A CUT OF THE ACTION
For decades, the people of the Wabigoon First Nation lived in
poverty as outsiders harvested a fortune from the Northwestern
Ontario woodlands they call home. Don't hire Indians, white
people said, they don't know how to work. Now, thanks to modern
technology, millions of dollars and a change in attitude,
they may have to eat those words
By JOHN STACKHOUSE
Monday, November 26, 2001 Print Edition, Page A8
The young man had to go. He was frequently late for work and seldom showed up at all the day after he and the boys went into Dryden for their weekly bowling night.
Yes, he was connected to the chief. But the problems persisted even after he had been warned by his boss and told to sober up when his marriage failed.
So when his co-workers at Canada's only native-run tree nursery took a vote, the decision was unanimous. The young man had to go.
"We're under a microscope here," Roddy Brown says of the boyhood friend and former hockey teammate he had to push out the door.
At 27, Brown is having to bridge two cultures, two centuries and many more ambitions as his once-isolated community tries to take control of its economy, and forests. He refuses to discuss the dismissal, which others on the reserve talk about, but admits he has lost friends since taking his new job. He's also gained a glimpse of his reserve's greatest hope.
Since opening its multimillion-dollar tree nursery last year, the Wabigoon First Nation has seen a new business culture roll over its lakeside reserve. Where people once took work casually -- and welfare cheques regularly -- they are now told to be on the job at 8 a.m., or lose it. When new orders for seedlings come in, staff are expected to stay late and fill them. And when other nurseries in the thick forest lands around Dryden cut prices, they are expected to find ways to follow suit.
"They are being watched. We are being watched," says Erika Mitani, the expert tree grower the Wabigoon band hired to get the nursery up and running. "It turned a lot of people into hard workers."
That a Dryden woman and Ojibwa men from Wabigoon are working together to build a company -- on the reserve, no less -- would have been unheard of a generation ago. That they are doing it with the help of a once-despised paper mill -- the same one that poisoned local native people a generation ago -- speaks volumes more. It demonstrates just how much the different cultures of Northwestern Ontario, a place once known as Alabama of the North, are coming together.
So often associated with despair, the first nations are looking to big business for a way out. And big business is looking to them for a way to expand.
There are small farms and abandoned harvesters along the way, but nothing to link this place with the sprawling, sulphur-spewing Weyerhaeuser Co. Ltd. paper mill 30 kilometres to the west at the far end of Lake Wabigoon. There appears to be nothing, other than the trees that form the world's biggest boreal forest, to connect this place with the big forestry industry of Northwestern Ontario.
There is no sign marking the road's destination -- a tattered hamlet that looks like something out of hillbilly country, complete with a ball diamond that has lost the fence it once had along the third-base line but gained a pile of old appliances just past left field.
Down the road, a nursery playground sits empty, its swings and slides staring silently at a lawn sign left over from last year's federal election. It's for Liberal candidate Robert Nault, who went on to become Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, the grand chief of an almost $5-billion budget that trickles down to places like Wabigoon.
Every so often, the run-down houses occupied by people who aren't politically well-connected give way to handsome bungalows with pine decks and sturdy doors, inhabited by people who are. In either case, there is a satellite television dish and often snow machines and all-terrain vehicles in the front yard. They are the fruit of a good season's work in a logging camp before the perennial migration to social assistance.
In fact, until the nursery was built last year, the only visible enterprise was the Wabigoon Lake Community Store, owned and operated by the band, and on this day, the keeper of one head of lettuce, three loaves of bread, 28 frozen pizzas and 86 varieties of potato chips, nachos and cheesies.
In marked contrast, the nursery looks like a new-age sports arena, with its translucent roof covering 96,000 square feet. In a region that knows its trees -- how to grow them and how to cut them down -- this is as good as it gets. No other private nursery in the Dryden area -- the "mecca of tree planting," Mitani calls it -- has as much greenhouse space, as much computer equipment or as sophisticated a climate-control system.
Built at a cost of $1.8-million, the operation employs, in peak season, 40 people, half the reserve's adult population. They earn $10 an hour or more, which pumped more than a quarter-million dollars into the reserve in the first year alone.
The nursery also relies heavily on the very mill that the people of Wabigoon once loathed for leaking mercury into the water supply. Now owned by U.S. forestry giant Weyerhaeuser, the Dryden plant and a mill in Thunder Bay, 325 kilometres to the east, owned by Bowater Inc. agreed to buy five million seedlings a year.
"We could see first nations were playing a larger role in our business and they were going to play an even bigger role," Bowater manager Bill Roll says.
The companies believed they would need aboriginal co-operation if they ever were going to gain access to the vast forest -- the last of its kind on the continent -- that stretches from here to Hudson Bay.
Among natives, many bands were starting to view forestry as their ticket out of unemployment and poverty. The mills that once polluted their waters were instituting affirmative-action programs, giving natives dibs on logging contracts and, now in Wabigoon, buying their seedlings.
The two worlds -- native and logger -- had started to come together in the 1980s. When millions of tax dollars were lost to reserve-based sawmills and other enterprises that went bust, provincial governments turned to the big forestry companies that had access to Crown land, and encouraged them to allot more logging and mill work to native communities.
One result was a new breed of entrepreneur, and perhaps no one better represented that 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. He 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.
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 on 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," 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.
At 58, Mitani has two university degrees and decades of experience in Canada's forests. Brown, three decades younger, has a college certificate and a brief stint in a Weyerhaeuser mill to count on his résumé.
As the day begins, the two managers roll open a vertically sliding door to take stock of their crop. Before them is a green carpet of jack pine and black spruce seedlings, gently nurtured by an overhead sprinkler and 24 degrees (Celsius) of year-round heat. In the middle of the evergreen carpet, a clump of eight native youths sit picking out any defective seedlings -- to the pulsating rhythms of a hip-hop CD playing on a boom box.
In the increasingly mechanized forestry industry, where computers, big machines and skilled hands are replacing the brute strength of loggers like Pitchenese, the success of the Wabigoon First Nation's venture will rest on the ability of Brown and his cousins and neighbours. If the nursery is to make money, and draw more jobs and investment to the reserve, he knows his people will need a new work culture. Showing up on time, for instance.
Although drafted to help run a tree nursery, Brown admits to knowing little about the science of silviculture. He is here to motivate people. His first challenge was to work with the seven full-time employees the band had already hired, and then recruit 40 more seasonal workers for the year-end rush.
Every December, several hundred thousand seedlings must be wrapped and placed in cold storage by Christmas or perish. In its first year, the entire operation was threatened, but Brown managed to persuade half the reserve to work evenings and weekends by paying a piece rate. One woman packed 10,000 seedlings in a day, he says.
By the time the job was finished, Brown had forked out $102,000 in seasonal wages and kept the nursery alive. "You wouldn't believe the Christmas the kids on the reserve had," he says, beaming.
With his soft face, stone-washed jeans and mock turtleneck, Brown knows he must dress and act the part of two cultures. He is used to it. He spent part of his childhood in Thunder Bay, after his parents divorced, and then returned to Wabigoon for his teen years, attending high school in Dryden, just up the road from the big mill.
If he fit in with the white kids, it was because he was on the school hockey team. But he still remembers bringing his cousins from the reserve to a party in town and being told that only he would be allowed in. Instead of staying in Dryden after school, he retreated to Wabigoon, and the sort of tenuous life that had brought down so many of his elders. He found work in construction, and then took a job in a new paper mill in Ear Falls, two hours away by car. To avoid leaving his wife and baby alone, he drove there and back every day. Ear Falls "was a place I couldn't call home," he says.
In time, Brown also tired of the attitude among local natives who controlled the mill's aboriginal job quota. To the company, a native was a native. But on the line in Ear Falls, someone from Wabigoon was from a lower caste. Brown decided it was better to quit than to drive so far every day just to feel as alienated as he had in high school.
Then he started at the tree nursery, and found that, in the North, workplace issues are about more than race. He discovered that his own employees -- although neighbours, friends and relatives -- were as prone to trouble on the job as anyone. Last spring, he took on the chief's niece, Bertie Cantin, after she knocked over two trays of seedlings and said she'd been injured. The nursery wouldn't help her obtain a doctor's certificate for an insurance claim but offered her a less strenuous job. She chose not to come to work at all, and Brown finally cut her from the payroll.
"People in Dryden say, 'You're the only non-native there. Isn't that strange?' " she says. "I don't look at them as different any more."
In jeans and a T-shirt, Mitani looks like a weekend gardener as she picks her way through a row of pine seedlings. Beads of sweat hold still on her craggy face. Her blond hair is spotted with dirt.
When she first arrived at the reserve, she was cautious. She minded how she sat at tables, even placing her hands as unobtrusively as she could, so as not to offend whatever native customs she might not understand. Although she had been in Canada for nearly four decades, and spent most of it in the northern wilderness, the Wabigoon project was the closest she had come to North American Indians since reading Karl May's Wild West novels -- the German equivalent of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew -- as a child.
Young Erika Remmler had come to Canada as a traveller, fresh out of business school, and fallen in love with accountant Lawrence Mitani. They married and moved to Dryden, one of 300 communities across the country that still rely on forestry -- rural Canada's biggest employer.
Fascinated with trees since childhood (her family grew apples near Stuttgart), Mitani earned a horticulture degree, and eventually landed a job with the Ontario government, which used to run most of the greenhouses that supply the industry's reforestation operation. When the government got out of the seedling business in the eighties, she joined a private grower, and then went to work for the natives.
They introduced her to a new way of doing business. "I found them very shy and very sensitive," she says in an accent that betrays her Teutonic roots. "When you talk to them or give them instructions, they always wanted to please and not make mistakes. Not making mistakes was a big thing."
In the past, she had found non-natives more interested in deadlines than in quality control. As well, aboriginal workers seemed less likely to quit, perhaps because they had fewer places to go.
It all seemed to contradict the many warnings people were spreading about the nursery business. In the mid-1990s, the province met disaster when it tried to help the reserve at Whitedog, north of Kenora, launch a nursery. The operation lost money no matter how many consultants and guaranteed orders the province poured in. Its isolation did not help, but a greater problem proved to be the local work ethic. People arrived late. They refused to work weekends. Deadlines came and went, and then entire growing seasons were squandered.
The very same problems could have undermined the Wabigoon project. With plenty of government financing available to native enterprises, capital was no longer a great barrier. The band had bought top-notch equipment, including a computer system to monitor carbon dioxide, sunlight, humidity and temperature, and a machine that can plant 600,000 seeds a day.
But Mitani warned her new employers that even more than high-tech gear they would need a conscientious work force -- people willing to sift through seedlings for disease and to monitor growing conditions as meticulously as doctors track their patients. The smallest bout of absenteeism could cost the nursery its crop, she suggested.
The chief, Ruben Cantin, said he understood. He had already talked with people at Whitedog and other first nations around Dryden, and believed his people would meet the challenge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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. 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.
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.
"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, who were shut out of the forestry industry for so long. "I mean, who said life was fair?"
At the intersection of Government Street and Colonization Avenue in Dryden, trucks loaded with logs they have hauled from forests in every direction -- forests many natives still consider their own -- begin their final descent to the mill. Once there, the logs will be chewed up and fed through titanic rollers, each the size of a small ship, that will turn them into train loads of printer paper destined for the insatiable offices of America.
While the recent economic slowdown is beginning to take a toll elsewhere, Dryden feels as prosperous as ever. A very good decade in the forestry sector has left its roads crowded with late-model 4-by-4s, and the main rail line that runs through the middle of town looking more like a city expressway in rush hour, with kilometre-long trains on every track.
Shadowing the rail line, the Trans-Canada Highway has its own signs of prosperity, with Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire and Holiday Inn Express leading to the edge of town. Most of the business emanates from one source, the big mill on the Wabigoon River that spouts a perpetual plume of smoke that frames the landscape here the way the mist does that of Niagara Falls.
When the company took over the Dryden mill three years ago, it had its eyes on expansion, and saw the need to work with local communities to achieve it. But native co-operation was about more than forestry rights, as essential as those are to the company's success. In local native bands, it saw its future work force.
At the company's operation in Nipigon, an hour's drive east of Thunder Bay, more than one-third of the 190 employees are native. For a new mill scheduled to open next year in Kenora, about 90 minutes west of Dryden, the company went even further. It recruited an aboriginal leader, Louie Seymour, to sit on the four-member implementation committee that hired the mill's top managers and selected supplier firms, including the general contractor for the $250-million project.
"No doubt there's been a cultural barrier historically," says Fred Dzida, manager of Weyerhaeuser's Ontario timberlands operation.
Dzida, a tall, fit forester who looks like he could wield a chain saw as well as a policy manual, sits in a small office on the banks of the Wabigoon River, across the road from the mill. He says his presence here today is a bit of an exception. He spends much of his time on the road, on reserves where his task is to win the hearts, minds and signatures of native bands.
Educated in Toronto, Dzida has spent years in the North. He says he has learned not to approach aboriginal groups and say, "Here's a job," at least not in communities where few young adults have been trained for skilled positions.
Instead, Weyerhaeuser helps to train natives in the art of filling out job applications, and posts vacancies on remote reserves at least two weeks before advertising them nationally. That leads to more natives turning to the company for work.
For the Wabigoon nursery, the mill also allows its silviculture specialists to spend as much time as the band wants coaching Brown and his people on the art of growing seedlings.
In its first season, the Wabigoon operation exceeded its target by 10 per cent. It also lost only 8 per cent of its crop, one of the lowest rates in the region. Nurseries typically lose 20 per cent. But now, with another season under way, Mitani and Brown are looking for ways to cut their loss rate to zero.
Inside its mills, Weyerhaeuser is also training its own managers to detect and deal with harassment and racism, and employs a native ombudsman to deal with complaints. But those challenges may have been straightforward compared with Weyerhaeuser's next hurdle, which is its own union. The local workers are uncomfortable with the spread of jobs to non-union native companies, the Wabigoon nursery among them.
The company has so far come up with "letters of agreement" that lay out an informal set of labour standards in native companies that work under contract to the mill. But even Dzida quietly acknowledges that the culture gap, between his company, the union and the surrounding reserves, remains a source of tension.
Voting in band council elections is no longer limited to people who actually live on a reserve, which many of the Wabigoon First Nation's 450 members do not. In the most recent campaign, the chief's opponent made a special effort to cultivate the off-reserve vote -- and was rewarded with victory.
At least on the reserve, where Cantin won most of his votes, his neighbours appreciated his work. In the space of a few years, their community has built one of the largest and most sophisticated tree nurseries in the region. It has achieved a success rate, both in profits and in the survival rate of its crop, that most of its competitors can only envy.
The nearly 50 people who rely on the operation for some, if not all, of their annual income have seen their lives transformed, judging by the new vehicles and toys in front yards that were once so barren of prosperity and hope.
In the old days, those people might have settled for a handout. But Erika Mitani has noticed more and more Wabigoon residents looking for a new deal. "People are very willing to work, and very eager to work. And they're happy when they work."
The culture has begun to change. No one gives a second thought now to all the rules for employees at the nursery, says Mitani's young management partner, Roddy Brown. People realize what it takes to keep the place ticking.
Outsiders are learning the same thing. Brown tells the story of a customer who called on a mobile phone from deep in the forest to order tens of thousands of seedlings. He was asked to do so in writing, but didn't and then showed up anyway looking for his seedlings.
When told by Brown there was nothing the nursery could do, the man erupted in anger, made some unfortunate cracks about lazy Indians and stormed out the door.
Later, however, he called back to do something Brown rarely experiences -- he apologized, and then sent the nursery staff a case of beer as a peace offering. Not only had he made a mistake, he said, he was beginning to like the way Wabigoon does business.