and the company has invested $4 million in machinery and other assets that will allow it to bid on more land-clearing contracts with industry, which will, in turn, mean more trees for the mill. Davies, 38, expects the business, which already pulls in about $20 million per year in revenue and makes about $5 million in profit, to grow by 50 per cent over the next two years. This sort of growth is why he left jobs at his home in Glaslyn, Saskatchewan, for one as an outsider on a First Nations reserve. “I saw the fibre, the non-utilization of it, so it was easy to grow a company over a short term,” he says. “When you know you can double or triple a company in a year, that company’s just sittin’ there, right?”

Considering that Davies’ comments could apply to any number of First Nations in Alberta – ones that are, to borrow his words, just sitting there, waiting for the right conditions to generate wealth – the Cold Lake First Nations advantage begs a couple of questions. Is this not a model for building a better, wealthier province where all citizens succeed? And if so, why aren’t Canada and Alberta pursuing it?


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