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Communities on the Move: Netmizaaggamig Nishnaabeg on the road to self-sufficiency

Schooled in the business of hydroelectric and resource development, northwestern Ontario First Nation ready to branch into retail

As Northern Ontario’s economy looks to rebound following the pandemic, Gimaa Louis Kwissiwa, chief of Netmizaaggamig Nishnaabeg (Pic Mobert First Nation), said now is the time for his community to earn its share of the region’s economic pie.

His comments come as White Lake Limited Partnership, the First Nation’s principal business corporation, readies plans for another economic venture: a business development complex, combining a gas station, convenience store and cannabis dispensary, on a stretch of Highway 17 between Pic Mobert and White River.

“There's a lot of excitement in the air. Lots of encouragement,” Kwissiwa said. “People are excited for jobs… different jobs than mining or forestry… and they get more excited when you let them know that some of the income that's generated would go back to housing or education and infrastructure and language programs.” 

Although there isn’t a firm timeline on the development — the provincial and federal governments only recently agreed to transfer the 1,000-plus hectares of land to Netmizaaggamig — Kwissiwa said he hopes it will become another successful project spearheaded by the corporation.

“It's gone beyond my expectations where I thought it would be,” Kwissiwa said. “But, you know, with the success that we're seeing, and the success we're having, I believe we could still have even more success.”

White Lake’s other operations, which include the development of hydroelectric dams, the establishment of workers’ camps, and creating a human resources pipeline to help staff forestry and construction services, have provided an economic boost, directly employing 50 people in the northwestern Ontario community of 400, located 35 kilometres west of White River.

The community also has a 12 per cent ownership in nearby White River Forest Products.

That number of employment opportunities is likely to increase, as White Lake sets their sights on expanding business operations to larger cities like Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, Kwissiwa said.

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“Who says we can't open up a cannabis shop in Sault Ste. Marie or Thunder Bay? Who says we can't open up a hotel?” 

Part of their long-term plan would also include opening up urban Indigenous business centres to tap into local markets.

“There's all these opportunities out there. There's all these businesses out there. Why can’t we contribute to business within the country? Why can't we take our piece of pie and feed it to our community?”

“With the momentum right now that we have, we can do it,” he said. “We've proven it. If we could do it here with a limited market, we believe we could do it out there in the mainstream Northern Ontario market.”

Kwissiwa, who describes himself as a self-taught business operator, said he’s had to learn on the fly about developing local economies, absorbing what he can through podcasts, audio books, and the mentorship of the corporation’s CEO, Norm Jaehrling. 

Jaehrling, he said, is a “mover” in the business development world.

“He's a very sharp man, he's thoughtful, he's strategic, he thinks a lot,” Kwissiwa said. “It's very good to have that type of man to work with.”

Jaehrling, who has been involved with Netmizaaggamig for over two decades, both as financial officer of the band and as CEO of the development corporation, said one of the key moments for the community was the completion of its $200-million hydroelectric dams.

“We took that project from a concept, basically a few dots on a map,” Jaehrling said. “We evaluated plans, designs, went through an environmental assessment process and went through very complex financing contracting with the Ontario government, ultimately, to construct and commission and now operate a very expensive long-term asset.”

The completion of the project was an accomplishment itself, Jaehrling said, but the real value was in what Netmizaaggamig leaders came away with.

“Through that project, our First Nation learned how to be business people,” Jaehrling said.

It’s a long way in the community’s development since the days when the late Chief James Kiwissa (Louis’ father) ran the economic development office from the dining room table of a three-bedroom band house.

Jaehrling said the change has been like “night and day.”

“Back in those days, it was about dealing with basic needs,” he said. “There hadn't been houses built for years, the water system was failing, the people had issues with their homes.” 

“The chief of the day did very well, but he had to fight really hard. He did not have anything to work with, and didn't have equity, and he didn't have businesses, and he didn't have IBAs (impact benefit agreements); none of that stuff existed.

“He did his best, and he did well.”

Back then, Jaehrling said, the council was desperately trying to create work for its members.

“Now, it's a different place. We just hired a chief financial officer for the First Nation, because we are too big, and we're too complex, to just basically have a finance manager.”

“We actually are at a point now where we really need somebody with much higher credentials to lead us through this next stage of our growth.”

Jaehrling is especially impressed by the number of Indigenous people filling key positions in the organization.

“People that have gone off and got an education and come back to invest back or give back to their community,” he said. “It's a tremendous team of professionals now, and it's very, very exciting to see.”

The corporation has also been quick to seize economic opportunities, and leverage political opportunities into economic assets for the community. 

As such, Jaehrling said, Netmizaaggamig has been “transformed.”

“It's solidly on track to be truly an economic, self-sufficient First Nation,” Jaehrling said. "We're not there yet. But it is a dramatically different place.

“It's exciting and gratifying for me to see.”

This article is one in a series focused on progressive Northern Ontario communities that are taking advantage of opportunities to position themselves for economic growth.