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NOBA 2021: CreeQuest Corp. is the recipient of the Indigenous Business Award of Excellence

CreeQuest Corp. has become a leading supplier for remote mining camp services

Eleven years ago, Tina Sheridan's entrepreneurial journey began at the kitchen table with her laptop and $200 in the bank.

A single mom of two young kids at the time, Sheridan was determined to improve her situation and that of her family, and ultimately leave behind a positive legacy. 

CreeQuest began in 2010 as a sole proprietorship, a catering side hustle to supplement her minimum wage job.

There was an opportunity in her community of Taykwa Tagamou Nation (TTN), near Cochrane, to do small catering jobs for meetings and gatherings. She focused on delivering traditional Indigenous fare and eventually, the jobs got bigger.

As a TTN councillor for four years, Sheridan dove into the details of how impact benefit agreements worked, asked plenty of questions, networked, and took advantage of the opportunities available on those agreements to generate work for herself.

Realizing she needed to gain business experience, financing and the ability to procure more equipment, she struck up a partnership with Aramark in 2013, an international food and beverage company, to be able to bid on larger contracts, with an eye on eventually providing service to the Detour Lake Mine, operating in TTN's territorial backyard.

Today, the operator of the Detour Mine, Kirkland Lake Gold, still remains CreeQuest's largest client. Her business has expanded regionally through other partnerships with Timmins-based NPLH Drilling and Komplete Modular Solutions, one of Canada's leading remote camp suppliers.

That catering side hustle gig now employs 120, half of whom are Indigenous, and her sole proprietorship includes business associates Greg Sutherland of Moose Cree First Nation and Virginia Forsythe of Wahgoshig First Nation.

CreeQuest is now a mining supply company that includes an industrial laundry, located in Cochrane, handling all the linen for the Detour Mine. 

With mining on the upswing in northeastern Ontario, a major expansion of the laundry is in the works with a new location being scouted that will see more washing and drying machines added to accommodate more regional business and walk-in traffic.

Beyond providing employment opportunities for Indigenous people, central to CreeQuest's business philosophy is giving back to area First Nation communities. 

CreeQuest's community investment fund has distributed close to $800,000 over a five-year period for athletic fields, infrastructure upgrades, adult education centres, youth and Elder cultural programs, in collaboration with their business partners.

The fund's largest donation to date is $170,000, along with Aramark, to install new lighting to the baseball field for the Moose Cree First Nation.

"We see the field in use constantly" for sporting or drumming activities, said Sheridan.

"That's what's so special for us is to seeing real infrastructure in the communities, and then being useful and helpful in promoting healthier living and bringing together that spirit of team."

With her daughter, Emily Lamarche, set to take over ownership of the laundry, Sheridan wants to groom a few more Emilys.

CreeQuest launched an entrepreneurial mentorship program for Indigenous learners, a virtual course delivered by a college professor with expert speakers on topical subjects such as procurement, startups, and negotiating partnership agreements.

Seeking to inspire and mentor up-and-coming entrepreneurs, Sheridan finds there is no shortage of aspiring business owners with questions on how to get their foot in the door, especially in a region ripe with natural resource spinoff opportunities.

TTN Chief Bruce Archibald is not surprised at Sheridan's success. In a letter of support, he praised her graciousness and integrity for her group's investment in the community.

"Tina is a band member and not required nor obligated to give back in the ways she does. It really is coming from a genuine place in her heart to make our community a great place to live, work and grow."

To Sheridan, economic reconciliation is not merely a catchy buzzword.

As a survivor of the Sixties Scoop who spent time in foster care, the daughter of a Residential School survivor, and a witness to domestic violence, being known as an Indigenous female entrepreneur is an identity that she wears with pride. Half of CreeQuest's workforce is female.

"These are all personal things that relate to me directly," Sheridan said.

"When given the opportunity to speak or make a positive impact on a person's life, to me, that's economic reconciliation; that's how I view it."

Looking to the future, Sheridan has national aspirations of CreeQuest growing in scale and workforce. But generating greater profits, she vows, will never come at the expense of sidetracking her values and principles.

Sheridan admits there are precious few moments when she pauses to process what she's created. 

"I just have the mind of an entrepreneur, so it never really stops. The times I do stop and reflect are times when you get an award for business excellence and it tells me we're doing good work, we're on the right track, and people are noticing and we're impacting lives.

"I'm getting better at enjoying and seeing the developments rather than constantly working. I'm taking more time to appreciate all the good that's happened, for sure. There have been a ton of challenges, but I don't focus on that. We just keep going."

Since launching in 1986, the Northern Ontario Business Awards has become the largest annual gathering of its kind in Northern Ontario. These awards serve 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.