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Indigenous-owned business keeping communities at forefront

·4 min read

When Tina Sheridan started her business a decade ago, she didn’t expect it would grow into what it is today.

Sheridan is the president of CreeQuest Corp., a regional Indigenous business providing catering, janitorial and laundry services as well as drilling exploration.

CreeQuest recently announced its renewed partnership with Aramark Canada to continue providing Kirkland Lake Gold's Detour Lake Mine with catering and janitorial services. The companies started partnering in 2013.

At the mine, CreeQuest and Aramark employ 50.5 per cent women and about 40 to 48 per cent Indigenous people. Through all its partnerships, CreeQuest employs about 120 people.

The company developed a recruitment and retention strategy and recently hired a lead recruiter, Jaimie Sutherland, who will be working with partners to maximize employment opportunities and provide guidance to Indigenous job seekers.

“We commit ourselves 100 per cent to the business. When we work with partners, we’re at the same table. We help make decisions, we understand the day-to-day operations. We’re not in the back seat, we’re upfront with everybody else,” Sheridan said.

Sheridan's company started off as a side business offering catering services at community events and business meetings with a traditional twist to the food.

“That set the pace for joining up with the major catering company, Aramark,” Sheridan said. “Right away, we started to bid on bigger contracts, and it wasn’t something I could do alone. I didn’t have the equipment, I didn’t have as much knowledge as I have today. The idea of having a partner to learn the industry was ideal.”

What prompted Sheridan, who is a Taykwa Tagamou Nation member, to start a business was a need to make extra money. At the time, as a mother of two, she just finished a four-year term as a band councillor and was completing her high school diploma with the Indigenous Adult Alternative Education Program (IAAEP). Sheridan credits her former teacher Michelle Durant-Dudley for sparking her confidence at the time.

Years later, CreeQuest and Aramark became one of the major funders of the IAAEP program.

In May 2020, the business was incorporated and from a sole proprietorship, it turned into a regional Indigenous business. Moose Cree First Nation member Greg Sutherland and Wahgoshig First Nation member Virginia Forsythe joined the company as shareholders and owners.

The three of them had already crossed paths on different projects before, according to Sutherland.

“So far, it’s been really, really great,” Sutherland said. “One of my goals is to ensure that our Indigenous people are involved at a higher end being hired to positions. Essentially, we had the same vision and we’re working towards that vision to have as many Indigenous people hired as possible on the contract that we have.”

For Forsythe, providing employment and business opportunities from her reserve has been great.

“We’re all on the same page,” she said. “We just want to be very successful and help out communities in any way we can whether it’s training other First Nations on how to go about being a company like ours.”

Some of the other CreeQuest’s partners include Komplete Modular Solutions Ltd. and NPLH Drilling.

When the company is successful in winning a contract, the owners set aside a certain percentage toward the so-called First Nation fund and another percentage for equipment. The remaining balance is used to keep CreeQuest operating.

“The equipment fund is structured for building capacity for CreeQuest. If there was a project down the road that required equipment, we would have our own money to buy our own equipment. The First Nation fund is what we built up to give towards the communities,” Sheridan said.

Being able to give back to the communities and seeing a new infrastructure or a program continue to run thanks to their contributions is gratifying, Sheridan said. Before CreeQuest incorporated, Sheridan made a donation to help build a basketball court in Wahgoshig.

According to Sheridan, the biggest challenges during her experience owning a company have been people not understanding the time it takes to build a small business, maintaining relationships and creating new ones where she would be taken seriously. Coming from a “humble background” and having those experiences made her want to work hard and be successful, Sheridan said.

“As an Indigenous woman, it could be quite intimidating. It was intimidating in the early years sitting at the table with people who had a mount of education and certificates and not understanding if I was at the right place,” she said. “But over time, I earned my spot and I’m much more confident now.”

In the next few weeks, there will be an announcement for a community investment project and a new website will be launched, according to Sheridan.

The corporation's future goals are to expand CreeQuest into a full mining services company, continue developing meaningful and sustainable partnerships and keeping their home communities at the “forefront of importance”, Sheridan said. What’s also important for the company is its legacy.

“Long after we’re gone, our work will still continue to, hopefully, provide an impact down the road,” she said.

Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, TimminsToday.com