Discussion paper identifies challenges for Membertou

MacInnis, Steve

Membertou – Although a small Cape Breton Mi’kmaq community is widely considered a leader when it comes to advancing itself in the mainstream economy, its future successes will depend on how it resolves a number of significant challenges, according to a University College of Cape Breton business professor.

Dr. Jacquelyn Thayer Scott, who teaches organization management and public administration, says that while Membertou is unquestionably a success story, its future is exposed to several challenges.

“The first, and the most obvious, is succession,” says Scott in a discussion paper prepared for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies – a Halifax based social and economic policy think tank.

Scott notes that current chief Terry Paul has already served more than 20 years on the job and while he is deservedly credited as one of the driving forces behind the community’s success, there is no identifiable successor. The community’s chief executive officer, Bernd Christmas, is another source of the community’s triumphs.

In commenting on the conclusions presented by Scott, Paul said while future leaders aren’t necessarily front and centre at the moment, there are plenty in the wings who can continue the work begun under his administration.

“Our young people are far more educated now and will become the future leaders,” says Paul, adding there are processes in place to pick up the slack should one link in the administrative chain fall from place.

Scott’s paper – titled Doing Business with the Devil: Land, Sovereignty and Corporate Partnerships in Membertou Inc. – describes Membertou (pop. 1,000) as defying the stereotypes tagged to most native communities: poor, mismanaged and failing to appropriately deal with a host of social ills from housing to drug and alcohol abuse. The community is located within the confines of the former city of Sydney and is one of a few native communities located within an urban area.

But, writes Scott, Membertou has gone from being a have-not community to relative self-sufficiency and is the first aboriginal community in Canada to receive an ISO-9000 certification – a world recognized certification examining management processes, decision-making along with a host of other practices including communications and human resources.

She says a large part of the community’s financial success stems from revenues generated by gaming – video lottery terminals which records some $400,000 per week – a likely majority of which is being shelled out by non-natives.

Through a number of partnerships with high-profile mainstream companies such as SNC-Lavalin, Membertou’s holdings include fishery, food and gasoline related enterprises along with creating a development fund to help support community entrepreneurs. The band-owned companies now offer employment to more than 360 people.

A new $6.2-million convention and trade centre is now open offering tremendous revenue potential for the community and Paul says a new mini-mall is also in the works and that will increase business opportunities for the community.

But Scott points out that despite its success, there are some looming challenges including a need for a change in attitude.

“Deep suspicions remain about the ‘corporate model’ (for economic development) and among older band members the notion lingers that business development is a bad thing,” says Scott.

“We’ve already learned to work within that,” responds Paul, adding the community is warming up to such developments so long as they can continue to see tangible assets and results, such as the new convention centre.

“Our people are used to promises and receiving nothing,” he says, adding that point is well etched in the minds of his administration.

Another community concern, writes Scott, is the fear that too much change will unravel the cultural fabric of the community.

“We are certainly not used to the pace at which we’re going but we are learning fast,” acknowledges Paul, adding a primary concern for him is to address the growing areas of social ills that can come with prosperity – drug and alcohol abuse, housing and the general physical health of the community.

Scott also refers to the potential for losing younger people to low paying retail jobs in the community for the sake of a quick paycheque rather than staying in school.

There are also growing concerns over property ownership which is achieved through a certificate of possession which is available but seemingly rarely issued.

“People can own their own property,” says Paul, “and they can do what they want so long as they stay within the guidelines issued by council.”
As well, Scott points to another necessary change in attitude which is also common in non-native communities – resentment of success.

“Cape Breton’s non-aboriginal communities are famously known for their intraregional jealousies, backbiting and sabotage which adversely affect the entire region,” says Scott.

She says the island’s aboriginal community – which is spread across five Mi’kmaq communities – shares these attitudes and managing such resentment could be major challenge.