Wahkohtowin Development GP Inc.

Enriching the lives of Indigenous Peoples in Canada is a much-needed investment of time and resources that will serve to enhance both Canadian cultural diversity and the nation’s economic prosperity. As of the 2016 census, the population of Indigenous Peoples in Canada totalled just less than 1.7 million. In order to best maximize the potential for improving upon the lives of these Canadians the education and learning process towards skills development of Indigenous youth is essential.

In just three short years of existence, Ontario-based Wahkohtowin Development GP Inc. is making tremendous strides in bettering the lives of those within the province’s Indigenous community. It was incorporated as a for-profit entity on March 31, 2016 following about 10 years of developmental work by the Northeast Superior Regional Chiefs Forum and its supporting materials along with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry MNRF Resource Revenue Share pilot funds.

Wahkohtowin Development GP is a non-political strategic planning body with a mandate to advance an inclusive, collaborative approach to economic development through First Nation – municipal partnerships and advance business opportunities related to the forestry sector. Wahkohtowin is located in Chapleau, Ontario, about 365km northeast of Sault Ste. Marie by car.

Promoting Prosperity

Since its 2016 incorporation Wahkohtowin Development has mobilized more than $8 million in monetary resources (direct, financed, grants, partnership, and foundations) toward achieving the Vision of Full Participation in Forestry and Forest Management.

The word Wahkohtowin denotes interconnected relationships meaning “kinship” and is one of the basic principles of Cree Natural Law passed through language, song, prayer and storytelling.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Wahkohtowin Development GP General Manager David Flood about the current initiatives and future plans of the general partnership. Raised in Alberta, Flood started practicing forestry in British Columbia and has spent more than 25 years as an Indigenous practicing forester. He is from the Matachewan First Nation and lives in the Treaty Nine area.

“I’ve seen the change over the decades in terms of what it takes for Indigenous communities to start economic initiatives especially as it relates to balancing the rights’-based interests with economic opportunities,” he begins.

Dating back more than two centuries, the intent of the original signed land treaties was to be of benefit to both parties – the settler governments of the day and the Indigenous people who resided there prior to contact. It’s been about a 250-year journey but in focalizing that journey over the last decade is when the Chiefs in the Chapleau area called the Northeast Superior Region to work together and create the catalyst of forests’ tenure reform in Ontario.

“Bill 151 was passed and it opened dialogue on how to improve the way in which First Nations participate in the Crown Forest Sustainability Act, sustainable forest licences, management of the forests, and the development of forest management plans,” says Flood.

Ultimately there are many triggers and mechanisms within the Act and the procedures and regulations that actually speak to creating economic opportunities for First Nations. The Chiefs gathered together in a geopolitical fashion in order to determine the best way of becoming involved in the tenure reform.

The Crown (an established, regulated and commercially-controlled entity of the government) – wanting to make an exit from the management of forests – also pushed the agenda forward.

The Magpie Forest is a Crown unit and over the past four years there has been an amalgamation process to join with the Martel Forest, which was previously owned by Tembec and now RYAM Rayonier.

“The Chiefs negotiated a principled document with government, industry and municipalities who were also meant to be participants in the overall management of the forest, because they are the obvious recipients of where the resource ends up. The mills are located in the towns and most often there is an expression of interest from the municipalities to know what’s happening in the forests and how they are being managed, ultimately leading to wood flow,” explains Flood.

Since Bill 151 came in to effect, the geopolitical creation of the NSRCF and the birthing of Wahkohtowin three years ago, there has been a successful negotiated ownership in the Hornepayne Sawmill/Co-gen assets that had previously gone into receivership.

A memorandum of agreement was signed with the mill’s principal owner Frank Dottori in July, 2017. The deal was finalized November 29, 2017 at a ceremony at Hornepayne. Furthermore, there was also a human resources agreement – a train to employ situation with the proponent to which the communities are 30% part owners. Northeast Superior First Nation Investment LP became a partner in Hornepayne Lumber and Hornepayne Power. The group consists of the Missanabie Cree, Chapleau Cree and Netamisakomik Anishinabek (Pic Mobert) First Nation and is delivering a $4 million equity investment in the two ventures. The 10-megawatt co-gen plant, located next to the sawmill, runs on mill wood waste and generates steam power and supplies heat to the kilns.

“The negotiation resulted in harvesting opportunities to which I’ve just garnered $1 million from the Indigenous Forestry Initiative Fund to start up and capitalize a harvesting company,” confirms Flood.

Guardian Program

Negotiations in the eSFL shareholder agreement process has allowed Wahkohtowin to partner with First Resource Management Group Inc (who does planning and operational management) to take on Forest Management Planning opportunities under the banner Mistikuskahk Resources Inc  associated with the amalgamating forest units. Designed to create increased participation in the actual physical planning component of forest management and forest monitoring.

Outland who has mushroomed from a start-up business in 1985 to a thriving enterprise in the Forestry Services and Camps plus Catering that now employs more than 3,000 people with a diverse operations and client base from coast to coast. Outland has been running a 19 year commitment toward First Nation community and youth engagement under its Outland Youth Employment Program – OYEP. Outland and Wahkohtowin are committed to explore collaboration through a formal Letter of Intent and Memorandum of Understanding process.

“OYEP also plugs into what we’re championing and that’s our Guardian Program, which focuses on engaging community youth and elders and supporting traditional cultural values, knowledge and geopolitical relations. It’s an opportunity to move people through a skills development process to ascertain what pathways they may want to take to go through a post-secondary education or trades,” continues Flood.

David Bradley of Outland is the architect of that company’s longstanding youth program and he and his team have been strong proponents of what Flood and his team are doing at Wahkohtowin. The program is a six-week intensive live-in lifeskills/workskills experience which provides youth access to a host of required employment certifications, financial literacy, forest industry training including forest fire fighting and chainsaw, access to forest industry partners offering tours and on-the-land hands-on work experience, start to drivers license process and earn up to two high school credits per summer.

“Now with Wahkohtowin, I’m able to create a partnership with his program and say we are going to take care of the four to 16-year-olds and then with the 16 to 24-year-olds we’re also going to get them excited about location training and employing them in Wahkohtowin businesses and other businesses of our First Nations,” says Flood.

The Guardian Program is an investment in youth. Flood anticipates it will be a 10-year journey and he knows the importance of being able to excite the youth and provide them hope for a prosperous life in the future. When fully realized, the Guardian Program will have elements connecting youth with elders to learn about the land and resources; developing skills and effective pathways to employment.

“With our Guardian Program we have put together a letter of intent with Outland, which has a First Nations youth employment program that they’ve been running for 19 years. We’re partnering with them to do a very specific task, which is the training aspect on skills development for forest-based production work. The program also provides them access to getting them a driver’s licence and these also qualify for high school credits,” explains Flood.

Outland ascertained that a significant number of people in the marketplace who are looking for jobs are in fact those within the Indigenous communities and so there is the necessary human capital readily available. In conjunction with Outland, Flood emphasizes the need to capitalize on the ability to raise money and invest in the program and by extension to invest in youth.

“From 16 to 20 year olds – we actually overlap in the bubbles – we want to have a partnership because that program is like a catalyst. There is opportunity for people who have skillsets and I’m asking them to make themselves known,” he says. “We want them to visit our website and communicate with us in terms of what their skills and experiences may be. If I’m going to diversify and start creating new business opportunities I’m going to need more people.”

The Guardian Program puts people on the land to support the region achieve its objectives and advance environmental, social, cultural, and economic resiliency – building healthy communities and healthy futures.

Looking to the Future

Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests has something known as the Enhanced Sustainable Forest Licence implementation. The document guides the forest industry as it transitions to Enhanced Sustainable Forest Licences. It is the result of a collaborative effort from several First Nations groups, the Forest Industry Working Group, the Community Working Group and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

The Enhanced Forest Sustainable Licence Process has three participating municipalities and five First Nations that are deemed affected by the amalgamation of the Martel-Magpie Forest. The main focus is supporting the business development and participation in the forestry sector but there are also many burgeoning opportunities in energy, tourism and mining.

“We are meant to facilitate and promote diversification. We call it full participation in the forest sector,” says Flood. “In terms of the diversification mechanisms, it’s still forestry related, but we’re pushing the notion of moving beyond commodity and pulp and get into this bio-economy. Why should we feel energy impoverished in the region when we’ve got some of the world’s richest resources?”

There is bio-economy technology and if there is concentrated supportive effort between the municipalities and First Nations there are many opportunities to implement effective plans.

Now Wahkohtowin can move full-speed ahead because it’s an officially-accredited business entity, owned by First Nations. It’s now at an entirely new power-base level with a whole different talking piece as opposed to the past when Chiefs would go into the minister’s office and make requests for much-needed change, but ultimately received little to show for their efforts.

“Now there is a voice going into the minister’s office, supported by the leadership, saying ‘here’s how we’d like to propose doing the change’,” says Flood. “It’s exciting.”

Flood and Wahkohtowin are by no means solely approaching the issues from a political stand but rather are seeding with scores of other diverse benefits such as employment, training, new businesses, prosperity and own-source revenue. It becomes a catalyst for the willingness of everyone to put their political issues aside and work together. More communities are swiftly recognizing what Wahkohtowin has been able to accomplish in a short period of time and are making inquiries about joining the partnership.

“We are stabilized with our current staff: we have a financial controller, a forester working through a partnership and our Guardianship initiative coordinator lead,” says Flood.

The sense of inclusiveness is evident in Wahkohtowin’s philosophy, and in fact is part of its official logo, which consists of two main pillars that speak to the Indigenous on the one side and non-Indigenous on the other. At the base of the logo the arms are much closer together and then move away from each other. Advancing through time they curve back and are noticeably moving closer together.

“We’re in a period of reconciliation and showing that we are all connected,” adds Flood.

Flood’s strongest aspiration for Wahkohtowin is to meet a strategic outcome, which is to create wellbeing within the communities. Part of that wellbeing equation is own-source revenue. The more communities are able to achieve own-source revenue that is not fettered through Indigenous Affairs programming requirements will result in a greater level of autonomy and by extension take that money and invest it in their communities as they see fit based on local needs and priorities and healthy community building.

“Wahkohtowin is my hope and aspiration to become that own-source revenue generator – and we’re on that path,” concludes Flood. “It’s only going to get better.”