Waswanipi on road to fiscal health: Chief Paul Gull winning battle against budget deficits

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scierieWaswanipi’s Paul Gull is well on his way to meeting one of his major goals during his current term as chief of the Cree community: getting the band council’s finances in order.

When Gull was elected almost three years ago, the community of 1500 people was running a budget deficit of more than $11 million. Now, Gull says, the deficit is down to $4.8 million. He expects to balance the budget before the end of his four-year term in 2015.

The budgetary belt-tightening hasn’t been easy, however.

“In the beginning it took time to convince some people of the need for fiscal restraint,” Gull said. “There has been some resistance. But I ask, ‘What are we doing?’ We need to be responsible and transparent. We can’t have our deficits paid by our children. We have to pay off our own debts, debts that we created.”

Gull lauds Waswanipi band councillors for their cooperation in meeting the fiscal challenge. “We’ve had success by reviewing our operations and administration, by identifying and eliminating unnecessary expenses,” he observed, citing the elimination of unnecessary travel as a big money-saver.

“We’ve been teaching people what fiscal restraint means,” Gull emphasized. “We don’t need to spend all the time. At the same time, cash flow has improved.”

Now Waswanipi is trying to exercise its rights to forestry harvests guaranteed by the Paix des Braves agreement. The provincial government has cut rights to a certain volume of timber, and the band council is seeking compensation.

Community-owned corporations, such as the Waswanipi Development Corporation, Mishtuk Corporation, and the Nabakatuk forestry and sawmill firms, posed a special challenge to ensure these investments were profitable.

With the downturn in the Quebec forest industry and tax challenges, cleaning up the books at Mishtuk and Nabakatuk became a priority, Gull explained. At one time, the sawmill was losing up to $1.2 million a year. High tax bills were eating up revenues.

“The banks were after us,” Gull recalled. “We needed to run these businesses more responsibly. We looked at everything and asked the directors, ‘What can you cut?’”

Expenses were trimmed. Debts were consolidated, while, at the same time, the band wrote off certain bad debts they were owed. New cooperative ventures were undertaken with outside firms. For example a new joint venture with an Alma forestry firm is expected to produce profits to pay down debts at community corporations.

“New projects improve our image with the banks and with government agencies,” Gull said. “In the long term, we have to create new businesses and new opportunities in order to keep our youth in the communities. I always say we are creating a new Winnipeg in Montreal. We need to give our young people hope and opportunities here at home.”

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