Membertou First Nation, one of the few urban aboriginal reserves in Atlantic Canada, defies stereotypes about poor, mismanaged reserves. Its potholes are filled and new buildings are under construction. There are plans for a community arena and multipurpose centre, including a new health clinic and seniors’ activity area, and a new housing subdivision. In fact it is the first aboriginal government in Canada, and possibly in the world, to achieve and maintain ISO-9000 certification.
Membertou’s approach to socio-economic development, sometimes referred to as a “First Nations progression model”, is based on using a business approach to government, management, and economic development to achieve social objectives.
However, in spite of its success, Membertou faces serious challenges in the future. In a paper just released by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, Jacquelyn Thayer Scott examines the road ahead for the Membertou First Nation. In “Doing Business with the Devil: Land, sovereignty, and corporate partnerships in Membertou Inc.“, Dr. Scott identifies succession, attitudinal change, cultural erosion and the issues of firewalls and property rights, with their implications for access to capital, as major hurdles facing the leadership.
Dr. Scott, says, “…leaders are strongly committed to the ‘Membertou model’, but no obvious successors are in the wings and old community attitudes die hard. Deep suspicions remain about the corporate model, and among some older Band members the notion lingers that business development is a bad thing.” She adds, “Others believe that ‘the government victimized us and, under the treaties, it owes us a living’ or that government should provide jobs through grants and subsidies to enterprises, a sentiment that is, indeed, shared by many non-aboriginals in Cape Breton’s industrial communities.”
AIMS president Brian Lee Crowley on release of the paper said, “The Membertou First Nation has provided an excellent model for local economic development, but as Jacke Scott’s paper points out, generational change, poor quality property rights on reserves, inadequate separation of business and political decision-making and other looming challenges make it imperative that the community not rest on its laurels. Membertou Inc. will have to grow and evolve if it is to build on its early and notable successes.”
The Band has undertaken commercial projects in, for example, the fisheries and food and gasoline retailing that are now showing profits and promise. A new commercial centre and business park will anchor many of the Band’s joint-company partnerships and provide land and facilities for long-term lease to other companies. Over the past several years, the Band also established a series of corporate partnerships — with companies such as SNC-Lavalin, Lockheed Martin/Fujitsu, Sodexho-Marriott, and the Laurentian Group — that offer training and profit participation to the Band and its members.
In addition to these initiatives, chief and Council have established an Economic Development Fund to assist Band members who are interested in establishing or expanding a business enterprise. An aboriginal employment agency is also in the works, and the Band is pursuing its rights and opportunities in such natural resources as forests and minerals. In all, Membertou and its Band-owned enterprises now employ more than 362 individuals on-reserve, about 55 to 60 of whom are non-aboriginal.
Jacquelyn Thayer Scott is Professor, School of Business, and former President & Vice-Chancellor of UCCB. Dr. Scott has served on a number of public and private sector governing boards and advisory committees and is currently Deputy Chair of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Science & Technology, and involved in governance of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, inNOVAcorp, the Certificate Program in Corporate Social Responsibility of University of St. Michael’s College in The University of Toronto and the Conference Board of Canada, and others. In 2001, she was awarded the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Excellence in Public Administration and was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada.
For more information on “Doing Business with the Devil: Land, sovereignty, and corporate partnerships in Membertou Inc.“
Dr. Brian Lee Crowley
Dr. Jacquelyn Thayer Scott