A cut of the action
Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by Patti Gower.
The Globe and Mail, November 26, 2001
Part 3 of 8: The new native entrepreneur
Perhaps no one better represents the new native entrepreneur better than Joe Pitchenese, a big bear of a man known as the Paul Bunyan of Wabigoon. If the nursery is a collective effort on the reserve to win more jobs and revenue from the mill, Pitchenese's work is all about private initiative - too private, some of his neighbours say.
Pitchenese grew up cutting trees around Wabigoon Lake, and selling the logs to the mill. Then, in 1992, he started a logging company, using his own savings and some band money to buy the sort of heavy machinery he needed to take on bigger areas. He now has 18 full-time employees and five who work part-time. Most are native, pulling down as much as $70,000 a year, tax-free, in the bush, where the environment is very different from that of the nursery - big men and angry-sounding machines in place of Roddy Brown's young workers and their boom boxes.
One morning, Pitchenese blows through the woods in his $40,000 extended 4-by-4 truck - down a river of mud, past a hillside of fallen logs. Only occasionally does he glance at the trees his ancestors considered sacred. Up ahead, his grown son is busy loading logs onto a flatbed, while two skidders munch their way through more stands. And for a moment, Wabigoon's Paul Bunyan admits to feeling sad about this new native pursuit of profit.
"It kind of makes you wonder what will happen when all this is gone. What can you do? Otherwise, you'd be just an observer, if you don't participate."
"It kind of makes you wonder what will happen when all this is gone," he says of the forests. "What can you do? Otherwise, you'd be just an observer, if you don't participate."
For all his effort, and profit, he says the forests still belong to the white-run mills, and the government in Toronto. He estimates that only one-fifth of the local cutting contracts go to native firms. He thinks most should. And the native firms he has to compete with tend to be shell operations that sign a contract and then quietly pass the work along to non-native companies, he says.
Weyerhaeuser says it gave Pitchenese 20 per cent more work this year, but he says his crews are so underemployed that he has started to send them all the way to northern Manitoba.
Why not stay closer to home and work in the mills, where the best jobs are anyway? Because unlike logging, natives were largely kept out of that industry, says Peggy Smith, a forestry expert at Thunder Bay's Lakehead University.
"Vice-presidents of companies would say to me, `We don't have first nations people working at mills because they don't like to work inside,' " Smith recalls, likening their attitude to the reluctance of fire departments to hire women. "And the companies don't do much about that, to identify racism."
Determined to follow a different course, the Wabigoon First Nation decided to team one of its own with someone from the far side of the lake.