Aamjiwnaang First Nation: Economic development planning and incorporating culture and tradition in economic development

In conversation with Tom Maness, former General Manager and Carole Delion, Business Development Officer, Chippewas of Sarnia Industrial Developments. Please note all quotes in this case study are from Tom Maness and Carol Delion, unless otherwise indicated.


Aamjiwnaang First Nation (formerly known as Chippewas of Sarnia) is a First Nation community of about 2,300, with a population of 850 on reserve. The First Nation is located on the St. Clair River, three miles south of the southern tip of Lake Huron in the city limits of Sarnia, Ontario. The name Aamjiwnaang, (pronounced am-JIN-nun) is commonly known as “the place at the spawning stream – where the water flows spiritually like a braid.”


Aamjiwnaang First Nation has a Comprehensive Community Plan (CCP) that it created in 1985 and has since updated twice. The community has had extensive input into the planning process, and so Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s membership views the CCP as a community-“owned” plan. Community members have expressed the importance of integrating a cultural worldview into all aspects of planning. As a result, Aamjiwnaang First Nation has developed its CCP around the concept of a healthy tree.

“To support cultural integration like this model you have to have champions in the community that support the vision and also invest their time into economic development. As well, in our case we had long-term staff members, like Tom, with 34 years of service, who is now mentoring.”


Initiating the planning process. In 1984, the Aamjiwnaang Band Council gave direction to create a CCP. Aamjiwnaang First Nation established a planning committee, brought in expertise via a consultant and hired a technical assistant. Aamjiwnaang First Nation also hired an Elder to assist in communications and household surveys.

Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s staff coordinated with the consultants to create a Community Profile Report, with research and analysis on demographics, land use, transportation, municipal services, recreational and educational facilities, social problems and services, and band administration. This report provided background information necessary to inform the CCP.

In 1985, Aamjiwnaang First Nation finalized the CCP, which contained goals and objectives, a land use plan and community core development policies formed from the Community Profile Report and from discussions with Band staff and Council. From the goals and objectives in the CCP, the First Nation designed a set of projects for implementation. The First Nation identified each project’s purpose, cost, funding source and relative priority, and created tables to guide their implementation.

Updating the plan. Aamjiwnaang First Nation first updated the CCP in 1996. Aamjiwnaang First Nation engaged the community in the planning process through a community profile survey and follow-up public workshops. These engagements revealed that housing was the community’s most pressing concern, and so the updated CCP addressed several housing issues. The community also expressed a desire for more community input and representation in decision-making, a clearer mandate for committees and more information on allocation of Band dollars. In response, the Band requested the process of updating the CCP include a detailed examination of the political and administrative structure, with a focus on improving communication and increasing community participation in decision-making.

Aamjiwnaang First Nation initiated the second update of the CCP in 2010. The community engagement process included a number of surveys, a workshop and conferences. There was a strong emphasis on youth needs during the engagement process, which guided the expansion of Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s community centre in 2012.

Weaving cultural knowledge into community planning. Aamjiwnaang First Nation has woven an Elder’s vision of economic development into the CCP’s framework that is consistent with the community’s cultural values. This Elder compared the community to a healthy tree. A healthy tree is well balanced and growing. It has strong roots (knowledge and learning from the past) and nutrients (planning). The tree needs pruning at times (changing or adapting plans and strategies), and it has to withstand the elements (achieved through having well thought-out ideas and projects). The tree’s seeds represent the future generation of the community, and there will only be seeds if the tree is healthy. This idea is the guiding visual for Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s economic development approach.

“The planning stage is the most important. It’s key to the process. Do not get too focused on the opportunity until you plan and get community input.”

“A comprehensive community plan should not be sitting on a shelf collecting dust. Keep it simple so that anyone can understand it!” Aamjiwnaang First Nation Comprehensive Community Planning Presentation (March 8 2012).


Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s economic planning process has helped the community identify its priorities and undertake a number of successful projects while remaining consistent with its cultural values. Recent major community projects include the community commercial plaza, the Chippewa Industrial Park, River Bank Erosion Control and the Band Construction Crew. Aamjiwnaang First Nation has also established partnerships with the nearby municipality of Sarnia for police, fire, water, sewer and other agreements. This has meant that non-members work for the community, but this brings tax revenue to the First Nation and these individuals contribute to the community’s economic development by buying goods and services from the community.

“A lot of companies may think they can go around good development practices or bypass environmental practices (when working with/on a First Nation). If the company is looking to just pursue a grant, we are not interested in that. Everyone in our industrial park as a partner or business has to follow all of the labour laws, and all compliances. We stand the ground here.”


Looking forward, the community is now reinvesting in renewable energy. Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s industrial park and related partnerships will see an expansion of 200 acres over the next five years for future development, including multinational companies. The community’s goal is to continue improving the quality of life for members through increased employment and investment revenue, in order to have a “healthy tree” long into the future.

Moose Cree First Nation: Economic development addressing a social need

In conversation with Stan Kapashesit, Director of Economic Development, Moose Cree First Nation. Please note all quotes in this case study are from Stan Kapashesit.


Moose Cree First Nation is on an island in James Bay, across from Moose Factory, Ontario. Moose Cree First Nation is only accessible by boat in the summer, ice road in winter and helicopter service in the spring and fall months. The community has a population of approximately 3,000.


Travel by helicopter is essential for Moose Cree First Nation members, particularly in spring and fall. During those seasons, helicopter transportation is required for youth attending school, tourism, delivery of groceries and other commodities, and travel between the island and the mainland for other purposes. Council passed a resolution giving direction to the economic development department to explore establishing a community-owned heliport. Currently, there are three pads on the island that helicopters can use for landing and takeoff, but no dedicated heliport facility. Two of these pads were originally intended to be temporary sites, require additional lighting and fencing and require passengers to wait outside for flights, which creates safety concerns when temperatures drop. A heliport would provide permanent, advanced infrastructure to support this essential service for the community, while at the same time laying the foundation for future economic development initiatives.

“Know what service you really want to provide for your community. For us, it was essential services [and] transportation.”


Community engagement. To gauge community support for a potential heliport project and receive feedback, the Moose Cree First Nation distributed a survey to community members. The project received unanimous support from survey respondents, who also suggested potential projects to accompany the heliport. The economic development department also set up a booth in the lobby of the First Nation’s main complex and invited people to learn about the project, ask questions and provide input.

As the project has progressed, the economic development department has continued to keep the community informed through quarterly community information sessions. The department also shares information on the community website, and generates discussions by sharing information on social media.

“When we were thinking about building a heliport (because we’re on an island and there is no way to get here at certain times in the spring and fall), we wanted community input. So we set up a booth in our main Moose Cree Complex and people would stop by and ask what we were doing. We gave people a survey to ask them what they thought of the idea. Having the booth also led to other discussions with community business owners to see who might be interested in starting a helicopter company or [being] involved in other ways. Community members were very engaged.”

Generating ideas for economic development projects. In doing a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis, Moose Cree First Nation identified that owning a heliport would promote a number of additional economic development opportunities. For example, Moose Cree First Nation or a community member could start a helicopter transportation company. The company that currently serves the island is from outside the community, so a community helicopter company could help recapture some economic leakage. Other revenue sources generated by the heliport could include a café in the facility, selling aviation fuel and potentially providing a hub for commercial drones following the First Nation’s partnership with Drone Delivery Canada in October 2017.

Engaging specialists and doing due diligence. Seeking specialized technical assistance and needing to evaluate the feasibility of the potential project, Moose Cree First Nation reached out to Transport Canada for information on consulting firms with experience in heliport design. Moose Cree First Nation then contracted a firm that had the necessary expertise and specialized knowledge of the relevant transportation regulations. At the same time, Moose Cree First Nation contracted a community member, who was a helicopter pilot, as a heliport advisor in order to add heliport-specific expertise to the economic development department.

Together, the consulting firm and the heliport advisor carried out a site assessment which looked at the feasibility of a heliport, taking into consideration potential landing areas, potential hazards, flight regulations and flight paths, as well as the findings of an airport feasibility study conducted in 2000. The site assessment ultimately recommended construction of a heliport and made recommendations about its location.

“Our project was to build a heliport [and] we didn’t have any technical knowledge about this. We brought on one First Nation Member who was involved in the aviation industry as a helicopter pilot and he is working with our team on the project. Then I got in touch with my contacts at Transport Canada and they gave me some ideas for potential aviation consultants. We ended up hiring a company from Alberta that had built heliports for other communities and they really knew what they were doing.”

Business planning. With the site assessment complete, Moose Cree First Nation had evidence to make an informed decision on moving the project forward to the business planning stage. In the business plan, Moose Cree First Nation selected a location for the heliport, included schematics of how the heliport would be designed and identified activities that would need to be undertaken before heliport construction could begin – such as building a roadway to the site and ensuring the site would have functional water, sewage and electricity. Creating the engineering plans and drawings to support these activities are part of what Moose Cree First Nations calls the “detailed design phase.”

“Work your networks along the way at various conferences and events. That way, you can pull together or remember or find a person who could have the expertise you need. Especially remember funding sources. I look at my stack of business cards I get along the way [and] remember what it was they offered. Even for advisory services, keeping a strong network and going back to that network is fundamental in ensuring the project’s success.”


Moose Cree First Nation is currently applying for funding from various federal and provincial programs to support heliport’s construction. The goal is to construct the heliport and have it fully operational in the next few years. The heliport would be owned by Moose Cree First Nation, operating under the Economic Development Department.

Nipissing First Nation: Community decision-making in economic development

In conversation with Thomas Lambert, Economic Development Officer, Nipissing First Nation. Please note all quotes in this case study are from Thomas Lambert.


Nipissing First Nation is located near North Bay, Ontario. The population is approximately 2,500 members, of which about 900 reside in the community. The First Nation is divided into two separate communities along Highway 17. Nipissing is one of a handful of First Nations in Ontario operating under its own Land Management Code under the First Nations Land Management Regime. This means the community has opted out of more than 32 sections of the Indian Act related to land management and replaced them with their own laws. One of the laws is Nipissing First Nation’s Business Licensing Bylaw.


Nipissing First Nation’s Couchie Industrial Park, where various businesses and companies operated in an area near the First Nation, reached capacity. Nipissing wanted to create a new industrial park to attract and support new businesses. Through its Business Licensing Bylaw, Nipissing First Nation created a process that directly engaged community members in decision-making around development of the new industrial park, which is known as Bineshii Light Industrial / Commercial Park.


Community consultations. Nipissing First Nation held community consultations to inform members about the proposed new industrial park and to gather members’ input on the proposal. As the new park site was located only four kilometres west of North Bay, and First Nation member businesses were already developing in the area, the community supported the location and the park as smart business investments.

Business Licensing Bylaw and community decision-making model. Through the First Nations Land Management Regime, Nipissing First Nation created a Business Licensing Bylaw that ensured community membership would play a central role in determining which businesses would enter the new industrial park.

The bylaw requires anyone wishing to establish a business on Nipissing First Nation land to submit a business license application and a business plan. The economic development department summarizes each application with the type of business and the desired location, without names attached, and then sends the summary to community members, who have 30 days to review the summary and send in written feedback. The department addresses community members’ comments on the application as necessary. Then, the business applicant completes an environmental assessment as needed for their business. Next, the department submits a briefing to Council with a recommendation, based on community feedback and the due diligence completed to date, to either support or decline the motion for the business. If Council approves the application, it refers the applicant to the lands department to acquire the land. The applicant then signs a lease agreement and agrees to follow the provincial and federal guidelines to establish their business, monitored by the lands department.

Supporting community members and businesses. A key consideration during the community decision-making process is how the business will provide employment opportunities for members. Community members are not just looking at revenue generation from the lease, but short- and long-term employment opportunities for members. Creating jobs and opportunity for community members benefits both the individuals and the community as whole, as members spend earnings on more products and services and boost the collective local economy.

In order to support community members and local business growth, Nipissing First Nation member businesses do not pay to lease the land. Non-member businesses sign 25-year leases, reviewed every five years with an opportunity to renew at the end of the lease term.

Responsible development. Nipissing First Nation and its membership prioritizes protecting the land, the environment, natural resources and wildlife. The lands and environment departments therefore work in adherence of federal and provincial guidelines and oversee all necessary environmental assessments to ensure that economic development projects, such as the industrial park, do not have a negative impact on the land.

“Make sure [communities] do their due diligence with whoever they partner with to make sure they get the end result they are seeking. A major component is the team and team effort in their community. No matter what project they are working on, everyone has input and has a role across the departments – lands, economic development, employment and training, the management and Chief and Council all need to support the project.”

“To get information out to community members, we use a strategy to send documents by mail-out and post to the website weeks in advance of a meeting or in the business approval process, so members have time to read ahead of time about what the business proposal is, and then they have an opportunity to provide feedback or raise questions. This is also a strategy used for community meetings to gather input on development issues.”


Bineshii Light Industrial / Commercial Park allows for light commercial and professional office space. It currently houses five businesses and one Indigenous organization. Community members own three of the businesses, and the spouse of a community member and a member of another community own the other two businesses.


Nipissing First Nation is working towards upgrading the park’s infrastructure to attract investment from larger, manufacturing-type businesses.

Great Spirit Circle Trail: A collaborative approach to tourism

In conversation with Kevin Eshkawkogan, CEO of Great Spirit Circle Trail. Please note all quotes in this case study are from Kevin Eshkawkogan.


Great Spirit Circle Trail (GSCT) is a tourism experience company on Manitoulin Island that is 100% owned by eight First Nation partners: Sheshegwaning First Nation, Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, Whitefish River First Nation, Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, M’Chigeeng First Nation, Sheguiandah First Nation, Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation and Zhiibaahaasing First Nation.


The eight First Nation communities determined that they could and should take a greater role in the regional tourism industry. As the original tour guides of the region, the communities were capable of providing the authentic experience that tourists look for, and so the region’s growing tourism business presented a strong economic opportunity. The communities also shared concerns that non-Indigenous tourism operators were inaccurately representing Anishinabek culture, and the communities wanted to share their story on their own terms.

They had a number of goals:

  • create a collective, proactive approach for increasing the communities’ involvement in the regional tourism industry
  • build a regional tourism model that would more accurately reflect their culture, traditions and histories and be delivered in a respectful way
  • offer economic and employment opportunities to their community members

“When you incorporate the ideas of others and they see it, they will buy in because they see how their ideas are contributing to the business.”

“With more partners, there is more informal and formal politics that you have to address as issues come up. You need to educate people and counter negativity with information. Communication with the membership is always a priority.”


Establishing a partnership and a common vision. The economic development officers in the region came together with Elders to form an initial working group. Multiple times over three years, the GSCT team met with communities and leaders in the Indigenous tourism industry in the region to hold brainstorming sessions, including on what each community could bring to the partnership. To engage the communities, the GSCT team created an inventory of the tourism products currently offered by the communities, and a list of tourism products that could potentially be developed.

After reviewing the ideas that communities shared, the team advised the communities on which ideas were viable and how they might align to create a plan for the partnership, including possible short- and long-term goals and a possible shared vision for the partnership. Since members of all the communities had been engaged and allowed to share their ideas, community members took ownership of the vision for the GSCT more readily.

The benefits of collaboration. Acting together has enabled the communities to accomplish much more than had they remained separate. The communities can speak in one regional voice and create region-based tourism products and experiences. Collaboration also promotes efficiency, allowing pooling of knowledge and resources and preventing communities from duplicating or competing with each other’s work.

For example, GSCT and other Manitoulin businesses have attended international trade shows to attract international business and showcase the region. Without the ability to pool resources, it is unlikely that any of the individual businesses would have been able to attend such events.

Cultural infusion into operations. An integral approach to GSCT’s operations is to always work in a respectful way, integrating culture in all that they do. In fact, one of the first things GSCT did was develop cultural integrity guidelines in collaboration with Elders. GSCT reviews these guidelines annually. As smudging is a common daily cultural practice, all visitor engagement sessions begin with a smudge. At the groundbreaking sunrise ceremony for a new construction project, Elders conducted a ceremony and blessing of the grounds before they disturbed the land with construction equipment.

Engaging community members. At different times, as GSCT continues to develop products and services, it encourages all community members to raise questions and provide input and ideas. When a new product is developed, they ask the Elders for feedback if they are unsure about cultural protocols.

“You have to know the community. If they are simply not interested, don’t force it; you can’t push your ideas with a top-down approach. That’s not working with the communal good in mind – that’s working with personal motivations in mind. You have to learn and identify the community passion, by learning to know the community, their plans, their vision, their dreams and their aspirations. You can then formulate comprehensive community plans and collect the necessary data, and then you can truly work for the communal good.”

“Equally important to celebrating the successes is recognizing the failures. It is important to understand what you did to achieve the successes so you can do it again, but at the same time, you need to be able to identify the failures and learn from those failures as well.”

Human resources. GSCT has built a team capable of implementing GSCT’s plan for the next five to fifteen years as part of its vision for success. As one of GSCT’s goals is to create economic opportunities for community members, and it prides itself on being 100 percent authentic to the region, all of GSCT’s employees are Indigenous. GSCT hires workers of all ages from the communities. Employees take tourism-specific training, which is standard in the industry.

Employment with GSCT has allowed youth to become more engaged in their culture through the work they take on as guides and interpreters. Post-secondary students seek summer employment with GSCT as an opportunity to learn about themselves, their culture and their community.


GSCT has evolved over the past 20 years and one of their biggest projects, the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre, is now entering its sixth summer of operations (read about the Hotel and Conference Centre project in the next case study). GSCT’s for-profit tour company has consistently seen double-digit percentage increases in revenue. They do not compete with community businesses, but rather partner with, promote and support them. GSCT’s not-for-profit entity allows them to access government funds for project-based initiatives such as training and skills development that support industry and economic growth in the communities.


GSCT is now looking at developing its goals for the next decade, which will include establishing an entity to help businesses and communities across Ontario improve socio-economic conditions for Indigenous people through the tourism industry. One of the key goals is to increase sustainability of both the for-profit companies and the not-for-profit entities. The for-profit entity is seeing continued growth, but maintaining a not-for-profit on project-based funding is very challenging and they are exploring changes to their business model to address this.

The Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre: Collaboratively pursuing an economic development project

In conversation with Kevin Eshkawkogan, CEO of Great Spirit Circle Trail. Please note all quotes in this case study are from Kevin Eshkawkogan.


The Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre is located in Little Current, Ontario. Six First Nations communities – Sheshegwaning First Nation, M’Chigeeng First Nation, Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, Whitefish River First Nation and Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation – and Great Spirit Circle Trail collectively own the Hotel and Conference Centre. The Hotel and Conference Centre is one of the Great Spirit Circle Trail’s largest projects.


The communities identified and evaluated the opportunity for a hotel and conference centre project through a number of methods. They conducted a leakage study that found one of the region’s biggest leakages was meetings and conferences, as there was no venue in the region suitable for these kinds of events. They spoke with others who had knowledge of the market. One of their clients, who led group tours, told them that tour guests loved visiting Manitoulin Island but had difficulty finding suitable accommodation. Finally, market data that Aundeck Omni Kaning had previously collected for a potential hotel project in Little Current supported this business concept.

“If you don’t have a good plan and aren’t willing to stick to the plan, don't start. Having the patience to allow the business to get off the ground is just as important as having the perseverance to make it happen in the first place. When you are running a business, it takes time to grow. Trust among partners, suppliers and others has to be developed – it doesn’t just happen. Nurturing those relationships and communicating with all is critical.”


Understanding the opportunity in the market. After performing the necessary due diligence to confirm a hotel and conference centre project on Manitoulin Island was feasible, the communities continued to refine the project to meet the market’s needs. The communities knew their primary customers for accommodation would be tourists on motor coach tours. Reasoning that they could expect to accommodate two motor coaches at a time, with each likely holding approximately 25-30 couples, they designed the hotel to have 58 rooms. Though the conference centre would host First Nations conferences with high attendance, they knew that most attendees would be from local communities and not need accommodation, so it was unnecessary to build the hotel to accommodate hundreds of guests.

Communication between partners. Having multiple partners collaborate on a major construction project like a hotel requires strong communication practices. Over 50 to 60 different decision makers were involved among the various First Nation partners, as well as seven different financing agreements with three different commercial lenders and three different government agencies. The Great Spirit Circle Trail (GSCT) team did a great deal of work, continually engaging the various communities involved in or with an interest in the project. Open communication has been vital throughout the project, from the early stages when the GSCT team presented the business plan to the various communities to achieve buy-in, through to the construction and operation stages.

Mentoring and training community members. The communities identified that they lacked expertise in hotel management and engaged an external management group for hotel operations. They made a long-term plan of having the management group mentor and train community members to eventually assume management roles. There is a conscious strategy to promote consistency and build a sustainable workplace where employees will stay for the long term.

Senior management decided it is important to “pass the torch” after milestones are met, so that senior managers are not in their jobs for 20 or 25 years. They determined that “fresh blood and energy” are needed to evolve GSCT’s direction, so they developed a transition/succession plan for staff, in order to address that need.

“You need to acknowledge the people that came before you in the planning and groundwork of such a long-term project. You need to applaud and show the respect for those that laid the foundation. Then, it is your turn to grow things to pass on in the future.”


In 2018, the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre will be entering its sixth summer of operations. They have seen an increase in visitors while following GSCT’s goals of remaining culturally authentic, taking a regional approach to marketing and development of tourism products and creating economic opportunity for local community members.