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The Aboriginal advantage (03/05)

John Symington feels close to seeing some long-term major projects pay off.
John Symington feels close to seeing some long-term major projects pay off.

As the Waubetek Business Development Corporation’s partnership development advisor, Symington acts as a facilitator between the First Nations communities he represents and the corporate sector in fostering economic development opportunities.

And along the way, he’s trying to do his part to develop an entrepreneurial class of Native business people.

Besides setting up matchmaking opportunities, an important part of the job is educating Native entrepreneurs and individual First Nations on the importance of developing a “proactive” economic development strategy to pursue the kind of outside business interests that best fit their community’s long-term goals.

“The job requires everything from helping an entrepreneur who hasn’t any experience with GST or PST returns, right up to the bigger projects,” says Symington.

Some of those bigger projects include pulling the funding partners together for an upcoming Manitoulin Island hotel project and acting as a First Nations adviser on the Algoma Mill Works proposal, an $80-million plywood veneer mill project under development on Lake Huron’s North Shore.

“We’ve been trying to make economic sense out of the project and see if we can pull it ahead. It’s been a slow process because of the size of the project.”

Based on Manitoulin Island, his area covers 27 First Nations communities from Sault Ste. Marie in the west, along the North Shore to North Bay, down Highway 69 to Parry Sound. He admits developing leads can be a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating process.

“(But) I can take lot of pride in fact we have improved the capacity of the community to deal with business, the understanding of what’s going on in the corporate world and how they can deal with these things in the future.”

Think outside the mine

In remote areas of the North, First Nations are demanding a greater role in participating and developing untapped mineral and wood fibre resources on what they consider their traditional territory. But Symington would rather not concentrate on exploitation of land on reserves but wants to bring light-commercial value-added infrastructure into Native communities to provide jobs.

“Obviously, the communities are very concerned about environmental issues and some have different priorities. Generally, they are looking for very clean, environmentally friendly types of industry, opportunities that create local employment with partnership type of opportunities to participate.

They would prefer that to being landlord over a factory, he says.

“They’re looking for partnership opportunities where they can actively become involved in the business.”

In meetings with other economic development officials, bankers and corporate contacts, some of the selling points he emphasizes is the growing need in the resource-industry for input from the Aboriginal side.

“If you can develop that relationship early, it can only help you. It’s a win-win situation.”

There is also access to an emerging and well-defined consumer market. “People don’t think of the Aboriginal market being that large in Canada and the United States, but if you build a partnership with Aboriginal business, the Aboriginal community will look at an Aboriginal supplier and give preference if possible.”

Being associated with Aboriginal partners in areas of environmental products, woodworking or crafts gives any product a big advantage.

“There’s a big market for those types of products at the moment,” says Symington. “It gives (the product) an edge. “With some products, if you can push that Aboriginal connection, there’s a real benefit.”

Other benefits include access to government aid. Symington says First Nations communities have access to more funding for business development than the normal private sector operator would have.

“It’s a sometimes tricky question to pass that on, but I encourage partners to look at that. If they want to establish a reserve business you can get funding to look at a market feasibility study of going into partnership and funds towards capital costs of building a plant here.”