Lobster bisque, cassoulet, chicken marsala, jäger schnitzel: the list of gastronomical offerings at Musselwhite Mine reads more like the menu of an internationally renowned restaurant than that of a mining operation in the isolated reaches of Northern Ontario.
But the employees at Goldcorp's underground gold mine located northwest of Thunder Bay are eating well courtesy of Windigo Catering, the First Nation-owned company contracted to provide catering and camp management services to Musselwhite.
“When you're on a remote camp and you've worked 12 hours, what are you looking forward to? You're looking forward to a nice meal,” said Debbie Korobanik, general manager of parent company Windigo Ventures General Partner Ltd. “Really the needs of the customers are pretty simple: a nice meal and a clean room to sleep in. If we give them that, they're very happy, and it makes us happy too that they're happy.”
Windigo Catering is the cornerstone of Windigo Ventures, the for-profit, economic development arm of the Windigo First Nations Council comprised of five First Nations in the Sioux Lookout area.
When Musselwhite Mine was being developed in the 1990s, an agreement with the area's signatory First Nations called for employment opportunities for area residents. The catering company negotiated a written contract with the company in 2005, and has been providing camp services to the mine ever since. Profits from the business go back to the member communities.
Boasting an 83 per cent First Nations employment rate, the company employs 60 people, all of whom are hired from the area. In addition to catering, Windigo offers laundry, camp management, janitorial, light housekeeping and heavy-duty janitorial services.
“We have a really great-looking employment rate for First Nations—that's something we're really proud of,” Korobanik said. “We try to keep those numbers always.”
Complementing the catering business is Windigo Distributors, which sells industrial cleaning products to customers including Musselwhite, northern schools and the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service, and Windigo Property, a real estate management company with commercial and residential leases.
“All these companies are 100 per cent First Nation-owned by the five Windigo communities, so they're very proud of that, that they've been so successful,” Korobanik said. “I know not all First Nation-owned businesses always do that well and sometimes they'll fall by the wayside, but we've been lucky with these companies.”
“We've sort of met a niche in the market,” she added. “I think it's almost being in the right place at the right time, and then of course with all the mining exploration and the mining boom that's come along in the last few years we're looking forward to all the opportunities.”
If Windigo faces one challenge going forward, it's a high turnover rate, something not unfamiliar in the hospitality industry. Working at an isolated mine site for 14 consecutive days, 12 hours a day, followed by a two-week break isn't a work lifestyle that's suited to everyone, and can take its toll on employees, Korobanik said.
But she believes the company is getting better at recruiting and training potential employees for the job, and keeping employees happy is part its success. Windigo has instituted group benefit plans, a pension plan and a problem-solving policy for conflict resolution.
“We want to have happy, healthy employees,” Korobanik said. “That's the key to such a good good service that we provide.”
Now that Windigo has successfully managed Musselwhite, it's looking to expand, and recently completed a five-year plan. The company developed a website and other marketing materials last year with plans to actively go after additional accounts.
First on the agenda: opening an office in Thunder Bay to access the potential opportunities associated with mineral exploration in the area, the biggest of which is the development of the Ring of Fire. Korobanik expects the office to open by the end of 2012.
After hosting an episode of his show at the mine, well-known celebrity First Nations chef David Wolfman has expressed an interest in working with Windigo, while the Ministry of Natural Resources—which last year used Musselwhite as its base for firefighting in the North—was so impressed with its services, it has offered the company an opportunity to bid on contracts this year.
Korobanik sees that confidence in their services as a sign that Windigo is prepared for growth—but wants to do it in a way that doesn't compromise the company's quality services.
“I think being solely First Nation-owned, we do have that extra benefit that these groups want to work with us and want to give us the opportunity to compete for these contracts,” she said. “They're not necessarily just handed to us. We have to compete, and it's great that we're at that point that we have the capacity to compete and expand the business.”