An architect of Membertou's economic rise has Amazon dreams

Making a pitch to attract an e-commerce giant is usually the domain of big cities, but Maritime First Nations are being encouraged to "never say never" and mount an effort to attract Amazon to Canada's East Coast.

Former band CEO Bernd Christmas wants First Nations in Maritimes to pitch for Amazon headquarters

Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton hopes to work with other Maritime First Nations communities to make a pitch for Amazon to establish a second headquarters on Canada's East Coast. (Richard Drew/The Associated Press)

Making a pitch to attract an e-commerce giant is usually the domain of big cities, but Maritime First Nations are being encouraged to "never say never" and mount an effort to attract Amazon to Canada's East Coast.

The company, based in Seattle, has served notice that it wants to add a second headquarters somewhere in North America, setting Oct. 19 as the deadline for proposals.

Bernd Christmas, former CEO of Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton, floated the idea of making a pitch earlier this month.

As CEO of Gitpo S.T.O.R.M.S., a firm that offers management and technical support to Indigenous peoples, he has discussed the concept of Maliseet and Mi'kmaq communities in the Maritimes putting together a joint proposal for Amazon.

"'Never say never' is an adage I think we should explore here," said Christmas, who is one of the architects of Membertou's economic rise over the last two decades. "The entrepreneur spirit is high within the Indigenous community."

Bernd Christmas, seen here in 2005, was CEO of Membertou First Nation for 11 years. (CBC)

Christmas recommends Maritime First Nations communities work together through various on-reserve companies and the three levels of government. 

Amazon has said it wants tax credits, land, workforce grants and discounts on utilities and municipal fees — all which would involve government.

Even though his concept is a long shot, Christmas is undaunted, partly because of his 11-year experience as CEO at Membertou when the band's economic prosperity grew dramatically and its budget rose from $4 million to $65 million. He left the position in 2006.

Over the years, the band's corporate arm has entered into joint ventures with major companies, such as Clearwater and Lockheed Martin. The First Nation is now the Cape Breton Regional Municipality's third-largest employer.

'Outside the box'

Christmas said "outside the box" thinking has paid off for Membertou and strong results can be produced again, even though Amazon has said it prefers a city of about a million people with an international airport.

He's confident there's a large available workforce in the Maritimes and there are many tracts of land where the business could be located, such as a large area near the Yarmouth airport. Other possible locations are Pictou Landing, N.S., Saint Marys, N.B., or Tobique, N.B., he said. But if Amazon wants to be near a larger centre, he suggests the Sydney area, Halifax or the Moncton-Fredericton corridor.

"I think the economics would make complete sense," he said, noting the low Canadian dollar (about 82 cents US this week) should appeal to the U.S. firm, which intends to create 50,000 jobs at its new headquarters.

Membertou Chief Terry Paul (left) is shown with Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil in 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Terry Paul, chief of Membertou, calls the idea seemingly "impossible" but at the same time "amazing."

He noted Membertou is a partner in an ambitious plan to develop a container terminal in Sydney Harbour.

"I will be talking to our real estate people that are responsible for the development of the harbour and pass the information on to them and see where it could go," he said.

At the same time, Paul said he'll support any effort that brings Amazon to another First Nations community, or "anywhere in Canada" for that matter.

"If we don't try, we will never know," he said.

Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver have all indicated they want to be home to the company's second headquarters.

Amazon might like Canada

The prospect of Amazon coming to Canada is not outside the realm of possibility, according to James Thompson, an author and former Amazon executive.

In an interview this week with CBC's The Current, he said the company will need to cast a wide net to attract thousands of people with the necessary technology skill set and will be open to workers coming from other countries.

Since the process to obtain a work visa in the U.S. is difficult, Canada might be a good option for Amazon, he said.

On the other hand, the company would not respond well if there are no tax concessions or if workers tried to organize, he said.

"Amazon has not responded well to unions," he said.