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First Nations Business Award of Excellence: Waubatek Business Development Corporation

“We have always believed that there is a lot of potential, there is a lot of opportunity and there are services needed."

Dawn Madahbee Leach has been with the Waubetek Business Development Corporation since its beginnings in 1988.

In that time as the general manager, she has seen the organization fulfill its vision.

“When Waubetek first started, one of the first things we did was undergo a visioning exercise, where we collectively envisioned prosperous healthy communities with comfortable homes, decent community infrastructure, and people working,” said Madahbee Leach. “That is a vision we have always been working towards in all that we do. I can tell you with much pride that we’ve come to see much of this vision realized.”

The First Nation-owned and operated business financing and economic development organization operates from Birch Island on the Whitefish River First Nation, which connects Manitoulin to the mainland. They serve First Nations communities and Aboriginal clients throughout northeastern Ontario.

They’ve seen their clientele grow from a handful of small business owners, to a thriving sector providing employment throughout the region, in First Nations and in the surrounding communities.

“We have always believed that there is a lot of potential, there is a lot of opportunity and there are services needed. We needed jobs for our people and when we started the organization, we were at more than 80 percent unemployment,” said Madahbee Leach. “So we put together a strategy and business plan to address the need for capital to help people start businesses and become self-employed. We made the business case and started out with a loan fund of $150,000.”

Today, the communities they work with have the unemployment rate down to 14 percent, and Waubetek’s grown from four employees to 14. They have invested over $70 million in more than 3,000 Aboriginal businesses with a success rate that is higher than the national average.

Madahbee Leach credits much of the success to Waubetek’s board and founders.

“Our board is comprised of respected individuals with strong business and economic backgrounds who come together to provide the best services we can to our clients. When they deliberate around our board table, they always consider the best interests of the clients.,” said Madahbee Leach. “It is the Aboriginal business community that we have the honour of working with every day. They overcome many challenges to do what they do.”

While fulfilling its original vision, Waubetek has also witnessed change.

“There are a few changes that have occurred over the year. We have implemented regional strategies on tourism, fisheries and mining to support our businesses in these sectors. We also focus on Aboriginal youth employment programming where, through summer jobs programs, we help to equip up to 60 youth a year with marketable job skills and life skills,” explained Madahbee Leach.

“It has really helped our young people gain the confidence and skills they need to participate meaningfully in the workforce.” So far 440 youth have completed the program, boosting high school graduation rates to 95 per cent amongst those who complete the program, compared to 60 per cent who don’t.

The service to youth is part of Waubetek’s vision for the future. Some of these youth, and some of Waubetek’s most recent clients, are now third generation clients.

“Many of our new clients have been raised in a business atmosphere and home which nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit…it’s a profound milestone,” said Madahbee Leach.

“As I look out the window here I see paved streets, I see beautiful community buildings, with very healthy children playing outside. I won’t say it’s all a result of Waubetek, but I think we’ve had a small part in that.”