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Pic River powered by hydro projects (7/03)

Consistency in leadership from a 22-year standing government representative is the key reason why the economy of Pic River First Nation continues to improve in spite of the softwood lumber crisis, an economic development officer for the First Nation

Consistency in leadership from a 22-year standing government representative is the key reason why the economy of Pic River First Nation continues to improve in spite of the softwood lumber crisis, an economic development officer for the First Nation says.

Initially, the community located on the north shore of Lake Superior, 12 kilometres southeast of Marathon, had nearly 60 per cent unemployment out of the 550 people living on the reserve. That changed when Chief Roy Michano was elected, Byron LeClair economic development officer for Pic River First Nation says.

“(Michano and the council) recognized the despair and hopelessness in not being responsible for our own opportunities here,” LeClair says.

“The government does not live here. People here would know what would best suit them as solutions.”

Creating jobs through the forestry sector and hydro generating stations has decreased the unemployment rate to about 16 per cent.

“We are a very large timber harvester in our area. I think on the forestry side we must sell between $6 million to $7 million of timber each year,” he explains.

The community also has fire contracts with the province and silviculture contracts with local mills.

“We are probably a fairly large regional employer that no one has ever heard of. I think we generated just in fire suppression and silviculture, 165 jobs that can be attributed to our corporate activity,” LeClair adds.

Looking into the future, LeClair is unnerved by the growing layoffs in his region due to the softwood lumber disputes. On the contrary, he hopes to cash in on some opportunities. Unlike many companies who have relied solely on sawmills as a primary customer, Pic River First Nation has diversified. With their own license on a number of units, they can manufacture wood chips rather than deliver sawed-off logs like they do now.

“This has created an opportunity for us to supply wood chips to them at a much greater value.”

New possibilities are emerging due to solid partnerships with companies like Tembec Inc. and Domtar Inc.

However, it is not only the forest sector that is fuelling their economy. Pic River First Nation has become an essential partner in creating hydro generating stations. Initially, Michano was asked to be part of a panel to review proposals for the Black River Hydro generating station in his area. Instead of being a panel member, Michano decided to become a participating bidder.

“We had to have a piece of the action,” Michano recalls.

And when people thought he and his committee would not be able to pull it off, he retorted, “Just watch me.”

Today the $24-million station produces 13.5 megawatts of electricity and generates $4 million in revenue.

Michano and his community receive $400,00 annually in revenue from the hydro station.

Since that time they have engaged in other partnerships like the $10-million Twin Falls Hydro station and another 20.6 megawatt hydro station, Umbata Falls, is proposed for White River east of the Pic reservation, where the community will own the majority of the plant.

“They call us the pioneers of First Nation hydro,” Michano says, referring to how businesses and governments address them.

Revenue streams from these sectors have allowed the community to invest in other economic areas, LeClair says.

“We gear most of our investment returns back to community development projects such as a women’s crisis home on the reserve,” LeClair explains.

The community also developed a cable televisions company.

“We signed affiliation agreements with major networks. We receive a signal on the reserve and we broadcast it back to members of our community,” he adds.

A few years later, they introduced a cable service with a high-speed Internet service company that supplies residential customers on the First Nation reserve.

“We are the only community, not just the only First Nation community, but the only community between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie that has a high-speed ISP.”

None of this would have been possible had it not been for the productive partnerships, LeClair explains.

The reservation was built around a wealth of natural resources. Along with the hydro and forest initiatives is a long-term strategy to develop an ecotourism sector.

“We have the largest naturally occurring dunes in northwestern Ontario at the mouth of the Pic,” LeClair says.

The dunes are located on the northern boarder of Pukasaw National Park. The idea is to provide tourists with an opportunity to experience the North through the eyes of Aboriginals 100 years ago. Trading posts will once again be erected with the intention of educating tourists on the Aboriginal history of the region, and LeClair is expecting to do this with little assistance from the government.

“I think we look to activities in forest and our activities in hydro to provide us with non-governmental funds source of revenue that we can convert into other community priorities and we are doing that successfully.”