What began as a capacity-building exercise has evolved into a groundbreaking First Nations-owned and operated forestry venture and tenure model in northwestern Ontario.
Agoke Development Corporation received top honours in being named the winner of the Business Partnership of the Year Award at the Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund (NADF) Business Awards held in Timmins, Oct.18.
The three First Nation communities of Aroland, Marten Falls. and Eabametoong, collectively manage the 10,900-square-kilometre Ogoki Forest, 400 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.
Their corporation handles the silviculture programs and access road maintenance while protecting culturally sensitive areas and wildlife habitat.
“Commercial forestry has always been a challenging business environment for our First Nations,” said Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum in a news release. “Historically, we’ve been economically marginalized with little or no opportunity.
“In the Ogoki Forest, we set out to change that by taking Ontario’s forest tenure modernization process to the next level by securing a greater role in managing the land.”
In 2015, the three communities signed a cooperation agreement to establish the corporation with the intent to build capacity in forest management and maximize economic opportunities.
Last March, Agoke reached an agreement with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to take over responsibilities of the Crown management unit.
For the first time, the communities said, First Nations have a say on what goes in the Ogoki Forest as they build their collective knowledge to further “their role as stewards of the land.”
With a forest resource licence in hand, the corporation is now steering the process to harvest wood, assign cut blocks, handling the compliance and operations monitoring, and preparing the annual work schedules and reporting.
Agoke is also the only First Nation-owned management entity in Ontario to manage provincial forest access road money.
Agoke has established a joint venture to supply the fibre in the restart of the Nakina sawmill, which was dormant for more than a decade.
“That’s very special to us,” said Agoke director Bill Spade of Eabametoong, of the deal which saw first right of refusal for road building, harvesting, and delivery contracts.
The Agoke board has set up a working committee to provide input into the hiring process at the sawmill with the goal of having a workforce comprised of 75 per cent Aboriginal people.
The corporation’s next move is to explore biomass and biofuel opportunities to create renewable energy micro-grids in Far North communities to reduce the reliance on diesel fuel.
“With technological advancements being made, there is a huge opportunity to be innovators in renewable energy for combined heat and power in Northern Ontario,” said Delia Okees, an Agoke director in Marten Falls.
“There is a lot of work to do, but we believe we are on the right track and we don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.”