Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
John Bernard keeps readjusting his retirement plans.
Still, officials with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) felt now was the right time to honour the member of the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation in New Brunswick.
The CCAB has announced that Bernard will be this year’s recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award, annually presented to a First Nations, Inuit or Métis person whose leadership in business has made a major contribution over a number of years to the economic and social wellbeing of Indigenous people.
“I am deeply honoured and excited to have won the CCAB Lifetime Achievement Award,” Bernard said. “I have attended a number of past CCAB recipient award shows in Toronto.”
In a different time, Bernard would be presented with his award in person as well, however, because of the COVID-19 pandemic this year’s CCAB awards show will be held virtually on March 31.
“As for winning it virtually, my only regret is I love a party and would have loved to have gone to this year’s CCAB award show with my family,” he said.
Bernard, who turns 60 this June, earned plenty of praise earlier in his career with his dogged education of the federal government in the need to increase Indigenous business procurement of federal contracts. The Canadian government is the largest purchaser of goods and services in the country.
Bernard also founded a company called Donna Cona in 1996. This Indigenous informatics business continues to provide opportunities to Indigenous people working in the high-tech sector.
Though he previously lived in the nation’s capital, Bernard moved back to his First Nation in 2008 where he has launched a number of successful businesses.
“When I moved back to my community my plan was to retire when I turned 55,” Bernard said. “I was having so much fun working and starting businesses that I since then changed it to 60 and now changed it to 65.”
Despite his ongoing business activities, Bernard, in a sense, feels he has retired.
“Today, I realize that if you consider retiring to be to stop working and enjoying life then I guess I have been retired for some time now and will continue to always run and start businesses until I no longer can,” he said.
Tabatha Bull, the president and CEO of the CCAB, believes Bernard is very worthy of this latest recognition.
“John Bernard has been a champion of economic reconciliation for decades,” she said.
Bull is also pleased to see he is continuing his work in his First Nation.
“He continues to secure a promising future through the economic benefits of multiple business ventures,” she said. “His impact on Indigenous inclusion and job creation in the high-tech sector is a major step forward for Indigenous prosperity across Canada.”
Bernard knew his Ottawa-based company Donna Cona would be successful. That’s because it was a spinoff from another similar company he was a partner in was which was sold in 1999.
“The thing about Donna Cona as an Aboriginal firm is that I am a IT business man that happens to be Aboriginal as opposed to the great many IT Aboriginal businesses that started because they were Aboriginal,” he said.
After moving back to his First Nation, Bernard started an entertainment centre that featured 35 slot machines. That centre has since expanded to become the Grey Rock Entertainment Center, which includes the Grey Rock Casino, with as many as 400 slot machines, a pair of restaurants and a 10,000 sq. ft. entertainment and bingo area.
Other businesses Bernard has started since 2008 are Grey Rock Motosports (GRM) and Grey Rock Adventure Tours (GRAT).
The GRM is a dealership that sells items including motorcycles, snowmobiles, dirt bikes and ATVs.
The GRAT was launched last year, but its start has been pushed back to this year because of the pandemic. This business will offer adventure tours via snowmobile and ATV trails, not only in New Brunswick but into Quebec as well.
Bernard is happy to see his businesses are also benefitting many community members.
That’s because several First Nations in New Brunswick, including Madawaska Maliseet, negotiated tax agreements with the provincial government to receive a significant portion of provincial taxes businesses collect on reserve.
“As a result of these agreements the community benefits from all businesses created on the reserve,” he said. “My community has collected millions of tax dollars from my businesses over the last 12 years which I am very proud of.”
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.