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Goodfish band launches major business expansion


John Holman, Windspeaker Staff Writer, Whitefish Lake Reserve Alta.







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A Cree band will soon be doing business with an American oil company dry-cleaning, mending and manufacturing coveralls for oil workers.

On Feb. 15 in Edmonton, the Exxon Corporation from Houston, Texas will sign a new contract with the Whitefish Lake Band from northeastern Alberta.

As well, two Alberta oil companies--Suncor Inc, and Syncrude Canada Ltd.--will sign five-year extensions of current dry-cleaning and mending contracts.

The contracts are the result of a recently completed expansion worth nearly $2 million in the Goodfish Garment and Sewing Company.

The company, which is run by the band, currently employs 20 per cent of the 600 of 1,200 reserve residents eligible to work, according to Band Chief Ernest Houle.

With a larger building and dry-cleaning operation, it will employ 200 people around the clock.

The band borrowed $170,000 from the Alberta Indian Investment Corporation and pumped $700,000 of its own into the expansion, adding a sewing factory and expanding the building where the dry-cleaning operations were housed.

The company began in 1981 as an experimental business project between the band and Syncrude Canada Ltd. to supply the oil company with shirts, according to Houle.

The band eventually agreed to a contract for mending and dry-cleaning the coveralls of Syncrude oil workers and entered into a similar contract with Suncor Inc.

Currently there is a $100 million Canadian market in safety clothing and coveralls. In three years the band hopes to corner 12 per cent of that market, a substantial increase from their current one per cent of the market.

The band hopes to eventually employ 200 people 24 hours-a-day at its new sewing factory, declared Houle.

Canadian exporters have not yet really capitalized on the "massive U.S. procurement market", declared Steven Hill, a representative of the Exxon Corp. from Houston, Texas.

Hill encouraged the band take advantae of this with his company.

"Since your materials are purchased from the U.S., we think that your textiles can enter the U.S. at zero per cent tariffs," he claimed.

Texas companies spent $10 million in 1989 on coveralls. There is also a $28 million market for general military coveralls in south Texas, Hill maintained.

The band unveiled the Goodfish Garment and Sewing Company factory on Jan. 25, along with a newly incorporated vehicle service, health center and a completed community hall and library.

"When we were elected to office two years ago, priority was economic development and training. Those were the three issues we keyed in on," Houle said.

He said the priority of the band council is to build the reserve's economy. Houle believes, in the past, too many Alberta bands ignored economic development while they fought for a land base and a share of resources appropriated from disputed lands.

As the political furors raged, no solutions were found for high unemployment rates or poor economies on reserves.

The Whitefish band initiative began when they encouraged a younger generation of Native people on the reserve to attend university or college to obtain the necessary experience that would be useful in the band's drive for economic self-sufficiency.

Now there are 17 post-secondary graduates, Houle said proudly, and 82 residents currently enrolled in post-secondary institutes.

The band will employ these graduates as consultants in future business decisions and to help promote the band in international and provincial business arenas.

"That's our economic base--education," he declared.

The potential work force and the band's aggressive business sense has proved attractive to those outside of the oil business.

Aside from dry-cleaning contracts, the council has also been negotiating a tea-packing contract with a company in Kenya in north Africa that could create an additional 50 new jobs.

Kenyan tea will eventually be imported to Goodfish to be packed, said Houle.

The band is also proposing to export logs to Japan for buildin houses.

Indian Association of Alberta president Roy Louis congratulated Houle and the council on its initiatives at a ceremony Jan. 25.

"You (Chief Houle) have shown a lot of Native politicians, who think they are leaders, that the world is not flat. Our people won't fall off if they take on the awesome challenges of the world off the reserve," said Louis at a dinner reception following the tours.

"We (Indian people) can excel and flourish. That's the name of the game for the next decade," he declared.

"We are the aboriginal people in this country. We are survivors. We aren't going anywhere except forward.