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Indigenous nation thrives after “investing in ourselves” – Q & A with Membertou Chief

This article first appeared on the Magnet website. It is a great example of the value of partnerships between Indigenous peoples and businesses that can lead to economic prosperity. The success of the Membertou nation demonstrates the importance of an approach that focuses on skills and collaboration in a community context.  

When Chief Terrance Paul became chief of the Membertou nation in the early 1980s, the nation was an economically impoverished community with high unemployment. Today, Membertou is the most economically prosperous Indigenous nation in Atlantic Canada, boasting an employment rate of almost 80 per cent and a graduation rate of 90 per cent.

Membertou also sustains numerous thriving businesses and partnerships, including a hotel, a casino, a health and wellness centre, restaurants and a cultural centre. Recently, Membertou’s historic acquisition of 50 per cent of the Maritime fisheries giant Clearwater Seafoods marked the single largest investment ever made by an Indigenous group in Canada.

Magnet was honoured to speak with Chief Paul about Membertou’s evolution, the importance of partnerships, and his approach to community and economic development.

Q: Tell us about the Membertou community.

A: Membertou is part of the Mi’kmaq community on Cape Breton Island, which we call U’nama’kik. We’re a community of about 1,600 people, located approximately three kilometers from downtown Sydney. The majority live here, but a number of our people live across the country and around the world as well.

Q: Under your leadership, Membertou has increased its employment rate and overall prosperity. Who did you partner with that enabled Membertou to successfully expand and diversify your economy?

A: Well, we looked at ourselves, and we decided we should invest in ourselves. Back in the 1990s, we were living in very harsh economic times, and our Council and staff did the difficult work of beginning to build the community we wanted our children to inherit.

We learned that good partnerships and good working relationships are one of the strongest indicators for success. Over time, we adapted how and when we worked with our partners. In our early days, for example, we partnered with a local lumber supplier. We were building homes for our people, and he gave us advance credit. It was virtually unknown for us to get that from the business community, but there are a lot of good people like the lumber supplier.

Today, our partnerships are with large, national, and international businesses — for example, our partnership with Clearwater Seafoods. We continue to work alongside and with them. And I feel there’s more to come.

Q: How does input from community members figure into your decision-making?

A: Well, our community is our why. The amazing people of this community are our reason to build and grow, and I’m incredibly proud to lead them. Even when things were pretty uncertain, the community put their trust in us. That’s something I’ve held in my mind every day over the last 38 years I’ve been chief. Our community members have been part of our growth. They’re our council, our staff, our customers — our everything, really.

Q: How are community values integrated into your development and economic development processes?

A: It’s important to point out that Membertou is an ISO 9001 certified organization. The Membertou Development Corporation created an economic arm of our operations, and our culture is directly infused into the way we operate. Values like sustainability, culture, and inclusion are innate qualities that we possess. In many ways, we haven’t been overly intentional about how we infuse these into our business practices. They just naturally follow because they’re authentically who we are.

For example, we have a “family first” model. We support staff with numerous family days and flexibility for the family. And whether you’re Indigenous or not, all our staff celebrate Indigenous holidays. Staff get two additional holidays annually, National Indigenous People’s Day and Treaty Day here in Nova Scotia. We also encourage and offer Mi’kmaq language classes and cultural workshops. A lot of our staff pick up on that, and we encourage them to do that. 

Q: Tell us about the positive social and economic impacts of development on the Membertou community.

A: Due to the success we’ve experienced in business, this part of our road has been a very rewarding one. We’re able to provide strong support for our people. The revenue we generate is used to create opportunity for our community members. For example, we have a good relationship with the YMCA. We subsidize what our community members pay, which is nine dollars a month for a membership. So we went from a handful of people with YMCA memberships to almost 350 people.

We also identified early that educating our community members would create a long-term positive outcome — not only for the community, but for individuals themselves, for generations to come. Today, if you live in Membertou, you can take any post-secondary education you like, and it’s covered by the band.

Of course, having a roof over your head is very important. It’s the same situation right across the country: even in a community the size of ours, we’d be lucky to get one unit per year from the government through Indigenous Affairs Canada. You can’t live that way. We take it upon ourselves to build at least 20 houses per year to put a dent in the housing stock and address the backlog.

Q: Speaking of taking things into your own hands, hospitality and tourism are an important part of Membertou’s economy. Those sectors were hit hard during the pandemic. What shifts did you make in those sectors over the past couple of years?

A: Well, the pandemic was a very challenging time for the whole country — the whole world, really. We were luckier than most, but there were some difficult decisions that had to be made. Assistance from the government helped quite a bit, but some of our businesses were 95 per cent down in capacity. Our sources of revenue were drying up. To ensure we had a strong business to come back to, we did our best to transition staff to other projects during that time.

However, during the peak of the pandemic, we were also diligently working to close the Clearwater Seafoods deal, which was done 100 per cent virtually. Making this shift allowed us to invest in something completely new, and our community will benefit immensely from this acquisition for years to come. It’s a long term, game-changing investment. It’s very important for us to do as much as we can to diversify — that’s one of our conscious policies.

Q: How do you hope to shape future development, in terms of cultivating new partnerships, or sustaining the ones you already have?

A: We’re definitely working on [new] projects. We’re always moving forward, thinking of diversifying, and growing Membertou as a community. The economic mandate of Membertou’s community is to develop sustainably while making sure that our culture is front and centre in whatever we do.

Q: What advice would you provide to other Indigenous nations that are interested in economic development and would like to access some of the benefits that Membertou has accessed?

A: As Indigenous Canadians, we’re all in this together. We face similar struggles, but where we are on the road to growth is different in every case. As much as we are alike, each community has its own history, priorities, and challenges.

For any Indigenous community in Canada that is looking to grow and build up away from poverty, my advice is start now. You will never have a guidebook to do it, and there will never be an easy moment to begin. Start small and grow from there. You won’t do everything right, and surely there will be mistakes. Learn from them.

And it’s important to say this: I’ve been told “no” a hell of a lot more than I’ve been told “yes.” When people tell you no, take that as an opportunity. I always say, communicate your goal with the community. Hire smart people to represent to you, whether they’re from the community or not. There are a lot of people that work for me that are a lot smarter than me — the trick is to have them work with you. And treat everyone with respect along the way.

Q: Thank you so much for sharing your insights, Chief Terry. We’re grateful for the opportunity to speak with you.

A: Thank you. We’lalin. Take care.

Learn more about Chief Paul and Membertou here. 

This article has been reproduced with permission from writer Lisa Mesbur and Magnet. 

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint, official policy or position of the Future Skills Centre or any of its staff members or consortium partners.