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Everyone benefits when Aboriginal enterprise succeeds

Waubetek is a First Nation-owned, not-for-profit entity that serves First Nations and Aboriginal businesses in northeastern Ontario. Waubetek’s core activity is to provide business financing to on- and off-reserve enterprises.
Dawn Madahbee is the general manager of Waubetek Business Development Corporation, an Aboriginal-owned and controlled organization that delivers business financing and economic development services to

Waubetek is a First Nation-owned, not-for-profit entity that serves First Nations and Aboriginal businesses in northeastern Ontario. Waubetek’s core activity is to provide business financing to on- and off-reserve enterprises. We also provide regional economic support by developing wide-scale economic initiatives to facilitate access to broader economic opportunities. Waubetek is overseen by an experienced board of directors and professional staff who are focused on supporting Aboriginal business development and First Nation economic development throughout northeastern Ontario.

Last fall, Waubetek celebrated 25 years of investing in the “Aboriginal business spirit.” In our early days, we were full of hope and determination, but the capacity of the First Nations communities, our people and the certainty of how long we could sustain the idea of Waubetek was unclear. The deep potential quickly became apparent along with the ready and very capable take-up of even modest assistance. Since inception, we have invested $65 million in more than 3,000 Aboriginal business initiatives. The business people we work with are committed to making their businesses successful, such that 94 per cent of those businesses are still operating!

It is also important to note that many of these are new businesses developed within underserviced areas. They supply needed jobs and services by purchasing the majority of their supplies, equipment and inventory from the businesses in the surrounding area, hiring Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal staff, bringing in needed goods and services, and thereby benefiting the regional economy.

Waubetek, through the support of FedNor, recently announced the launch of an Aboriginal Mining Strategy for North-East Ontario. Although we are located in one of Canada’s largest mining hubs, the First Nations have benefitted very little from this sector. There exist legal requirements to work with First Nations in major developments, as Aboriginal title and treaty rights have been validated with respect to lands and resources in Canada. First Nations, Aboriginal businesses, and the mining industry itself have all called for improved means of communication and engagement on a business level which takes Aboriginal rights and interests into account. In this document, there are specific strategies outlined for the First Nations as well as Aboriginal businesses, organizations, and our labour force on having meaningful involvement. There are specific initiatives that Waubetek is undertaking, including supports for Aboriginal mining suppliers such as marketing, building capacity, procurement training, and building business relationships. In this respect, Waubetek is looking to establish a $500,000 fund, with an industry partner, to support short-term lines of credit for Aboriginal businesses supplying the mining industry. We have another economic initiative underway to address food security globally through Aboriginal fisheries and aquaculture. Through this initiative, we have invested in fish farms, a fish-processing plant, and, hopefully soon, a fish hatchery in the coming months. We recently completed an Aboriginal fisheries asset map and will be building upon these points of opportunity to support greater Aboriginal involvement in this industry. Waubetek has a full-time aquaculture technician who is working closely with the First Nations and Aboriginal businesses in this sector.

Waubetek also hosts the Ontario Government’s Jobs-for-Youth Program each summer where we prepare 60 Aboriginal youth between the ages of 15 and 18 for employment. We certify the youth in customer service, workplace safety, food handling, and first aid. We also train them on work ethics, managing their personal budgets, and cultural teachings.

Waubetek was also selected this year to manage Ontario’s Social Enterprise Demonstration Fund in our service area. This program provides support for management and training for business co-operatives with a social mandate. Waubetek will combine its own capital with the resources provided through this fund to further assist with the development of social enterprises in our service area. We look forward to supporting art co-ops, youth business co-ops, a fisheries co-op, and many other innovative business ideas that have already come forth. These businesses will also contribute greatly to the Northern Ontario economy.

So in the larger scale, Waubetek is trying to establish a new understanding of where First Nations and Aboriginal economies are headed. To a large extent, these economies are pictured as being largely based on transfer payments and treadmill economies. Of necessity, this is true in many cases as, for reasons too numerous to elaborate on here, there still exists significant socioeconomic gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada. However, Waubetek and many others across the country are now envisioning and working towards a value-added First Nations and Aboriginal business economy which leads to self-sustaining communities. For all of Canada, this will be a good thing.