First Nations eye tar ponds business

Join forces to get contracts for cleanup and other major construction projects

By Chris Hayes
Cape Breton Post
Fri. Aug. 31, 2007

MEMBERTOU - Five First Nations communities in Cape Breton have joined forces to get contracts in the $400-million Sydney tar ponds cleanup and other major construction projects.

They have opened a new Unama’ki economic benefits office (located on Doucettes Lane in Membertou) to serve as a liaison between the aboriginal communities, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal businesses, and the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, according to a release Thursday.

Dan Christmas, chairperson of the Unama’ki economic benefits steering committee, said the office is aiming for a minimum of $8 million in contracts during the tar ponds cleanup, employing a minimum of 20 aboriginals. "We are hoping to exceed those numbers and we are hoping this office will facilitate that kind of involvement."

Premier Rodney MacDonald announced earlier this month that the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency has set aside a part of the project — the cleanup of the former Sydney Steel cooling pond — for aboriginal contractors. Christmas said that was part of a 2005 agreement between five First Nations communities in Cape Breton and the federal and provincial governments, but the intent was also for other set-aside work in the cleanup. There are eight aboriginal construction companies in Cape Breton, he said.

The First Nations communities also see the potential for other contracts down the road at Cape Breton Development Corporation sites, the $300-million coal mine project being explored by international mining giant Xstrata Coal, and the $300-million Louisbourg Resort development, he said.

The larger goal is to gain up to $38 million in contracts to employ as many as 60 full-time workers. "We are hoping the office will really maximize the opportunities for aboriginal people on the island," said Christmas.

The five First Nations communities in Cape Breton agreed in January to create the committee which identified the need for a focused approach and worked quickly to establish the economic benefits office, according to a release. The office has been working on an assessment of assets and capabilities within the five communities and an analysis of the needs of the Sydney tar ponds cleanup.

It also plans to provide guidance and training to help First Nations businesses, Christmas said. First Nations have a moral claim to the work based on the fact Muggah Creek which flows through the tar ponds site was formerly Mi’kmaq territory, he said.

The federal government has also made clear in its tendering policies that a certain percentage must be set aside for aboriginal people.

Owen Fitzgerald, a well known Sydney businessman and the president of the Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce, has been hired as director for the new office which will also hire an assistant to work with local First Nations communities.