Not many politicians hold a seat for 17 consecutive terms, but that’s just one of Chief Terry Paul’s achievements. Paul is the elected band leader of the Membertou First Nation, which includes 1,695 band members living on- and off-reserve near Sydney, N.S. And he is also CEO of the Membertou Development Corp. (MDC), the band’s diverse and ever-growing business arm, which runs 12 businesses in service (including insurance, geomatics, a data centre and a $5-million bowling and entertainment centre that opened in November), real estate, fisheries and land acquisition (the entity owns more than 480 hectares of land). “That’s not even all of them,” Paul laughs after rhyming off the list. “There’s a number cooking, too.”
Modern Membertou is a world away from where it was when the company started in 1989. The community was poor, unemployment was high, morale was low and the band was running a $1-million annual operating deficit.
By 1995, the community had eliminated its deficit by tightening budgets and opening gaming operations, and the band council wanted to grow the community’s wealth. That meant bigger thinking. “We were boxed in on the reserve,” says Paul. “Mainstream banks wouldn’t give the same terms to our corporation as they would to one outside a reserve. We applied common sense and found ways to work around those rules.”
The company’s first step was to build credibility with the Cape Breton business community, to quash unfavourable stereotypes about the community’s business acumen and aptitude with money. The company started releasing its annual financial statements publicly. MDC also became ISO: 9001-2015-certified—the first Indigenous community in the world to do so. In 2012, the corporation secured the first loan from the First Nations Finance Authority, a non-profit Indigenous-governed financial institution, which it used to build infrastructure like roads and buildings for its new businesses.
These changes have made capital easier to come by, but Paul says he still enjoys the challenge of turning problems into opportunities. Last year, MDC’s seafood company, First Fisherman Seafoods, learned the wait list for a needed boat was three years long. So MDC partnered with Canadian Maritime Engineering to build commercial fishing vessels in Cape Breton. The partnership’s first boat launches this spring.
Today, Membertou employs about 600 people (both band members and others) during peak season. Looking back on 30 years, Paul says the biggest change he’s seen in Membertou relates to attitude. “There’s a lot more hope from the successes that [the community has] seen; that shows in the higher number of [high school] graduates we have each year,” he says. “We work hard to keep our culture.”