Matt Jamieson returned home to Six Nations of the Grand River in 2009 after decades of business deals in all corners of the globe. Located 90 minutes southwest of Toronto, the reserve is the country’s largest by population and the second-largest by land area. Yet business was bleak. “We’d been struggling since the ’70s, with no assets on and few off the reserve for economic development, and we pointed to political disruption as the cause,” says Jamieson.
Consider the Niagara Reinforcement Line, a 76-km power line which had sat unfinished since 2006 when blockades by Indigenous groups stalled the project. Media coverage was filled with simplistic assumptions that Six Nations residents were opposed to all economic development. So when Jamieson returned, he took a novel approach to find out what the people of Six Nations wanted: he asked them.
“We completed a year-long community engagement project to discuss the sensitivities around corporate structures,” says Jamieson, now CEO of the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation (SNGRDC), which was formed in 2015. Any plan to develop assets needed to be both transparent and accountable to the community, involving them in both the organization and management of a project. “The invitation to conduct corporate business here has to be carefully managed to be respectful to the community and environment, and to protect our inherent rights,” Jamieson says.
The engagement process resulted in a report called “We Gather Our Voices,” a comprehensive look at what the community wanted in a development corporation and, most importantly, how it should be governed. “The biggest part of the report was a keen appreciation of separating business and politics,” says Tyler Ferguson, SNGRDC’s director of corporate affairs.
It was a four-year process to overcome the skepticism of the community. “There was a lot of sensitivity around creating a corporate vehicle that didn’t align with our values,” says Jamieson. SNGRDC had to build a corporate architecture that the community could understand and trust.
The final result is a corporate structure designed to ensure information remains public, power stays in check and everyone’s best interests are kept in mind. “We essentially have a trio of community boards which form the Six Nations Governance Group: the board of directors, the board of trustees and the advisory committee,” says Ferguson. Directors are tasked with business operation to generate revenue; trustees distribute surplus cash through grants to deserving community projects; and the advisory committee oversees everything to ensure cultural integrity and social responsibility. SNGRDC currently manages a diverse economic portfolio including 14 renewable energy projects and a dozen additional entities—including parks, bingo and internet towers—across the entertainment, hospitality and tourism industries.
All projects must conform to the community’s standards. “A few years ago, an independent brewery was proposed to the community,” recalls Ferguson. But, he says, “because of a lot of stipulations around alcohol in the reserve, the proposal was rejected.” SNGRDC uses online surveys, phone calls, focus groups and town halls to gauge the community’s opinions on any endeavour. Even the most financially lucrative projects fail if they don’t meet Six Nations’ community standards.
Ultimately, the three-pronged model allows for a hybrid of business and philanthropy. “It’s a for-profit approach with a not-for-profit governance model,” says Jamieson. Profits from business partnerships (construction with Aecon Group, wind turbines with Samsung) funnel directly into small community projects (a new driveway at the local school, catered meals for powwow volunteers). Since 2015, nearly $10 million has been directly reinvested into infrastructure, elder care, the food bank, fire services, public art, minor hockey and other initiatives.
With this model in place, Jamieson saw the Niagara Reinforcement Line not as an embarrassing failure but as an opportunity for reconciliation. “We presented the province a solution to the problem with a joint-venture construction company to complete the line in exchange for a stake in the project,” he says. The line is currently under construction and nearing completion.
Other notable ventures include the revitalization of Chiefswood Park, a campground where log cabins are being built, and the Nanticoke Solar Farm, which will soon operate 9,000 solar panels capable of generating 44 megawatts of clean energy. A focus on innovation and renewable energy has SNGRDC currently involved in 14 green energy projects, both wind and solar.
All investments, with exact figures down to the penny, are posted publicly—an anomaly that impressed Leanne Hall, who leads Deloitte’s Indigenous Client Services practice. “Literally everything they do is on their website with running totals,” she says. Ditto for their charter, principles, community plans, financial statements and annual reports. “To be that transparent is truly exceptional,” says Hall. Their commitment to hiring Indigenous people is also impressive, she adds. “Not only are they an Indigenous[-owned] business, but 80% of their workforce are themselves Indigenous.”
Since its incorporation, the company has attracted employees from the reserve and beyond. Roxanne Wilkieson spent years managing a truck driving training office when she stumbled on a job listing from SNGRDC. Wilkieson’s whole family on her mother’s side is Wolf Clan from the Mohawk Nation, though Wilkieson sadly knew little about her ancestry. “I always felt it was missing,” she says. Wilkieson began her work with SNGRDC as an administrative assistant, moving within three months into corporate affairs.
Four times a year, 40 staff members—including and especially the one in five without any Indigenous ancestry—meet for a two-day cultural training session. “They bring in elders from the community to talk to us about our environment and traditional medicines and wampum belts. We all share stories of our families and ancestors,” Wilkieson says. “For me, it’s all new, and I just soak it up like a sponge.” The sessions inspire SNGRDC’s staff to come together to get things done. “Not just for ourselves,” says Jamieson, “but for our neighbours in the province and the whole country.”