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By Oliver Moore
Published December 12, 2008
Publication: Globe & Mail
HALIFAX -- Millbrook First Nation first dipped its toe into business waters in 1995 with a single service station, Treaty Gas.
In the years since, the site has mushroomed into a sprawling business park near Truro, N.S. On Highway 102, the artery running north through the province from Halifax, the band has leased out land for a motel, fast-food franchises, theatres, stores and a call centre.
The companies operating here employ more than 700 people, most of them non-natives, according to the Millbrook band.
The 1,300-member band also owns a 56-unit apartment building in the Cole Harbour area of Halifax. And it recently built an $11-million facility in the same area and leased it to General Dynamics Corp., the defence industry conglomerate.
The new building - which will house 150 high-tech workers providing support for Canada's new ship-borne helicopter, the CH148 Cyclone - was lauded by Premier Rodney MacDonald as a sign of Nova Scotia's diversifying economy.
"[General Dynamics] has demonstrated a great level of respect and understanding regarding first nations' culture and heritage," Millbrook Chief Lawrence Paul said as the building opened in September. "We take pride in welcoming them as a new member of our community."
Although the band will not disclose what revenue comes in from its various business ventures, officials will say that they now get less than 30 per cent of their funding from government, compared with at least 95 per cent in the early 1990s.
WORKING WITH BANDS
It's Business 101: Know who you're dealing with. The classic rule has added resonance when working with first nations communities, says Matt Vickers, a partner with Meyers Norris Penny in Vancouver and the accounting and business advisory firm's provincial director of aboriginal services for Alberta and British Columbia.
"My advice, always, to any entity wanting to do business [with a native community] is, 'Have you gone through aboriginal awareness training?' " says Mr. Vickers, who has analyzed native economic development.
He says would-be business partners need to know and understand the history of the band. In some cases, difficult past relationships with non-aboriginals can make a native community cautious about new ventures.
There is also the possibility of competing land claims. Separate bands' ideas about what constitutes traditional territory may overlap, he notes, citing as an example the Dene, who were originally from the North but have a reserve in Calgary, traditional Blackfoot territory.
It is also crucial to clarify the question of governance and to determine who will be making the decisions. Mr. Vickers says he has found that the most successful bands are those with well-established leaders who set up arm's-length development corporations that can operate without suspicion of political interference.
Ideally, no band council members are involved as trustees or board members of the development body, "so you have complete separation," says Mr. Vickers, whose heritage is Tsimshian and Heiltsuk, both in British Columbia. "If there has not been a separation in the leadership of the development corporation, there will be issues, there will be problems."
Taxation is another issue to keep on top of, he says, because the rules related to taxes and native rights change regularly and should never be assumed to be fixed in stone.
By the Numbers
1.3 million: Number of aboriginal people in Canada, about 4 per cent of population.
34,000: Estimated number of native businesses in Canada, half of them in urban areas.
25: Number of Canadian first nations represented in recent trade mission to China.
$11-million: Value of N.S. high-tech facility built by Millbrook First Nation and leased to General Dynamics.
$76-million: Annual revenue of Membertou First Nation in Nova Scotia.
1,200: Number of peak-season jobs created in nine businesses owned by B.C.'s 450-member Osoyoos Indian Band.
$17-million: Annual revenue of Osoyoos band businesses, including a golf course, winery and four-star resort.
Half: Portion of native population who are under the age of 25.
30 per cent: Estimated portion of Canadian land mass owned or controlled by native people.
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