Members of the Membertou First Nation in Nova Scotia are proud of making historic strides toward economic and territorial growth. The future looks very bright.
Chief Terry Paul has been leading the tribe since 1984 in Cape Breton’s largest city of Sydney, N.S. During that time, it was considered risky to enter the territory. Outsiders were deemed unwelcome.
Times have changed
Chief Terry knew better. Time has proven him right as new business flourishes. In his words, people you used to avoid the area but now they all are here.
“When I was growing up, there were absolutely no stores at all. Everything we got was off the reserve. It was so bad, even the police had a hard time coming up here.”
Making recent news is Membertou’s co-ownership of the largest shellfish producer in North America, Clearwater Seafoods.
Mr. Paul himself orchestrated the $1-billion deal to acquire the Halifax-based company on behalf of seven Mi’kmaq First Nations along with Premium Brands Holdings Corp., a specialty food company based in B.C.
Jobs and new opportunities are in the works during this coalition, surely a blockbuster deal. It is the largest investment in the local seafood industry to date by an indigenous Canadian group, implying important fishing rights.
According to Ken Coates, a senior fellow in indigenous rights and economic development with Ottawa’s MacDonald Laurier Institute for Public Policy,
“It’s one of those things that changes the entire conversation in the country, forever. It changes the way non-Indigenous people see Indigenous folks in a very positive way.”
Membertou avows that it will do this themselves.
We’ll create our own opportunities, our own jobs, our own prosperity. First Nations have realized the path to equity and prosperity comes from buying back Canada.”
A dream comes true
Chief Paul is seeing his dreams come to fruition. One day a Mi’kmaq CEO may one day sit in the executive suite at Clearwater. There will eventually be a dozen community-owned commercial enterprises ranging from the fisheries,
hospitality, tourism and casinos.
Membertou already employs more than 600 people as one of the largest employers in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. It’s also one of the largest property tax payers. It has come along way since the 1980s when Sydney residents stayed away. It was about racism and mistrust.
Progress is being made with the Clearwater deal as the latest step forward. It is changing the entire dynamic of the local industry. Who imagined back in the day that the sky was the limit at a time when living conditions and unemployment were dire and school children were punished for speaking the Mi’kmaq language.
Revenues are up
Last year, Membertou reported revenue of $67-million. It included money from the fisheries division, property rentals and commercial sales. More than $19-million is from federal government transfers, but the Chief wants to stem this reliance.
“I’d like to be financially independent and our people to look after
ourselves. When we get offered that government cheque,
we can say, ‘We don’t need it. Give it to another community.’”
The era before Mr. Paul was like a lost time for the people. The community was staggered by chronic deficits, overwhelming poverty, substandard housing, but he envision greater potential.
Improving education has been key. When Mr. Paul took over, high-school graduation rates in the community were low at 30 per cent. Today, they’re more than 90 percent. Hiring reform hasn’t hurt as well along with new property purchases from ongoing revenue.
Landmark Clearwater deal
As for the Clearwater deal, it goes back decades when hunting and fishing rights were at steak for the local livelihood.
Finally, access to commercial fishery allowed the Mi’kmaq to build business partnerships. It was all about jobs at the time before equity ownership was at stake.
The Clearwater sale is the latest in a series of transactions between Chief Paul and Clearwater. Today, the company is the largest holder of shellfish licenses and quotas in Canada. Of note, sold $616-million worth of seafood last year. According to the Chief,
“The opportunities for our community members will be from the deckhand all the way up to the CEO’s office. As long as they’re qualified… we can help get them there.”
Indigenous business is one of the fastest-growing areas of the Canadian economy and First Nations are no exemption. Listen to Ken Coates again,
“They’re all long-term revenue producers. These carefully calculated, long-term equity deals that will return very substantial amounts of revenue back to their communities.”
Membertou people have long looked to the water for survival. The band’s fisheries department now employs about 50 people in the inshore snow crab and lobster fishery around Cape Breton. Mi’kmaq communities are seeking changes in federal and provincial regulation to avoid boycotting.
Clearwater has operations in China, Britain and around Atlantic Canada and is focused on growth outside of Canada. The deal will open doors for Mi’kmaq well beyond the boundaries of their communities.