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Chief Terry Paul was part of the landmark $600-million education agreement for Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq youth with the Government of Canada, and he led the single-largest investment by an Indigenous group in Canada in acquiring a 50-per-cent share of Clearwater Seafoods.

Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Terry Paul is the Chief and CEO of Membertou First Nation. Chief Paul is credited with tripling the land base for the Membertou Reserve and increasing the employment rate within Membertou to nearly 80 per cent. For his diverse life-long achievements, Chief Paul was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2017.

More recently, Chief Paul was part of the landmark $600-million education agreement for Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq youth with the Government of Canada, and he led the single-largest investment by an Indigenous group in Canada in acquiring a 50-per-cent share of Clearwater Seafoods.

Tell us a little bit about the Clearwater Seafoods acquisition and next steps.

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Clearwater Seafoods sells over 99 million pounds of seafood annually and is North America’s largest producer of shellfish and holds Canadian harvest licences for a variety of species, including lobster, scallop, crab and clams.

With financing from the First Nations Finance Authority, our coalition of seven Mi’kmaq communities across Nova Scotia and Newfoundland invested $250-million to acquire a 50-per-cent share of Clearwater Seafoods. The deal, expected to close in early 2021, is an entirely commercial transaction, separate from the livelihood fishery issues of many Mi’kmaq communities. This deal relates to the offshore industry, which is not the same as inshore.

In the short term, our priority is paying off that debt as soon as possible. But looking ahead, we would like to have Mi’kmaq fill positions at all levels within the company. This includes plans for training programs so we can have our people in managerial and executive positions as well. In the long term, we’d certainly like to grow the company as well.

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How did the deal come about?

Membertou has established a good relationship with Clearwater after working together on and off over the past more than two decades. Given this long-standing relationship, when Clearwater had the intention of selling the company, we were made aware of their plans early on.

It is a funny story, though, because at first we misunderstood one another. But as we began to see each other’s vision of how fishing should be done, we recognized many similarities in our approaches. We quickly realized that we both rely on the science behind fishing and conservation and that we had a lot to teach one another. With this in mind, we decided it would be best to work with each other rather than against each other. Since establishing this positive relationship, Clearwater has helped Mi’kmaq communities in many ways over the years, including the acquisition of additional fishing licences for our people.

What do you believe were your keys to success in this deal?

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First, our Mi’kmaq coalition and Clearwater Seafoods shared a common vision. Clearwater was firm that they wanted to see the company live on and so did we. Throughout the entire acquisition process, we were very clear with our intentions to not only maintain, but to also grow the company. We also explained that we were in this for the long run since fishing was part of our identity and that we wanted to be fishing until the end of time.

Second, we established solid working relationships with those people, communities and companies we worked with. In our Mi’kmaq coalition, this meant that all communities were involved in decision making and in sharing the benefits. In our investment partnership with Premium Brands Holdings Corporation, this meant that we were transparent in how we wanted to work together and our vision of the future. In our local business partnerships, I can confidently say that my best friends besides my wife are my lawyer and my accountant. Good business requires good relationships.

How do you feel looking back on the acquisition process now?

I don’t think I’ve ever been any busier than I was in the last few months, but it’s been a good type of stress that’s full of excitement. Thanks to the hard work of everyone involved, we’re able to say that a major seafood company is now 50 per cent Mi’kmaq owned. This is a major breakthrough in our empowerment as Indigenous peoples. We feel that we are now a big player in the industry and that people know it. Further, I believe that we are also in a much stronger bargaining position regarding the decisions that impact our families and communities.

Is there a difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership?

No matter where you are or who you’re working with, establishing trust is at the foundation of working with people. Beyond that, I believe the main difference in Indigenous leadership is that our peoples have been part of this land much longer than any non-Indigenous leader. In fact, according to archaeological evidence, we’ve actually been living and trading here for tens of thousands of years. I believe this relationship with the land has a strong influence on our leadership thinking and decision making.

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Tell us about what it was like growing up in Membertou.

At the beginning of the 20th century, my community was forcibly removed. Back then, if you could prove that “Indians” were a hindrance to progress, the village could be relocated. Since our community was on the water and located at the beginning of a city, we were victims of these types of discriminatory policies. We moved from Kings Road Reserve, which was by the water, to a remote inland reserve. Disconnected from the water source we relied on throughout history, people like my grandmother did their best to live and survive anyway that they could.

When I was young, it was hard growing up in Membertou. Throughout my childhood, I was surrounded by a lot of poverty. I remember that we only got plumbing in the sixties and that infrastructure was so lacking that it was a local celebration when we got our first streetlight. Additionally, like so many other children in the community, I was forced to attend residential school at the age of 5.

Despite all of this, I consider myself lucky. While I faced many challenges growing up, I was fortunate not to lose my culture and my language. That’s what saved me. I’m grateful that I had a family that really stuck with our traditions despite the hardships that we faced.

What if your advice for Canadians working with Indigenous peoples?

Get to know the people and try your best to understand the community you are working with. Learn about their history, culture and language. It’s also important that when working together, to always be respectful, honest and upfront. Good communication is essential for developing and maintaining any relationship. Finally, whatever you do, make sure it is consistent. Indigenous people do not like or deserve broken promises.

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What is your advice for Indigenous youth?

It’s good to get diverse experiences. Your language, culture, education, career etc. are all important. You don’t have to choose only one.

For me, it was important to leave my community and get outside of my comfort zone. For many years, I lived in the United States and worked at the North American Indian Center of Boston. It taught me a lot about the value of hard work and I also learned a lot from the great leaders I was surrounded by. With new training, qualifications and perspective, I then went back home and I was able to help my community achieve great things. I hope that our Indigenous youth today can do the same thing for their communities.

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