It even could have tried to bypass the Mi'kmaq, since the proposed mine site at Melford, south of Cape Breton's sprawling Bras d'Or Lake, was not on proven native ground. That was the company's approach when it opened its first Cape Breton gypsum mine in the 1950s, at River Denys, and a second site at Sugar Camp outside Port Hawkesbury in the 1970s.
But now, with Sugar Camp running out of the soft white rock so essential to wallboard, Cummins was told to take no chances with Melford. The company could not afford the delays of litigation, or bad publicity, when its factories were working overtime to supply a U.S. housing boom.
A competitor, Chicago-based U.S. Gypsum, had already tried to ignore the Mi'kmaq by starting to dredge Bras d'Or, a traditional native waterway that leads from the sea to the middle of the island, without contacting them. The case soon landed in court. "Their attitude was perhaps what bugged me the most," says Dan Christmas, a Membertou Mi'kmaq (no relation to Bernd) who headed the Union of Nova Scotia Indians at the time and is now a senior adviser to the Membertou band.
They won the court fight and stopped the dredging, but the natives were in no mood to do business when Georgia-Pacific came along. "My guard was really up," Dan Christmas says. "I was out to stop the project, I'll admit that now."
U.S. Gypsum's big mistake was to try to rush a decision past the Mi'kmaq. Cummins, who had head office breathing down his neck, was told by his local advisers to take his time. He spent long hours sitting with Cape Breton native chiefs, and working the phones to build a relationship. At the Waycobah First Nation, up the Trans-Canada Highway from the proposed site, he offered jobs and a possible share of revenue to the band. His company also sent an environmental assessment team from Atlanta to work with a local native team in assessing wildlife and medicinal plants near the proposed site.
It was not enough. The broader Mi'kmaq community (there are five bands across Cape Breton) suggested that the mine resemble a joint venture, with a native veto on environmental issues, jobs and expansion. It did not matter that some bands were two hours away by car. They saw the mine as sitting in their back yard. Some wanted to go so far as to declare the property as native land and lease it to the company - the very spectre of expropriation that Georgia-Pacific feared.
"We could have said, `We own all the land. Give us all the royalties. We took an approach not to go overboard."
But Bernd Christmas, fresh from a stint on Bay Street, knew that his people were risking a public-relations disaster as much as Georgia-Pacific was. If they were seen as greedy, none of the big oil and gas companies setting up offshore operations in the region would want to do business with them. Moreover, any protests could cost more jobs - for native as well as non-native miners - which would not go over well in Cape Breton.
"We could have said, `We own all the land. Give us all the royalties,' " he says. "We took an approach not to go overboard."
Cummins had already spent enough hours lobbying non-native politicians, many of whom were skeptical about special favours going to the Mi'kmaq.
Still, the Cape Breton chiefs were reluctant. The Waycobah band complained that the mine would disrupt a traditional fishing brook. No one had seen salmon in the stream for years, but the company agreed to shift its site slightly to the north.
The adjustment had a downside - it moved the mine area into one of the region's last old-growth forests. Bears, foxes, deer and muskrats were in danger of losing their habitat, but the natives felt that they had already picked their battle. They were willing to let the mine go ahead, despite objections from the World Wide Fund for Nature.
The WWF protests - the work of an environmental consultant who operates from his kitchen table in Dartmouth, across Halifax Harbour from the tony Mi'kmaq office - were almost an afterthought. "Eventually we got lost in the shuffle," says Colin Stewart, a naturalist and part-time WWF campaigner who admits to being a bit overwhelmed by the natives' lobbying skills. His objections did not stand a chance.
Once the Melford mine site was shifted, the natives agreed to a deal that guaranteed them one-quarter of the 100 or so jobs to be created by the project. All supply contracts also will be offered to native-owned companies before going out to tender. And any non-native company working at the mine must allot one-quarter of its jobs to natives. Finally, the Mi'kmaq of Cape Breton will receive five cents for each of the three to four million tonnes of gypsum expected to come from the mine every year (an additional 12 cents goes to the province).
The money will go entirely to a native scholarship fund and the Unama'ki (Cape Breton) Institute of Natural Resources, which the Mi'kmaq are building to house an environmental team and laboratories. The institute will not only track what is happening to traditional Mi'kmaq lakes and forests (work the WWF thought it could do); the company will also pay the natives to monitor the Melford mine's environmental impact.