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Planting seeds for First Nation growth

Working with First Nation communities to build their economies and preserve their culture has been an eye-opening experience for Tony Afonso.
Cook Engineering captures First Nation cultural and spiritual values in its design and project management including the Naotkamegwanning Health Centre near Sioux Narrows.

Working with First Nation communities to build their economies and preserve their culture has been an eye-opening experience for Tony Afonso.

The manager of Cook Engineering's First Nations Business Development group has developed a deeper appreciation of Aboriginal people through his relationships with bands across northwestern Ontario.

Afonso has partaken in smudging ceremonies, to ward off evil winds and negative energy away from capital projects, and has been touched by the true spirituality of their beliefs. He's noticed every band starts off every key meeting with a prayer in their native tongue.

"There's meaning behind their actions. That's the part that impresses me the most and why I enjoy with working with First Nations."

Thunder Bay's V. B. Cook Co. Ltd., a 75-employee multi-disciplinary firm prides itself in providing culturally sensitive and personalized services in architecture, engineering, environmental and development for First Nation clients across Ontario and Western Canada.

As a Portuguese-born kid growing up in Caramat, a bush community south of Highway 11, many of his friends belonged to the Longlac First Nation.

"I never appreciated them to the level I do now professionally," said Afonso, a 20-year construction veteran who graduated from Confederation College's architectural technology program. He joined Cook in 1994.

The First Nations development group really blossomed in 2000-2001 after a housing state of emergency was declared with the Longlac First Nation because of mould problems.

"We spent the better part of three years repairing and rebuilding the community."

A block of 80 homes were in extremely poor shape. By the time the $4.5 million project was complete, 120 homes were repaired or entirely constructed.

"We did 40 homes in one season," said Afonso, who lived in Long Lac for that period.

It's become a niche market that Afonso has slowly been building.

First Nations work is growing into a sizeable chunk of the business with billings increasing about 15 per cent increase in 2008 from the previous year. The three years amounts to $1.5 million in total billings.

Cook works hand-in-hand with band officials on feasibility studies, preparing business cases, helping with capital funding applications to federal Indian Affairs, and in managing projects to completion.

"We're involved in construction management with a community liaison directly to the chief to help manage projects to save 15 to 20 per cent of general contractor overhead, which is pretty significant."

Afonso said there's a diversified mix of projects ongoing and upcoming that really gives this business some legs.

He has travelled to communities in Sioux Narrows and all the way north to James Bay to work on health clinics, day care centres, schools, business centres, community halls, small water treatment plants, remote diesel generating stations and housing projects.

One of their clients is the Red Rock band with whom Afonso worked on a feasibility study for a wood sorting yard at the Highway 11-17 junction to handle hardwood fibre, wood chips and biomass going north and south between Thunder Bay, Nipigon and Marathon.

The same band has eyes on converting a rustic chalet lodge in the Nipigon area into a five-star resort, a project that Cook intends to bid on.

Flying into Webequie airport this past fall, 540 km north of Thunder Bay, Afonso was amazed to see a community resembling a mini-Fort McMurray.

Norseman bush planes and helicopters were flying around the clock from the airport, ferrying diesel fuel and supplies to support dozens of exploration companies working by flood light, some 30 to 40 kilometres north of the remote community.

Cook has two contracts there for an airport development plan, and in working as project managers on a new diesel power generating station. There are also projects to establish camps for contractors, complete with assay lab, secure storage huts and helicopter refueling capabilities.

A particular niche within a niche is their specialty work in health and spiritual centres or healing lodges.

The design and construction of First Nation buildings all carry great meaning and cultural symbolism, right down to the choice of building material. "You always start with this grand idea and look around at what the immediate area has to offer."

Whenever possible local wood and rock, such granite extracted from a local quarry, is incorporated into the structure. The interiors are infused with plenty of natural light.

First Nation buildings offer an opportunity to get elaborate with design, though Afonso said Cook's philosophy is not to get beyond the "realms of affordability."

Themes and colours of the medicine wheel are often used, which explains why round buildings are preferred. In one case, the Longlac band wanted their community hall to resemble a turtle. Because communities like to hold gatherings like smudging ceremonies, there's special consideration given to ventilation. Many clients want natural vegetation preserved and only select cutting of trees. On one Far North project, it was especially important to preserve a stand of northern oak trees.

Community input is vital and useful. For instance, drumming means different things to bands across Ontario. Afonso found that out in a roundtable discussion with eight bands in designing space for a healing centre. Some bands drum in celebration, others to ward off evil spirits. "You have to work through the process on what their beliefs are."

Where budgets allow, Cook has a history of using artisans and whenever possible uses First Nations' construction labour.

For many bands, extracting development money from government is always an issue and projects lag behind, because of the extensive reporting to obtain capital dollars. But Afonso feels fortunate to work with good clients and government contacts in Ottawa. "When you know the needs of everyone, both clients and the funders, everyone's going to be happy with you.":

And the loyalty of Cook's First Nation clients is expressed in repeat business.

"It's a lot of seeds you plant and contacts you make," said Afonso. "Once they have a trust and the confidence in you, they will come back.

"I always tell me, don't believe in what I say, believe in the work I do, and if I do good work, give me another chance."