Anishinabek debuts economic opportunities forum in the Sault

Representatives from over 30 Ontario First Nations gathered in Sault Ste. Marie from Tuesday to Thursday for the first-ever Anishinabek Nation Economic Development Opportunities Forum.

This inaugural event, which took place at the Quattro Hotel and Conference Centre, gave roughly 140 attendees the chance to network and share notes on how to carve out more economic prosperity for their respective communities.

While the conference covered a range of topics, Anishinabek Nation economic development manager Darlene Solomon told the Sault Star there was a significant focus on the energy sector.

Many of the keynote speakers and joint panelists discussed how Indigenous communities could use pre-existing and untapped projects involving critical minerals, nuclear energy and electric vehicles to their advantage.

"We had all sectors represented, because right now ... there's new opportunities for participation, there's new opportunities for business development and some models that could develop good partnership," Solomon told the Star during the final day of the conference.

"And we felt that this event, and having the energy summit at the last day, would really connect the factors supporting not only Ontario's priorities, but Canada's as well."

The Anishinabek Nation is a political advocacy group that currently represents 39 Indigenous communities, and approximately 65,000 citizens, across the province.

While Anishinabek claims to be the oldest political organization in Ontario, tracing its roots to a time before European contact, Solomon revealed that the group underwent some significant changes last year by establishing its own standalone economic development department.

Through this new status quo, Solomon said Anishinabek has been busy exploring new ways to advance Indigenous reconciliation through wealth creation, which eventually led them to this week's Economic Development Opportunities Forum in the Sault.

"The opportunity over the last two-and-a-half days has really cultivated an atmosphere for networking and partnership development from a business perspective," Solomon said on Thursday.

"But it also allows us to be on the forefront in receiving information on where the government is going, both Ontario and Canada, particularly on economic development for sustaining First Nation communities and their energy resources."

Tuesday afternoon's keynote speaker Dawn Madahbee-Leach, who is the general manager of Waubetek Business Development Corporation Inc., told the Star that this week's forum couldn't have come at a better time.

After all, 21 Anishinaabe First Nations are expecting a big influx of cash through the Robinson-Huron Treaty settlement, since the federal and provincial government failed to fairly compensate them for use of their land since 1874.

The three parties announced a proposed $10-billion settlement earlier this year, with the hope that a finalized dollar figure will be revealed before the end of 2023.

With this in mind, Madahbee-Leach said it's critical for representatives of these communities to gather together, like they did in the Sault this week, and talk about how these incoming payments can be best allocated for the betterment of Indigenous people as a whole.

"We could do a lot for our elders, we could do a lot for the education of our kids and I think we need to be more strategic about this," she said.

"And we need to strategize to make sure we're giving the best information to the communities on how best to manage those funds."

Based on the success of their inaugural Economic Development Opportunities Forum, the Anishinabek Nation is hoping to turn this conference into an annual event and are already planning a follow-up gathering to take place next year in Chippewas of Rama First Nation (Oct. 7-9).

The topics at next year's conference will include energy, forestry, mining, agriculture, tourism, youth entrepreneurship and more.

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government

Kyle Darbyson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sault Star