Yukon First Nations' business leaders talk investment and opportunity

'Have you ever seen multiple First Nation development corporations at the same table, at the same time? This is the first time,' said Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce president Rick Karp, at a panel discussion on Thursday.

Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce hosts panel discussion of First Nations' business leaders

Nelson Lepine, Ernie Bourassa, and Paul Gruner take part in a panel discussion of Yukon First Nation development corporations, hosted by the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

Leaders in the Yukon First Nations business sector sat down with the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce on Thursday for a public discussion about growth, investment and future developments.

"Have you ever seen multiple First Nation development corporations at the same table, at the same time? This is the first time," said chamber president Rick Karp.

The discussion was part of the chamber's 68th annual general meeting, in Whitehorse.

"We're trying to bring together all different elements of the economy to work together. Too much is going on economically," Karp said.

Yukon First Nation development corporations are already involved real estate, construction, mining and the airline industry, as well as other investments outside the territory.

Alaska provides an example

"I think we have a real opportunity here in the territory to continue seeing these Aboriginal businesses growing, fostering and having a meaningful contribution into the local economy," Paul Gruner, general manager of Dakwäkäda Capital Investments, told the packed room at the High Country Inn.

As part of the business wing of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, Gruner has spent time in Alaska and told chamber members that First Nations there are showing what's possible. 

The discussion took place Thursday morning in front of a packed room of business leaders and politicians. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

"Last year, the nine largest development corporations did over 10 billion [dollars] in revenue. They're a major employer in the state of Alaska, a major GDP driver of that economy," he said.

Although Yukon First Nations aren't there just yet, Gruner said, he sees potential.

Nelson Lepine agrees. He works in a similar capacity with the Carcross Tagish First Nation.

"We're also looking at the possibility of some business opportunities going nationally and internationally," he told the meeting.

And while diversifying investment and business opportunities is important for the Carcross Tagish First Nation, so too is training, recruitment and retention, Lepine says.

He emphasizes that citizens must be part of the business model. 

"The idea is that if you start building the foundation of the people, the opportunity will continually come."

Capacity is a challenge

Ernie Bourassa, CEO of the Selkirk Development Corporation, said staffing capacity is an ongoing challenge.

He told the meeting that his organization is still in its infancy, compared to some more established Yukon counterparts. Until now, it's mostly been involved in passive investment, "mainly due to a lack of capacity," Bourassa said. 

The biggest business for Selkirk comes from the Minto mine and Bourassa said the potential mine closure means the development corporation has to broaden its outlook.

"We are embarking on a new strategic plan this fall," he said, explaining that Selkirk wants to become more directly involved in the mining industry, including remediation work. 

"We all know that mine lives are 10 years, 15 years, but the remediation timeframe is upward of 40 or more."