Forestry is ingrained in the collective DNA of Canada's Aboriginal people.
“It's just innate in our communities,” said J.P. Gladu, president-CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB).
“We know how to live in the forest and utilize the forestry.
“We used to do prescribed burning and we have incredible traditional knowledge on the landscape so we've always been a part of it. Now we're becoming more engaged on the business end of it.”
The CCAB is teaming up with the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) to recognize business excellence in Aboriginal forestry.
Nominations are open for this year's Aboriginal Business Leadership Award. The deadline is July 30. The $5,000 award celebrates First Nation entrepreneurs that best exemplify strong leadership, an outstanding environmental and safety performance, the delivery of high-end products and services, while showing a strong commitment to their community by hiring locally.
Past winners include northwestern Ontario's Grace Esquega, president of Niigaani Enterprises in Gull Bay.
The annual award will be handed out for the fourth time at the CCAB's gala, Sept. 23 in Vancouver. On the same day, the association will be handing out their Award of Excellence in Aboriginal Relations to former National Chief Phil Fontaine and recognizing their Progressive Aboriginal Relations certified companies.
Gladu said this is the first time that CCAB is working with FPAC in taking over the co-hosting duties from the Assembly of First Nations.
FPAC has launched a campaign to restock the industry with 60,000 new faces and First Nations represent a huge recruiting base.
Gladu said across Canada, Aboriginal business in forestry and in all sectors is starting to gain momentum and there are many shining examples of inspiring entrepreneurs and success stories among 1,400 Aboriginally-owned businesses.
The forest industry is the largest employer of First Nation workers at 17,000.
Gladu, a trained forester who grew up in Thunder Bay and the Lake Nipigon area, said traditionally, there's been a long history of involvement on the harvesting side. The new opportunities lay in primary production with sawmills, pellet mills and bioenergy.
But there are often some common misperceptions about the role Aboriginals play in stoking the furnace of this country's economy; That Aboriginals don't pay their own way and are obstructionists to resource development.
“The average Canadian maybe doesn't understand that we are net contributors to the economy with $16 billion in Aboriginal business contributions,” said Gladu.
“We're adding to the bottom line and building relationships. We're not opposed to resource development but it's got to be done respectfully and hand-in-hand with the communities in partnership.”
For decades, Aboriginal people have been on the other side of resource development and have not benefited from the harvesting and extraction sectors, Gladu said.
“Now the Aboriginal leadership and trailblazers in business are starting to be seen as significant contributors to the economy. What separates us is that we're really hungry. We're tired of seeing everybody else benefiting in our regions except for us. And now our young people and our business leaders are stepping up and making a difference.”
The challenge, Gladu said, is to find ways to keep extending value chain and creating employment from forest engineering to road building to harvesting, planting, hauling and manufacturing wood products.
“There's an opportunity there that we just need to find out a way to make it happen.”