PORT HAWKESBURY: Municipal and First Nations leaders from throughout Cape Breton gathered in Port Hawkesbury last week to discuss issues affecting the region.
“It’s an organic discussion about where we are as an island,” said Port Hawkesbury mayor, Brenda Chisholm-Beaton, who was one of the hosts of this year’s “One Cape Breton Future Forward Leaders Summit.”
This is the first time representatives from Cape Breton’s five First Nations communities joined municipal leaders for the annual conference. Chief Rod Googoo of Waycobah co-hosted the event with the mayor. One of the topics discussed was how First Nations and municipalities can work together to address regional challenges.
“I think we have a lot of common concerns in Cape Breton, or Unama’ki, and I think it’s the first time we’ve had an opportunity to speak with the other municipal leaders from various counties,” said Googoo at the start of the conference on Thursday.
“I think the best thing for Cape Breton really, is that we all work together and come up with some kind of a strategy. I’m looking forward to meeting the people today and getting different ideas.”
Chief Googoo said he believes First Nations communities have a lot to offer in the discussions.
“We’ve basically been on our own, not working with municipal government or provincial government and not that much with the federal government, but we seem to have found a way to create our own future… Our communities are growing rapidly,” said Googoo.
“We bring a lot to the economy too. If you take away the spending power of the five native communities of Cape Breton, you’re looking at maybe $250 million or $300 million total for all five communities.”
Chisholm-Beaton agrees that the First Nations communities are important to the local economy. She said she believes local businesses should make more efforts to help First Nations customers feel welcome, including better facilitation of tax exempt purchases.
“If we were to create a better environment for shopping for our First Nations people in the Strait, then we’re capturing potential sales,” said Chisholm-Beaton.
Boosting the local economy was a concern shared by many who attended the conference, and a variety of options were discussed to tackle the challenge.
“Certainly connectivity and aquaculture are two opportunities that were identified that could be worked on,” said Chisholm-Beaton.
The mayor said that a group already met on Friday to discuss improving Internet and cell phone service in the region.
“So that ball is already rolling as a result of the summit. They’re going to continue to meet and try to eliminate connectivity issues in various parts of Cape Breton Island.”
Another potential project came out of Thursday’s panel discussion on Mi’kmaw and Municipal Relationships. During the talk, elder Margaret Poulette of Waycobah suggested that Unama’ki, the Mi’kmaq name for Cape Breton, should be included on signage at the Canso Causeway.
Mayor Chisholm-Beaton urged those in attendance to take the idea back to their councils to make a request for new signs.
“I think that is something that could be symbolic of truth and reconciliation,” said Chisholm-Beaton.
The mayor said she was pleased with the discussions generated, and would like to see leaders from across Cape Breton meet quarterly, rather than annually.
“I really am so optimistic and encouraged by the last two days and the attitude of optimism shared by our First Nations and municipal neighbors,” said Chisholm-Beaton, adding that she was grateful to executive assistant Dawna MacDonald and Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre staff for their role in hosting the conference.