A new and dynamic network of individuals is playing a major role in determining the future of economic development in Atlantic Canada.
"We are the premiere network [in Canada] that functions in the capacity that we do because we encompass the whole Atlantic region," says Junior Denny, an economic development officer in Eel Ground First Nation and co-chair of the Atlantic Aboriginal Economic Developers Network (AAEDN). "We cross jurisdictions and we cross boundaries and we bring people together, and to me, that's unique."
The idea of creating AAEDN, an Atlantic network of Aboriginal economic development officers, came about in 2000 at a regional conference on rebuilding the Atlantic Aboriginal economy. There, First Nations chiefs, government and business representatives, and other key players developed a strategy and action plan for the entire region. By 2001, AAEDN had been endorsed by the Atlantic chiefs to carry out that strategy.
"It has allowed us, as economic development officers within [our] communities, to have a forum whereby we could gather together to share knowledge, best practices, do some training together and do some regional-based projects and initiatives," says Denny.
Economic development officers (EDOs) from 31 First Nations, Innu and Inuit communities from around the Atlantic region are working together to achieve three main priorities: access to capital, capacity building and the development of a pan-Atlantic economic venture. Working alongside them are Dr. Fred Wein of Dalhousie University and Krista Brookes of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs.
"Everyone kept saying 'You've got four provinces involved in the strategy, I don't know if this is going to work,'" says Brookes. Her organization administers the network. "But actually, we've just taken small baby steps and we've managed to stay focused on certain things. We've had a hugely dedicated group."
Brookes says the team is excited about moving forward into the next phase, after having met its short-term priorities in the first four years. One successful example was the launch of Quick Start, a one-year pilot project funded by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency. Over 40 grants of up to $5,000 each were awarded to small business initiatives in First Nations communities.
As well, much has been accomplished in terms of building capacity for EDOs. For example, EDOs have been working towards certification from the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers (CANDO) since AAEDN's inception. CANDO certification provides a uniform knowledge base and skill set for all EDOs who work or want to work in Aboriginal economic development. Weeklong intensive training sessions cover topics such as community economic development philosophy, impact analysis and assessment, and financial and managerial accounting.
"The training is exciting," says Brookes. "You can tell they are more familiar with each other, more comfortable. That's really positive. To me, that means they are more likely to share information and learn from each other."
Denny agrees. The EDOs are more than just colleagues now, he says.
"We know each other by first name, we respect each other, we help each other," Denny says. "We are like a big family network."