Community of Membertou: a Story of Success and Worldview Expansion

IMembertou Welcome Signf you find your way to the Mi’kmaw community of Membertou, in Cape Breton, NS you will find a sign that says “Membertou ~ Welcoming the World”, a sentiment fully expressed there now. It wasn’t always that way though. The story of Membertou’s evolution from a community struggling with forced relocation, racism and a Band budget deficit, among other things, to one of tremendous growth and success in a time of recession, is one of worldview shift and expansion that was made possible because the community stayed true to some of the most fundamental principles of their culture while envisioning a different future.

Dan Christmas

Dan Christmas

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit and visit with Dan Christmas, Senior Advisor, Community of Membertou, to hear this story in his own words. I heard him speak at an Engage Nova Scotia event and recognized elements of Worldview Intelligence in his words. At that event, he said there was a time when Membertou was not welcoming enough and the Band leadership realized this had to change if the community was to stop struggling and seize the opportunities they had been cultivating. The community had to become more open to work with other people, languages and cultures. Intentionally deciding  to treat all people with respect, after initially feeling like Membertou was being “invaded” by customers from outside the community, contributed to the Membertou success story.

Backdrop to the Story

The story of Membertou is situated against a backdrop of significant historical markers that include racial undercurrents in the larger community, the forced relocation of the Membertou in the 1920’s, the wrongful imprisonment of a young Donald Marshall, Jr. for a murder he did not commit in 1971, the subsequent Commission and Inquiry begun in 1988 six years after Marshall’s release from prison, a Tri-Partite Forum that resulted from the Inquiry, and a Band dealing with a $1 million deficit on a $4 million dollar budget in the mid 1990s (all of which was federal subsidy at the time). (link to info)

Chief Terrance Paul and a Vision of the Future, Different From the Past

Chief Terrance Paul

Chief Terrance Paul – Membertou

It took vision and determination to turn the situation around. This was epitomized by Chief Terrance Paul who was then, and has been for the past 31 consecutive years, the elected Chief of Membertou. Recognizing that the future could not be a continuation of the past, he began to think differently.

When he set his sights on Bernd Christmas, the first Mi’kmaw called to the Bar who was then practicing corporate law on Bay Street in Toronto, to come home to Membertou and become the CEO, nobody thought he would come. Why would he leave Bay Street to run an organization with a $4 million budget that had a $1 million deficit and was struggling to meet payroll or social assistance payments? Bernd had grown up on the “outside” because his father had been in the military. Persuaded by Chief Paul’s vision for the future, Bernd came to Membertou, bringing with him a worldview of “anything is possible”.

The First Five Years – Regrouping

In the first five years, the agenda was to increase cash flow, which was done through deep and persistent cuts. This made Bernd unpopular with the community who protested his leadership and wanted him removed, but Chief Paul stood by him and the long-term vision for the future.

Bernd was not operating in isolation, nor could he and be successful. He convinced the Chief and the Band more people were needed to enact a change in the fortunes of the Band. They looked to Mi’kmaw leaders who were living elsewhere and recruited them to come home, creating a critical mass of leadership that supported one another to begin a process of changing attitudes and minds, essentially inviting new perspectives and an expanded worldview. Among this group was Dan Christmas.

Because of the leadership team assembled, the experience they had acquired in their career paths and the current events of the time, Membertou was well versed in its rights as well as its heritage, important elements in being able to make change in their community and to take on policy and political challenges within the community and with the three levels of government. They were able to take a systemic and long-term view rather than reacting over and over again to the level of events happening in any given moment. The questions they engaged had them asking what was causing or contributing to the events, what were the persistent patterns and behaviours, what were the mental models. Although they didn’t have the language of worldview, they were essentially in a worldview exploration.

Gaming – The Beginning of the Turnaround – But Not Without Bumps in the Road

The first challenge that set the stage for so much more of the innovative thinking that has contributed to Membertou’s success was gaming. Initially, Membertou wanted to build a Casino. The Province of Nova Scotia already had a nearby Casino in Sydney and did not want the competition. They offered Membertou and the nearby Esaksoni Band legal Video Lottery Terminals or VLTs to replace “grey” or unlicensed VLTs. While Esaksoni took up the offer immediately, the members of the Membertou community protested against it.

Gaming is an Aboriginal right. The Band leadership decided to ask the community directly about gaming and, in a vote, the idea was 95% rejected. Not to be dissuaded or discourage, this is when the Band asked a Worldview exploration question. They wondered what was in the history of their collective experience that would have led to the rejection of an offer that could generate revenue for the Band. They did not blame or judge the community for its view, rather they brought curiosity to try to understand what happened and why.

This line of inquiry illuminated that, in the past, only a few people had benefited from the “grey” machines. The community had no interest in lining the pockets of a few at the expense of many – and this was not the intention of the Band leadership either. As they reflected on Aboriginal and Treaty Rights as Collective Rights, the leadership knew that everyone should be able to see how the community would benefit from the profits of gaming. They began to think of the whole situation from a different perspective.

This led Membertou to form its own Gaming Commission to pay dividends to the whole community. When they went back for a second vote with this new, visibly articulated approach they achieved a complete turnaround – 98% support. They were putting into practice and living by a principle that was very important to the community – by community for community benefitting community.

Gaming in Membertou started by opening only 25 of the VLT’s allotted to them. They were very intentional about how to open them. They were not put in a bar and there was no liquor. Membertou set up two trailers – smoking and non-smoking – and made plenty of coffee available. They hired and trained people from Membertou to run the gaming. Before long, business was booming, and they had to open the remainder of the VLTs, 90 in total, and gross revenue shot up to $75 million annually from gaming alone.

Staying True to Core Values

Working on behalf of community for the benefit of community is a powerful practice that has influenced Membertou’s approach to several of its business ventures. In 1990, when the Federal Government was offering fishing boats, gear and training in Atlantic Canada, it had nothing to do with collective Treaty Rights and was all about individual communities. Based on principle, Membertou rejected the interim agreements. They wanted to think and act collectively and collaboratively. To develop their fishing industry, they needed to build stronger relationships and work closely with nearby communities, communities with possibly different worldviews or at least aspects of worldview.

Additionally, Membertou actively forged new economic frontiers by incorporating indigenous knowledge-based principles of conservation, sustainability of resources and reverence for the land and the waters and stayed true to these core values in all their dealings and negotiations. It likely made them more powerful as negotiators because they had clarity on their decisions and pathways to the future.

Added to this was, and still is, an innovative spirit and approach and a will to collaborate in many different ways. Membertou, thinking differently and strategically, increased its profile with major private sector companies by launching the Membertou Corporate Office in downtown Halifax. The unprecedented profile this provided assisted in leading to the formation of a number of partnerships with private industry sectors in Engineering, Aerospace & Defence, Catering, Renewal Energy, IT, Quality Management Consulting Services, Insurance, Commercial Fisheries, and Real Estate to name a few.

Cognitive Dissonance

With all this growth and new business strategies, there was just one small problem. Membertou residents were experiencing cognitive dissonance. The “enemy” from outside, from the larger community, was now “invading” Membertou and doing so despite other systemic obstacles. For instance, because the larger community had a specific, long standing view of Membertou as being a dangerous place, taxi cab drivers wouldn’t drop gaming patrons off at their ultimate destination. They would only bring them to the edge of Band territory and drop them off there. But this did not dissuade customers from coming. Obviously the customers did not hold the same worldview of Membertou as the cab drivers.


Membertou Convention Centre

As the growth strategy of Membertou began to take off with greater and greater success, attracting more and more people from “outside”, the cognitive dissonance in the community grew to the point where it could have threatened the success of Membertou. When you are being invaded, literally or figuratively, when your worldview is being challenged, the natural reaction is to shore up the boundaries to shut out real and perceived threats. Not only did Membertou achieve success with gaming, they went onto create a fishery, build a gas bar, a conference center, a hotel, bingo centre, Heritage Park and two strip malls. They hired as many people from the community as they could in all their business endeavours and then they hired non-Natives from outside the community too. Their customers were primarily from outside the community.

Discomfort in the community peaked around 2010. The Band was accused of leaving the community behind to serve non-Native audiences. The community feared loss of their identity and their security. They were told by police that their facilities were being marked for robberies and no satisfactory solution was yet in place to address this concern. They eventually came up with an innovate strategy that you can read about in a post about Enemies to Collaborators.

This necessitated more community conversation, more worldview exploration, which ultimately led to an expansion of worldview. The community needed to shift from seeing the customers as the “enemy” to viewing them as the resource they are, as well as an indicator of the success of Membertou’s strategies. That shift was to “Membertou welcoming the world”. By going back to community, providing the opportunity to be in conversation about the concerns, and being persistent about bringing a more expansive worldview, Dan describes an attitudinal shift that is truly remarkable. “You never hear any remarks anymore about non-Native people in the community. There has been a cultural integration. The community has been transformed from exclusive to inclusive.”

Currently, Membertou is a community of 1400 people, surrounded by a larger community of 115,000 in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It is the fourth largest employer in Cape Breton with 465 full, part-time and seasonal employees, 60% of whom are Mi’kmaw, 40% non Mi’kmaw. Intolerance is not tolerated. Any employee who displays intolerance, Native or Non-Native, will lose their job.

The leadership in Membertou was/is continually reflective about failure, inquiring into the situation not blaming or judging anyone. The turnaround they achieved took place against the economic backdrop of two major industries shutting down and the cod fishery collapsing. Most people would say it couldn’t be done and yet it was.

The result that Membertou was able to create through vision, foresight, determination and resilience is something that can be replicated through an intentional journey using the framework, patterns and practices of Worldview Intelligence and it is fabulous to have a success story to draw on that shows us that anything is possible.