By: The Working Forest Staff
THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO — A 100% First Nations owned and operated company based in Thunder Bay was recognized with a prestigious award. It was officially announced on Thursday, September 26, 2019, that the Agoke Development Corporation (Agoke) was the recipient of the First Nations Business Award of Excellence at the Northern Ontario Business Awards (NOBA) in Sault Ste Marie. The forestry enterprise comprised of the First Nations of Aroland, Eabametoong and Marten Falls, manages the Ogoki Forest, oversees road construction, maintenance, and silviculture programs while protecting culturally sensitive areas and animal habitat.
NOBA has become the largest annual gathering of its kind in Northern Ontario since it was launched in 1986. These awards have served to heighten the visibility and influence of business in the North and bring peer recognition to the business leaders who create prosperity and economic growth. Ten award recipients were recognized for their achievements and contributions to local and regional economies at a gala dinner at the Quattro Hotel in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. “With a rich history of more than three decades, this prestigious awards program has a tradition of celebrating and activating business in different Northern Ontario cities each year,” said Abbas Homayed, vice-president and publisher of Northern Ontario Business.
Mark Bell, Aroland director who has served as the president of the Agoke Development Corporation for the past four years, considers the award a key milestone for the three First Nation partners. “We’ve defied all odds and naysayers and have become a beacon of hope for our youth,” he said. “Through our partnerships and programs, we have provided employment opportunities for over 110 indigenous job seekers from our communities and developed and delivered culturally appropriate training and retention programs for over 52 trainees. Changing just one of our people’s lives for the better makes it all worth it, however when you are helping change families it has a major positive impact on the overall quality of life of our communities. That’s what makes the work that we do special and rewarding.”
Agoke started in 2015 with the intent to build capacity in forest management and to maximize economic opportunities in the forestry sector. Agoke believes it’s important to recognize the rich forest heritage and the continued economic, social and environmental benefits that the Ogoki forest provides to First Nations peoples. Having a bigger vision for the future and looking at other sectors like construction and energy is what has positioned Agoke on a higher level. “Over the next few years, Agoke is looking to expand our services by leveraging the expertise that we acquire in forestry. There are many projects on the horizon with all-weather roads, mines, and energy projects that we will be looking to get into”, said Lawrence Baxter, Agoke director, Marten Falls First Nation. “With technological advancements being made, there is a huge opportunity to be innovators in renewable energy for heating solutions in northern Ontario. There are also many transferrable skills that our peoples are learning in road construction and maintenance that can be applied elsewhere.”
Agoke is driving business reconciliation for their communities and providing economic growth in the Greenstone region. It took Agoke a number of years to secure the forest resource license and forestry agreement with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. The forestry company is taking the lead to harvest wood, assign harvest blocks, complete compliance and monitoring of woodland operations, prepare annual work schedules and reports. Agoke is also involved in developing the next 10-year forest management plan for 2020-2030. Over the past three (3) years, Agoke has also successfully managed and administered the provincial road funding and focused its efforts on bridge and road repairs to mitigate barriers to wood fibre for existing and new markets. Agoke is the only First Nations entity in Ontario to manage the crown program for forests and is striving to include their community members in numerous aspects of forestry.
Working well with others has also proven to be a valued and necessary means of doing business. That’s certainly reflected in the fact Agoke is being recognized for the way it works with others. “It really shows the importance of collaboration and a common vision of partnerships,” stated Bill Spade, Agoke director, Eabametoong First Nation. It took Agoke a few years to build key relationships with consuming mills in the region. This requires patience from all parties and respect for community decision-making protocols. The resilience of Agoke’s board let to a historic joint-venture agreement with the Nakina Sawmill to restart the operations which were dormant for over a decade. “The reward is in the journey,” said Spade.
Eabametoong director, vice-president of Agoke Development Corporation Bill Spade said the agreement with Nakina Lumber Inc. is precedent-setting with an inclusive approach to procurement and hiring that is like no other agreement in the North. “Jobs are important but we didn’t want to limit ourselves on the business side. We knew what our expectations were from the beginning and having the first-right-of-refusal for road building, log harvesting and delivery contracts were an important part of the deal.”
Agoke and Nakina Lumber Inc. set up a working committee that provides input into the facility’s hiring process, developing special programs for employment and training and are targeting 75% Aboriginal employment in the sawmill. Agoke recently launched a YouTube Channel that showcases the training program through two (2) short 4-minute video clips. The videos provide the holistic land-based approach to the Forestry 101 Worker Orientation Training and the Mechanical Heavy Equipment Operator Training that is occurring in the Ogoki Forest.