How a Nova Scotia First Nation Went into Business to Create Economic Opportunities for all its Members
Digital Marketing & Communications Specialist
Samuel Associates Inc.
Many clients have been asking us how best to engage Canada's Indigenous communities in their work with the Government of Canada. We are seeing more interest than ever in forming joint ventures and other business relationships with Canada's First Nations. The recently re-elected Trudeau government has mandated that five percent (5%) of all federal government purchases should come from indigenous-led businesses.
At Samuel Associates, we have been having these same discussions with the leadership team of Millbrook First Nation, in Nova Scotia, about the opportunities and challenges they see in working with our corporate clients to benefit the business and the Millbrook Community. This article reflects those discussions.
Millbrook in the 1980s:
Millbrook First Nation Chief Bob Gloade does not have to think back very far to recall what his home community was like before the Millbrook Power Centre and other joint ventures were developed. When he was first elected to Council 20 years ago, Millbrook’s on-reserve unemployment rate was over 60%. The community of 1,100 members was becoming unsustainable. Millbrook members were leaving the community to find work.
James Stevens, Economic Development Officer for Millbrook, also recalls these times:
“Millbrook has always had a great sense of community; we take care of our own. When past leadership identified an outward migration of our skilled workforce, they had the foresight to develop our community through economic development, allowing our members to seek careers here. Our community supported me through my education, and now I'm investing in my community."
- James Stevens BComm, Director of Commercial Operations
Mr. Stevens himself moved to the USA and joined the Marines. He later worked in banking and returned home to lead Millbrook's growing economic development initiatives.
Faced with this crisis, Millbrook’s Council, under the leadership of then Chief Lawrence Paul, embarked on an ambitious economic development strategy that was based on sustainability, self-sufficiency and communal benefit. As Chief Gloade put it:
“We knew we had to be aggressive and get into business. This was the only way we could provide needed services to our members and become self-sufficient.” - Chief Bob Gloade
This strategy has proven to be successful. Today Millbrook is a multi-site operation with diverse revenue streams, dozens of business partnerships, and land for development across Nova Scotia. The First Nation generates over $50 million annually from fishing, gaming, residential and commercial leasing, and equity interests in numerous businesses. As a result, the First Nation population has nearly doubled, to 2,163 members, the unemployment rate is approaching the national average, and everyone has benefitted from the profits generated.
The Millbrook Power Centre
The prime driver of growth has been the Millbrook Power Centre. Sitting on 80 acres of land in central Nova Scotia, it is ideally located to service a market of $1.3 million who live within a three-hour drive. Millbrook has partnered with local developers, hoteliers, and retailers to build a business park focused on commercial and light industrial enterprises. The park continues to expand as Millbrook acquires nearby land. Recently, a new Hampton Inn opened on site. This hotel is 98% owned by Millbrook and financed through a unique arrangement with the First Nations Financing Authority.
In addition to the Power Centre, Millbrook has acquired usable land in other areas of Nova Scotia, including Sheet Harbour, Cole Harbour, and Beaverdam. Millbrook is a strategic partner with numerous brand-name businesses in these areas, including Lindsay Construction, General Dynamics, and many others.
Shannon Park on the Halifax Harbour Waterfront
Recently, Millbrook acquired Shannon Park on the Dartmouth waterfront. This site, consisting of over 9 acres of mixed-use land on the Dartmouth side of Halifax Harbour, will soon be home to numerous retail, residential and commercial businesses. They will have entered into a unique joint venture or partnership agreement with Millbrook First Nation. Shannon Park represents a new milestone for Millbrook:
“Shannon Park is our next big step forward. We have an opportunity to work with a whole new set of business interests, to our mutual benefit.” – Chief Bob Gloade
The Strategic Plan: How the Entire Community Wins
None of this business success has been accidental. It is all contained in Millbrook’s Strategic Plan. This Plan also clarifies how important it is to Millbrook that each business venture provides tangible and measurable community benefits to all Millbrook members. Those benefits include jobs, job training, profit sharing and housing subsidies. For example, Millbrook and its associated businesses employ over 350 people. The majority of these employees are Millbrook members. The Mi’kmaq Employment and Training Secretariat provides all members job training and career readiness skills. Everyone from age 1 to 100 participates in profit sharing (although those under age 18 have their share held in trust). Housing requires a special mention since even today, homes built on reserve can not get conventional mortgage financing, an old and unjust holdover in Canada’s Indian Act. As a result, profits from Millbrook business ventures provide housing subsidies to Millbrook members.
There is areal sense that the First Nation’s success must be everybody’s success. As Mr. Stevens puts it:
“Knowing that every new business venture is for the good of the whole community is very motivating for me. My job is all about creating opportunities for everyone. That’s why I am always looking for business partners who share our goals and want to be full partners with us in achieving them. –James Stevens
Millbrook First Nation: Looking to the Future
Chief Gloade quickly points out that economic development is always a work in progress. He knows that they have built something of significant value. They have a strategic location, strong leadership, an available workforce, and proven economic development expertise. Importantly, they are always open for business: As he likes to say:
“We will look at any business venture that makes business sense and provides direct benefits to our community” - Chief Gloade
Recently, Millbrook hired veteran businesswoman Claire Marshall as its Executive Director. Claire brings over 25 years of experience specializing in Indigenous engagement and community development, working with major Canadian companies such as BC Hydro, TC Energy, LNG Canada, Teck Resources, Nova Scotia Power, Fortis, and others. Her focus has been on meaningful Indigenous consultation, Indigenous procurement strategies, capacity development, and relationship-building initiatives. Working for Millbrook First Nation is a homecoming for Ms. Marshall, who grew up as an off-reserve Millbrook member.
“Millbrook has developed a powerful economic model. I am delighted to be back home to contribute the skills and experience that I have acquired over the years to the community economic development vision established at Millbrook.” – Claire Marshall
How Business Works with Millbrook First Nation
Mr. Stevens sees three main areas where Millbrook works with businesses:
1) As a landlord, Millbrook enters into land leases, premises leases, and design-build arrangements with businesses in the Power Centre, Shannon Park, or other Millbrook lands.
2) As a source of skilled labour, Millbrook employs an employment officer who maintains a database of available employees searchable by skills, trades, training, and other criteria.
3) As a partner, Millbrook works with bidding on federal contracts, structuring partnership agreements that maximize federal contract value to benefit the bidding company and the Millbrook community.
This last point is about to become even more important, as the Government of Canada has recently mandated that a minimum of 5% of government purchasing must come from Indigenous businesses. It is estimated that the Government of Canada purchases over $22 billion in goods and services annually. With that in mind, there is an enormous opportunity for businesses and Millbrook to work together in the government procurement marketplace.
For Millbrook Administration and Council, economic development is a never-ending exercise, but a strong foundation of success has been set, and the future is full of opportunities.
The Honourable Jamie Baillie, FCPA-FCA, is a Senior Strategy Associate with Samuel Associates and leads the firm's Halifax office. Jamie can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org via LinkedIn.