Back then, most adult band members worked in the woods, usually cutting trees for local mills. Then, in the 1960s, the government announced a new series of social initiatives, including income supplements, for everyone on the reserve. "The pride that was there, to be self-sufficient, was all of a sudden taken away by these programs," Cantin says.
Ironically, he is trying to explain his reserve's occasional lethargy on a day when everyone is out working - plucking crumpled paper, beer bottles and crushed cans from beside the roads. It's the annual drive to collect the litter left behind by a year of road trips to bingo halls, taverns, hockey rinks, fast-food joints and the social-assistance office.
A woman tells Cantin that, in the course of collecting three bags of garbage, she stumbled upon a $50 bill in the grass; it must have fallen out of someone's bingo winnings, they conclude.
After picking up 10 bags of junk, the chief returns to a community office for a big barbecue - steaks, salads and pop for the volunteers. He starts to talk about the band's new spirit of enterprise when an angry woman stops her pickup and hops out. She wants to complain about the band's "wellness officer," who she says just lies around the community office most days. Cantin tells her that a new person is supposed to be hired, but funding from Nault's department remains uncertain. He doesn't mention the obvious, that even as chief he can't fire anyone. In such a small community, a job with the band is pretty much a job for life.
“The nursery doesn't solve all our problems, but it does solve some of our problems.”
Finishing his steak sandwich, Cantin says that after eight years in office, he is tired of playing guardian to his people; he would like to see more individual responsibility, as well as more individual opportunity. That was why he pushed the nursery idea so hard.
And now that the business is up and running, he would love the band to sell off its share. That way, he says, managers like Roddy Brown would not have to make such an issue out of firing someone for negligence. They could manage their operation the way, say, Weyerhaeuser does, and commerce, rather than politics, would start to drive a few more decisions.
"The nursery doesn't solve all our problems," Cantin says, "but it does solve some of our problems."
Other native leaders in the area were happy to get more logging contracts out of the Dryden mill. But Cantin had always seen the nursery as a more progressive investment, with skilled jobs for both men and women and the chance to bring new technologies to the reserve. Growing millions of seedlings every year also had a sweet resonance for a band that had watched its forests eaten away over the decades.
Even then, he had a tough time selling the deal to his own people. Many remained skeptical that the very mill that in the 1970s poisoned their rivers with mercury wanted to help them out. "People wondered, `Why are they offering this to us? It's a big corporation. What do they want?' " Cantin recalls.
He explained that the nursery would mean full-time jobs - the only full-time jobs on the reserve other than those in the band office and Joe Pitchenese's logging operation. He then had to persuade the people of Dryden that his band meant no harm by getting into one of their businesses.
Wabigoon had an immediate leg up on its competitors, with corporate and government favours denied to its Dryden competitors. The band council had $390,000 of its own to invest, and was able to collect a matching amount from Ottawa. Keen to support aboriginal business, and keep the band's account, the Royal Bank of Canada put up an additional $695,000 in the form of a loan, with the nursery as security.
Wabigoon also had a new filtration plant - clean water is essential to any nursery - that had been financed by the federal government. Through Human Resources Development Canada, Ottawa chipped in $48,000 in training funds. Weyerhaeuser added to that with its own technical staff, who were assigned to help out.
To many in Dryden, it was another case of Indians getting a sweet deal.
"It takes a piece out of the pie," says Bill Schneider, a private nursery operator who helped the Wabigoon operation to get off the ground. "I'm sitting here with two empty greenhouses this year, which is the first time in 20 years I've had empty space."
But he sees some justice in losing business to the natives. "I mean, who said life was fair?"