Friday, 29 July 2016

Thessalon First Nation Bio Centre: An Example of Economic Development Initiatives On-reserve

By Paige Sillaby, 1st year MDP student

Entrance to Ojibway community of Thessalon First Nation
The past couple of months, I have worked with Thessalon First Nation (TFN) on strategic planning for the diversification of their First Nation-owned Bio Centre. The Bio Centre is a huge community asset that has the capacity to produce plants and trees and can house several agricultural/forestry ventures simultaneously. Modern equipment and facilities include: a 6000 square foot refrigeration building, 17 climate controlled greenhouse, 42 ha (100 acres) of property in total, and on-site lab equipment/ instruments just to name a few. However, only three of the 17 greenhouses are being used, and the Bio Centre is operating at a deficit.

 “There is pressure for increased economic opportunity, services, housing and amenities to help accommodate a greater proportion of the Band membership in the future” -Thessalon First Nation Community Plan

While I worked in various areas in the TFN economic development office, my main focus has been a diversification event, referred to as the TFN Bio Centre showcase. The showcase is intended to display information about different businesses so that TFN members may explore the Bio Centre’s potential and bring in partners, potential investors, funders and vendors. It is crucial to TFN members that business ventures align with their community values.

“Thessalon First Nation Bio Centre has the potential to be developed with the right partnerships. Economic viability and sustainability for our Bio Centre has always been our goal.” -Chief Alfred Bisaillon

TFN Bio Centre greenhouse facilities

There have been numerous pre-feasibility and feasibility studies conducted on potential TFN Bio Centre business ventures. However, the Bio Centre remains largely underutilized. This is because of the overarching barriers towards economic development on reserve. Some barriers that are specific to the Bio Centre include; unequal access to tree seedling markets, exclusion from local contracts, issues of capacity for business ventures but also the ‘procurement.’ Procurement meaning the process for getting contracts and addressing; why is the Bio Centre being excluded?

During my placement with TFN, I learned about the role of the Ministry of Nation Resources and the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs (MAA). The Federal government has a fiduciary duty to work in the best interest of Aboriginal peoples as is stated in the Sustainable Forestry License (SFL) set out in paragraph 20.1.  These obligations require Ontario and SFL holders to “work cooperatively with the Crown and the local Aboriginal communities’ in order to identify and implement ways of achieving a more equal participation by Aboriginal communities.”

There are political advocacy groups aligned within the First Nations community to assist them in government processes, for example, the Union of Ontario Indians: Anishinabek Nation (UOI). I was able to attend one of the leadership table meetings between the UOI and MAA. At the meeting it was echoed among the regional chiefs, that government policies are crucial for allowing Aboriginal peoples to be competitive and equal participants in natural resource markets.

While potential business ventures for TFN Bio Centre remains a working project, I wish the TFN economic department all the best in the planning of their showcase event on September 22, 2016.

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