There is only one road leading into Membertou First Nation, an urban reserve set back on a hill separating the two main parts of Sydney, N.S. At the moment, it concludes in a dead end.
The road leads to a network of streets that wind around more than 154 hectares of fields and trees, dotted with colourful bungalows -- many in the furthest reaches still under construction -- past a gas station, a white clapboard church, a medical clinic, a community centre, the band office and a boxing gym.
Even though it is the only way in, or out, countless visitors travel along it, in increasing numbers in recent years, drawn to work or to attend events at the gleaming new convention centre, the fine-dining steak house, the large bingo parlour or the well-stocked food market and gas bar.
But underneath a stretch of snow-covered ground between the entertainment centre and the school lies what Membertou’s chief refers to as “the golden mile” -- a roughed-in commuter road that will soon become a commercial thoroughfare linking the two ends of Sydney and running straight through the reserve.
The plan is to line the road with plazas and mini malls, offering a convenient shortcut that could double or even triple traffic through Membertou and provide untold new commercial opportunities.
Fifteen years ago it was almost unthinkable for an average resident of Sydney to set foot in Membertou -- then a down-on-its-luck marshy reserve near the infamous tar ponds where the local aboriginal population was forcibly moved from premium lands on the harbour in the 1920s -- let alone want to drive to and from it on a daily basis for work.
Today it is a bright spot of the Cape Breton economy, employing 700 in peak season -- close to half of them non-aboriginals -- and grossing annual revenues of $75-million from band-owned and operated businesses that pump funds back into community programs.
Certified by the international quality standards auditor ISO for the past seven years, Membertou is now poised for further growth in a variety of ever more sophisticated industries, from offshore oil and gas, aerospace, geomatics, consulting, environmental cleanup, real estate, information technology and data storage.
If the plans for the commuter road are the signpost of the community’s future, the $4-million, four-year-old Membertou Convention Centre is the literal and symbolic centrepiece of the small aboriginal band’s remarkable struggle to wean itself from government handouts and turn itself into a thriving commercial hub.
For all of its business endeavours to succeed, Membertou had to make a difficult but necessary decision to lay out the welcome mat and announce it was open for business. It had to invite non-aboriginals onto its territory and get them to keep coming back.
There were lot of reasons to be bitter and angry about the slights of history, admits Dan Christmas, a band councillor for 11 years. He cites the dislocation from traditional lands and the more recent wound inflicted by the wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall Jr., who spent 11 years in prison before being exonerated in a royal commission that blamed systematic racism in law enforcement and the justice system for his ordeal.
Today, 90% of Membertou’s customers are drawn from the roughly 100,000 residents of the greater Sydney area, and most of them come to the convention centre, which hosts meetings, symposiums and weddings, serves as a venue for acts ranging from the Blues Brothers to Gordon Lightfoot and has a capacity for 1,200 in its grand halls.
The state-of-the-art facility acknowledges its aboriginal heritage with a giant dream catcher hanging gracefully above the entry hall and meeting rooms named for prominent figures in Mi’kmaw history, but it is most memorable for the sweeping views from its windows and for Mescalero’s, an upscale dining establishment.
“The most common reaction we get if someone steps into the convention centre is ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m on an Indian reserve,’ ” says Mr. Christmas.
It hasn’t always been this way.
In 1994, Membertou hit rock bottom, registering a $1-million deficit on an operating budget of only $4-million, almost all of it federal funding. Its debt was mounting. There were concerns it wouldn’t be able to make payroll or issue social assistance cheques.
Membertou “was a cookie cutter example of what reserves are like,” says Chief Terrance Paul in a recent interview at the band’s corporate headquarters in a Halifax office tower on the water’s edge. “The biggest thing that bothered me is that we were either 100% or more than 100% dependent on the federal government. We decided we were going to change for the better.”
The first step was to find someone with the business acumen to help get Membertou on track, and so Bernd Christmas, a community member who was working for a Bay Street law firm, was lured back and recruited as the first chief executive officer. He helped Membertou adopt corporate principles to tighten its belt -- finally balancing the books in 1999 -- while launching its first business ventures.
Buoyed by the Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Marshall constitutional challenge that same year recognizing First Nations’ hereditary fishing rights, Membertou started a fishery, which today boasts a fleet of seven vessels.
It brought in VLT machines, becoming one of the last First Nations in Nova Scotia to sign a gaming agreement with the province. That’s when the real money began to pour in.
For the next two years, Membertou toiled away until it did something no other aboriginal community in the world had done: It documented all its policies and procedures, established quality standards, posted all of its financial statements online, called in an outside auditor and achieved ISO certification.
“That was the turning point,” said Dan Christmas, the band councillor. “It was like flipping a switch. All of a sudden they knew we were credible. Companies were knocking on our door.”
While the reversal in Membertou’s fortunes has been dramatic, the turnaround in its people’s lives has been remarkable.
The employment rate among the 800 residents of Membertou hovers around 90%, and the graduation rate for last year’s crop of high school students from the reserve was 100%, with all 22 eligible students taking home a diploma.
Everyone in Membertou gets an annual dividend of $1,000 from gaming, with the stipends for youngsters held in trust for their future education. The amount will jump to $1,500 this year.
Membertou residents are well-off enough that there is a growing trend toward people building their own homes on reserve, financed by bank loans or mortgages, rather than waiting for band-owned housing. The newest homes in Membertou are cheerful (though modest) compared with the worn and weathered buildings of years past, with freshly painted wood siding in deep red or dark blue. Lot sizes have been reduced to conserve the dwindling supply of land, so none of the new residences are huge. Not unlike the older band-built housing, they are mainly cottages and bungalows, with small front porches and tidy yards.
As Membertou works to diversify its commercial interests beyond gaming and fishing, the next frontier, said Mr. Paul, the chief, is to foster an entrepreneurial spirit among the local population.
“We don’t want all of Membertou to be government-run -- us being the government,” he said. “We’d like to be the catalyst for the development of local enterprise.”
One of the first local examples of this kind of private enterprise is presently in action at Sydney’s infamous tar ponds, where three aboriginal construction firms, including a Membertou joint partnership, are beginning work on the first stage of a seven-year, multi-million dollar cleanup.
Membertou is trying to capitalize on its success story, establishing a consulting business to help other aboriginal communities get ISO-accredited.
The Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation near Blind River, Ont. was the first client to be certified, said Darlene McCulloch, who oversees the consulting operation, and she hopes to see two others achieve designation later this year.
Reflecting back on more than a decade of progress, Mr. Paul said there is no secret to Membertou’s success. As an urban reserve, his community may have benefitted from proximity to an ample customer base, but the driving forces were strong, unwavering leadership, widespread support and the high value placed on education.
“I think that we’ve proven that we’re a community that is more than just Indians,” he said. “We have something to offer this province and this country.”