A beautiful relationship had been formed - until Cummins's local manager opened his mouth.
Anyone around these parts will tell you that Jim Graham is as old as the gypsum mines. He helped to open the first one at River Denys, and 40 years later put off his retirement to get Melford up and running. His opinion matters.
So last year, when the time came for a government committee to consider Georgia-Pacific's mining application, some members wanted to know about the innovative native deal and, more important, what Graham thought of it. He was asked if young natives would agree to work at the mine, and if they would be able to handle the pressures of a regular job. Most of the local reserve population, after all, lives on social assistance.
Well, Graham said, "they don't take direction very well, unfortunately."
The comments made local papers, and went off like TNT when they landed on the desks of every Mi'kmaq chief in Cape Breton. At Sugar Camp, a handful of native workers walked off the job in protest.
Cummins flew north to make amends. He published apologies from both Georgia-Pacific and Graham in the papers and met with every community leader and aboriginal employee willing to see him. He told Dan Christmas, who had gone from skeptic to supporter of the mine, that he was willing to fire Graham, a half-century employee, if that was what was needed.
The reply he got came as a surprise. Retribution is not the native way, he was told. "The Mi'kmaq have some respect for someone in their 70s," Christmas says now. "Plus, we knew our own mistakes. We make mistakes all the time, and no one fires us."
As much as the company and native groups try to brush the incident aside, the Mi'kmaq did not feel that it was just a slip. They have always felt that other Cape Bretoners see them as a different, perhaps inferior.
In the summer of 2000, more racial problems emerged at the Melford site when a road builder, under its agreement with Georgia-Pacific, set out to hire native workers. A local union set up a picket line, saying its members, all non-native, had been overlooked. "We were caught," says Jim Kennedy, Georgia-Pacific's manager in Cape Breton. "If you don't include natives, you get trouble with them. If you don't include the unions, you'll have trouble with them."
Cummins stepped in again, pleading with the international union to persuade its local to go easy on the natives. He told the union that it should even consider copying Georgia-Pacific's record of granting special status to native groups. "If you have people working on a pure seniority basis, you'll have people sitting on reserves forever," he says.
In the end, the local union agreed to allow some natives to jump the seniority queue for jobs at Melford.
Between them, Cummins and the Mi'kmaq had managed to win over - or at least silence - labour unions, politicians and environmentalists. But there remained one group that they could not persuade, entice or cajole, a group that claimed to hold as much moral and legal legitimacy to the site as any Indian. Through court fights and public struggles, it has refused to go away, perhaps because it cannot.