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An artist rendering of the Odea Montreal mixed-use building on Robert Bourassa Boulevard.Cogir Real Estate

Quebec’s Crees are taking a big step into real estate development with plans for a 25-storey tower in Old Montreal, an investment they hope will lead to others as the First Nation expands its asset base.

Eeyou Eenou Realty Properties, the real estate arm of the Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Co. Inc. (Creeco), will partner with local developer Cogir on the $100-million, mixed-use project. The tower will instantly become one of the most recognizable buildings in Montreal when complete, with a canoe shape several storeys high sculpted into the corner of its south-facing facade.

The project, known as Odea Montreal, is momentous for the Cree Nation, said Creeco president Derrick Neeposh. The building’s unique design will be an immediate attention-getter in a high-traffic area, making a physical statement of sorts in Canada’s second-largest city, he said. It is also a major investment outside traditional Cree territory and represents a new revenue model, Mr. Neeposh said.

The Cree people have funnelled “a lot of funding” over four decades from their financial settlements with governments toward professional services in Montreal, such as legal advice and consultants, Mr. Neeposh said. That money has flowed in one direction with little return to Cree communities, he said.

“It’s time to reverse that trend,” Mr. Neeposh said in a recent interview. “Time to generate money from the South so that we can bring it back to the North.”

The move highlights the kind of wealth creation opportunities being pursued by Indigenous governments across Canada, from the Tahltan First Nation partnering with Skeena Resources Ltd. on a gold project in British Columbia to a coalition of Mi’kmaq First Nations taking an ownership stake worth $250-million in Halifax’s Clearwater Seafoods in 2020. It also exposes the disparities between well-organized Aboriginal groups pushing ever-more-sophisticated revenue options and communities still struggling to provide basic necessities like potable water.

The Crees bought the Montreal property on the site of the soon-to-be-built tower back in 1995 when it was a luxury car dealership, Mr. Neeposh said. Back then, the site was located on what was known as Duke Street. The thoroughfare has since been renamed Robert-Bourassa Blvd. after the late Quebec premier.

Derrick Neeposh, president of Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Company, at The Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, on Dec. 10, 2021.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The irony of a potent new symbol of Cree power sitting on a street named after one of their biggest historical antagonists is not lost on Mr. Neeposh. It was Mr. Bourassa’s government that initiated an era of massive hydroelectric development on traditional Cree territory in the 1970s without consulting the First Nation.

The Crees sued the government over the development and won, forcing Quebec to negotiate a $225-million settlement with Indigenous groups in 1975 known as the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. When Quebec announced plans for another hydroelectric megaproject in the North, the Crees again launched legal challenges, saying the federal and provincial governments hadn’t fulfilled their treaty obligations.

In 2002, another deal was struck called the Paix des Braves that gave Quebec’s Crees a $3.5-billion financial package over 50 years as well as a share of the profits from future natural resources development on their ancestral land.

The Cree Nation Government’s Board of Compensation was set up to manage the James Bay agreement funds. It holds public market investments, whose gains are distributed to Cree communities, and also controls economic development holding company Creeco.

In turn, Creeco has a portfolio of wholly and partly owned assets that include regional carrier Air Creebec, a facilities management company called Gestion ADC, and a builder called Cree Construction Development Co. The construction business, one of the largest Aboriginal construction firms in Canada, has built schools, clinics and air terminals in Cree communities. It also counts as a major client Hydro-Québec, the very Crown corporation whose development it once opposed.

“We do a lot of work for Hydro,” Mr. Neeposh said. “I think it’s just a way of being mature and saying, you know, the past is the past. Let it be and build on to the future. ... Instead of fighting, we want to become a partner and make sure that our future generations can benefit from these partnerships.”

Mr. Neeposh declined to provide any financials for Creeco, citing the need to protect confidentiality. But he said the company is aiming to develop more real estate in the years ahead. It also owns property in Laval.

Quebec’s Crees have built a substantial economy through tough political situations while staying committed to their nationhood, said Miles Richardson, a Haida leader who is chairman of the University of Victoria’s National Consortium for Indigenous Economic Development. “When I see that project in Montreal, I just look at that with a fair bit of optimism and pride and just saying ‘I like how they roll.’ They’re leading the way here.”

The new tower was designed by Quebec-based architectural firm Lemay with the help of Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal, who is best known for his designs of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. It will house 435 residential units, including 264 rental apartments and 171 condominiums, in addition to office and retail space.

Site preparation is under way with a view to opening in the spring of 2024.

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