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Indigenous Leaders: Tina Sheridan looks to lift up Indigenous entrepreneurs

Founder of CreeQuest Corp. has Canada-wide ambitions for her Indigenous mining services company

The motivation behind Tina Sheridan's journey into entrepreneurship is quite simple and stark.

"Hunger and poverty," said the founder and president of CreeQuest Corp, a company she grew from a side hustle into a full-service, Indigenous-owned mining service company over a 10-year span. CreeQuest and its partners have put 120 people to work, more than half being women and close to half are Indigenous.

"If you experience hunger and poverty in any way and you have an opportunity and an open door to make a change, and if you have the confidence and take the leap and do it, then good things can happen," said Sheridan, a member of Taykwa Tagamou Nation (TTN).

"That was the reason I needed to do something with my life. I needed to set an example for my kids. I wanted them to have a nice life and I wanted to have a legacy down the road."

Coming from the other side of advantage, Sheridan spent her childhood moving among foster homes and later struggled as a single mother of two on the northeastern Ontario reserve outside Cochrane, working minimum wage jobs.

She started CreeQuest in 2010 as a small catering and event planning company to earn extra money, booking social and corporate gatherings in the community like weddings, anniversaries and industry consultation meetings.

She hired band members as the events grew in size, her confidence fuelled by the compliments she received from her traditional Indigenous menu.

Three years in, Sheridan knew to be able to bid on bigger contracts, but she needed a deep-pocketed and experienced partner and found one in Aramark, an international food and beverage company, a move she calls "groundbreaking" in 2013.

At that time, Sheridan said, it was unheard of for large service companies like Aramark to sign on with a sole Indigenous proprietor rather than a recognized band-owned business.

"They understood that; I give them credit," she said. "They just took a chance on me."

The two companies renewed their eight-year relationship last April.

With Aramark to guide her, Sheridan immersed herself in understanding all aspects of the remote camp business.

Within a year, the partnership secured a camp catering gig at the nearby Young-Davidson Mine, that included housekeeping and janitorial duties.

Five years ago, Aramark and CreeQuest landed the camp contract at the Detour Lake Mine, northeast of Cochrane. The open-pit operation, now owned by Kirkland Lake Gold, still remains their largest client today.

An admitted late-bloomer as an entrepreneur, starting CreeQuest in her early 30s, Sheridan's ambitious, curious, and growth-minded nature has served her well. She's never been shy about speaking up.

"If I didn't understand a term or technical aspect of whatever we were talking about, I would say it. I would ask a lot of questions and just admit, look I'm new, I'm just starting out, you need to guide me."

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During a four-year stint as a TTN band councillor, she combed through the pages of the impact benefit agreements that previous leaders had negotiated with natural resources companies operating on their traditional land. 

Embedded in these pacts were a slew of opportunities for Indigenous business operators like herself to take part in industry supply chains.

She pushed for additional subcontracting opportunities within the overall camp services that more TTN members could access. 

From this, CQ Laundry was born. Located in Cochrane, her industrial laundry facility, now three years running and periodically employing between five and nine people, handles all the linen for Detour Mine.

This month, ownership of CQ Laundry transfers to Sheridan's daughter, Emily Lamarche, who started out as the  transportation manager. Together with Aramark, the plan is to add more machines to accommodate the expanding mine and also position themselves to take on more clients.

Last year, with her workload increasing, Sheridan felt as if she had "hit the ceiling" as a sole owner in being able to grow the company.

She enlisted some familiar faces and business associates – Greg Sutherland of Moose Cree First Nation and Virginia Forsythe of nearby Wahgoshig First Nation – to come aboard as shareholders. 

Both are experienced and recognized in Indigenous business circles and share many of Sheridan's values. They restructured CreeQuest and incorporated it in 2020. CreeQuest is now a registered Indigenous business with all three of their home communities.

Together they brainstormed on how to expand into other mining services and struck a partnership with Timmins-based, family-owned NPLH Drilling and within a month of the deal being struck had won a drilling contract at Detour Lake.

Last December, CreeQuest signed a partnership agreement with Komplete Modular Solutions, one of Canada's leading remote camp suppliers, to focus on mining, forestry and civil construction opportunities in the area.

Not content to simply make money, what remained of foremost importance to Sheridan is giving back to the First Nation communities, sharing the wealth, providing job opportunities, and making the lives of the people around them better.

To date, CreeQuest's community investment fund has distributed $734,000 over a five-year period for athletic fields, infrastructure upgrades, and youth and Elder cultural programs as part of the agreement with their partners.

In a region ripe with spinoff opportunities in the mineral sector, Sheridan wants to help groom a few more entrepreneurs like herself and some next-generation leaders. In her eyes, Indigenous participation in resource projects needs to go beyond entry-level jobs.

CreeQuest has recently launched an entrepreneurial mentorship program for Indigenous learners, a nine-week virtual course delivered by a college professor with expert speakers on topical subjects such as procurement, startups, and negotiating partnership agreements.

Sheridan finds there is no shortage of aspiring business owners with questions on how to get their foot in the door.

"We want to inspire and mentor new, up-and-coming entrepreneurs."

Not satisfied with just serving northeastern Ontario, Sheridan is eager to see how far afield their momentum can take them.

Sheridan thinks her story and their unique business model ultimately resonate with Indigenous communities and partners across Canada.

"Other First Nations are knocking on our door," said Sheridan, who was interviewed while on business in Quebec. "Whatever we're doing is working because other communities and provinces are interested in our story. 

"Years ago, with our ancestors, there were no borders or divisions of communities, and if you harvested or hunted well you would share that meat and food with others. I think that's the mentality we have and what makes us Indigenous businesses.

"Yes, we're competitive, but we've been doing this for a long time and we also want to see others succeed."