MACLEAN’S REPORTS

AN INDIAN’S (ALMOST) SUCCESS STORY

BARBARA BECKETT,IAN ADAMS November 1 1965
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

AN INDIAN’S (ALMOST) SUCCESS STORY

BARBARA BECKETT,IAN ADAMS November 1 1965

AN INDIAN’S (ALMOST) SUCCESS STORY

Chief Nadjiwan has sold everyone—except Ottawa's bureaucrats

WHEN THE 700 MEMBERS of the Cape Croker band of Ojibways in southern Ontario elected Wilmur Nadjiwan chief, the stocky quiet-spoken Indian promised: “It may be for only two years, but they’ll know I've been chief.”

By “they” he meant the bureaucrats of the Indian Affairs Branch. His promise was really a re-affirmation because the bureaucrats already knew the name Nadjiwan well. Ever since 1962 the 44-year-old Ojibway has spearheaded a fight to establish a selfsupporting furniture industry on the Cape Croker reserve.

Unhappily it hasn’t been a productive relationship, mostly because Indian Affairs officials have a talent for tangling Indians in red tape.

Back in 1962 when Nadjiwan first suggested the furniture factory, the band’s economy was tottering. The reserve’s farmland always had been marginal, and in recent years the fishing had got poorer and poorer. But the reserve did have excellent stands

of white cedar. So Nadjiwan and three other Indians got together with Frank Lenz, an engineer from nearby Wiarton, and drew plans for a factory to make semi-rustic furniture.

They submitted the plans to Ottawa and asked for a loan of $10,000 each from the revolving loan fund parliament had set up to assist Indians. That sum, they estimated, would get them into production.

Indian Affairs soon returned the plans, saying it would cost $50,000 just to put up the factory. Government officials also hinted they weren’t keen on making a loan to an Indian group that included one white man.

This was only the beginning. In the next two years Nadjiwan made some 30 trips to the Indian Affairs’ regional office in Toronto and two trips to Ottawa, which he financed out of his own pocket. But he never could get a go-ahead out of the Indian Affairs Branch: “They kept patting me on the back and telling me not to get discouraged. But they didn’t do anything.”

In the fall of 1962, Indian Affairs suggested Nadjiwan seek the consent of the band council and apply for a loan from the band’s $160,000 trust fund held in Ottawa. The Cape Croker council accordingly passed a resolution asking for a loan of $38,000 to start the furniture factory. The Indian Affairs Branch promptly turned down the request.

Leo Bonnah, regional director of Indian Affairs, explains: “At that time the Indians had no skills.” Nadjiwan’s interpretation: “They have no confidence in the Indian.”

The next objection to come from Ottawa, suggested there wasn’t enough timber on the reserve. Nadjiwan answered that by getting the Ontario Lands and Forests department to do a survey. There was more than enough.

Next the Indian Affairs said there was no proof there was a market for the Indian-made furniture. Nadjiwan took samples to Eaton’s department store in Toronto. “I got a verbal commitment from the furniture buyer, William Sparks, for a franchise on our furniture once we were in production,” says Nadjiwan.

But still no money from Ottawa. In the spring of 1964 Nadjiwan turned to the Indian-Eskimo Association, a national organization that gives professional advice to both native groups.

The IEA quickly bought the Cape Croker project as an idea. It then nudged Indian Affairs into providing a $10,000 loan to set up a factory in a converted school as a training project under the National Employment Service, with the Ontario Department of Education providing the training and the federal government paying 75 percent of the cost.

The factory opened on November 16, 1964, and sixteen Cape Croker Indians spent the year learning furniture-making techniques. The first sample pieces were produced as early as May, 1965.

In June the band voted six members as directors of what would be a wholly

owned Indian co-operative, and applied to the provincial government for a charter.

In July the project acquired a development officer, AÍ Vail, a 39-yearold former salesman of office equipment. Vail was in the strange position of holding a contract with Indian Affairs but being answerable primarily to the Indian board of directors.

Vail is no government hireling and admits with a chuckle that to call the Cape Croker story a series of bureaucratic blunders is “the understatement of the year.”

While Nadjiwan and Vail were trying to find financial assistance to get the factory beyond the “training” stage the Ontario Development Association entered the picture: Ontario NDP leader Donald MacDonald told Toronto newspapers that it was the provincial government’s responsibility to put up the $50,000 to get the factory going. The ODA dutifully sent out two inspectors to check the training program. “They spent a couple of hours here,” says Vail, “and the next thing we knew is what we read in the papers the next day.” The headline in the Globe and Mail declared: “Cape Croker Project Not Sound Business.”

“They didn’t do us any favors,” Vail says laconically. “The Indians were being used to play political football with.”

The Cape Croker training plan was to end on September 14. The IEA nudged the bureaucrats again and a two-month extension was added.

The extension expires November 16. As this was written, the two men were trying to work out financing with the federal government’s Agricultural Rehabilitation and Development Administration, but there are no concrete promises.

They have also hired the Toronto public relations firm Durish and Associates to provide a marketing analysis. Vail now figures the band needs $50,000 to build a plant and another $50,000 for initial working capital. And if

the negotiations with ARDA do fall through, the band cannot apply to banks for funds because the Ontario provincial secretary is still sitting on the charter needed to make it a legal business. (Vail is still trying to get a satisfactory answer to why the charter is being held up.)

This would bring the whole search for money around to what Vail calls a last resort, “borrowing from the band's trust fund.’’ In other words, going full circle to where the chief started from.

Nadjiwan hasn't given up hope that the band will eventually raise money to make the plant a reality: “We’ve got too many people interested. And we already have $5,000 worth of orders.” But he admits: “I’ve lost the good clean conception I had of things in the first place.” BARBARA BECKETT

BARBARA BECKETT

IAN ADAMS