Cree man lead people through the flood waters.
He has been called fearless, shrewd, a visionary, a natural born leader, a contemporary shaman and the "Lee Iaccoca of the North." Billy Diamond, a legend in his own right, is now one of the first inductees into the Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame.
This induction honors Diamond's work to set up numerous and successful Cree-owned and run corporations, including CreeCo, Air Creebec, Cree Construction and Development Company Ltd., Cree Yamaha Motors, Moosonee Transportation Ltd., and Trans Arctic Shipping and Gas, just to name a few. Many have said that every business in the Cree area of Northern Quebec owes something to this visionary and vivacious businessman. But his success in business would not have been possible without his love of politics.
Born in Rupert House, now Waskaganish, in 1949, Diamond was on a path to greatness from very early in his life. At 21 he was elected Waskaganish chief and held the post from 1970 to 1976 and then again from 1988 to 1999.
He was only 22 when he took on Robert Bourassa and the Quebec government to fight the James Bay Hydro Project, which threatened to flood both Cree and Inuit traditional territories. During his fight, he helped to create the Grand Council of the Crees. Already known as the spokesman of the Crees, Diamond was the natural choice to be grand chief of the organization. Elected in 1974, he kept the position for 10 years. During this time, Diamond was chair of the Cree Regional Authority, a Cree governing body, and held that position from 1976 to 1984.
As grand chief, Diamond led the Crees of Northern Quebec to the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
"Someone had to be the peacemaker in the face of such animosity to mediate the process ... and the [Parti Quebecois] and the Crees weren't seeing eye to eye on anything. If you can get the government of Quebec to a bargaining table, it's an accomplishment in itself," Diamond once told Windspeaker.
Diamond's leadership resulted in $136 million in compensation for the loss of some of their traditional lands because of the hydro project. This set a new standard for how government deals with First Nations in Canada and it has been a model used by other First Nations across the country, leading to economic growth and prosperity for Aboriginal people.
Diamond said that his greatest achievement was his contribution to building one of Canada's strongest First Nations from one of its most impoverished.
As the senior negotiator for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) during the Constitution talks, Diamond was instrumental in putting Section 35, which recognizes Aboriginal rights, into the repatriated Constitution of 1982.
But the chief's contributions to Aboriginal rights did not end on the national stage. His visit to the Pope to fight for Aboriginal rights embarrassed the federal and Quebec governments, helping the Crees get what they wanted--self-government. Again, he set the stage for other First Nation leaders to come forward internationally. In the mid-80s to the mid-90s, Diamond participated in subcommittees of the United Nations to fight for international recognition of Indigenous people's rights.
Politics was not the only way he made the Cree strong. Diamond's wisdom and vision to set up Cree-owned businesses made a big difference. He saw the large cash settlement as seed money to start companies that would eventually lead to their financial independence. The initial settlement of $136 million is now worth billions.
Albert Diamond said his brother started as many businesses as he could. For every new business the Crees set up, Billy was at least on the board of directors, said Albert.
He turned Cree Construction from a $300 thousand a year company to a $60 million a year company in less than 15 years. Albert said that a favorite business of Billy's was the boat building company, Cree Yamaha, that he started after a tragic boating accident where four young men died. One of his most recent ventures has been a holding company set up by himself and his son, Ian. Together they run Diamond-Slyvico, a bug spray company. Billy also owns Waska Resources Inc. He was also heavily involved in his own community, and set up the Waskaganish Development Corporation.
Billy said Air Creebec was his best business decision, but the venture succeeded only after another Cree airline's attempts failed. Billy was president of Air Creebec for the first 10 years. His willingness to form partnerships was a key to his success.
"The wisdom of the chiefs at that time was 'No, we have to take the time to learn about this business guys.' And I know Billy, as the grand chief at that time, agreed with it and in fact I think he was the one that really pushed the chiefs to say 'Hey, this is the way we should be going.' And he is a real believer in joint ventures and partnerships because he was saying we need to take the time to learn this particular business or this particular industry," explained Albert, who is now Air Creebec's president.
Peter Lumby, a long-time business associate and friend of Billy's, called him a "hard-nosed businessman," who can size up a person's character in a snap. Combine that with his incredible sense of humor and his keen negotiation skills, and Billy is a powerful force at the table.
Lumby, a housing and development project planning and control consultant, said Billy also doesn't hold a grudge; he can become partners with former enemies. For example, once a thorn in the Quebec government's side, after his term as the Cree representative on the impacts of the Great Whale hydroelectric project expired, the Quebec government appointed him as their representative so he could continue to act as the committee chair. He is also a member of the Order of Quebec.
More recently, Billy was a key negotiator in 2002 with Hydro Quebec, leading to the creation of Niskamoon Corporation. This joint venture between the Crees and Hydro Quebec serves to alleviate negative impacts from hydro projects and ensures economic prosperity for Crees. He is now Niskamoon's president.
Billy is acting as an advisor to National Chief Phil Fontaine on the AFN's efforts to set up a national Aboriginal housing authority. He is very knowledgeable in this area partly due to his involvement in the Cree Housing Authority--the first housing corporation in Canada where First Nations had control over housing and infrastructure.
Billy Diamond realized very early on that education was where opportunities for his people lay, said Lumby. He was a founder of the Cree School Board, which is now one of the country's largest educational bodies for First Nations.
Diamond is also a deeply spiritual man and he works tirelessly doing volunteer work with children, promoting wellness through the church and community.
With greatness comes sacrifice, and in Billy's case, it was with his family. As a baby, Philip, Billy's youngest son, developed gastroenteritis and other diseases due to poor sanitary conditions in the impoverished Cree community. Philip continues to suffer to this day with mental illness. This pushed Billy to fight for his people, a fight that, ironically, often took him away from his family. Fortunately, time has allowed Billy and his family to become closer. Ian, his eldest son, considers Billy to be more than a father, He is also a mentor. For Lumby, Billy is one of the great leaders that rose in the 1970s.
"That generation of leaders were just incredible. They were the ones that set the stage and now people across the country are benefiting from the work that they did, and Billy's one of those," said Lumby.
Billy's induction into the Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame is his second award for his work in Aboriginal business; he received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1997.
"Guys like him don't come around all that often and sometimes, especially in the Native world, sometimes you tend to forget those people," said Ian. Many believe Billy Diamond is one person in Canadian history that people should never forget.
By Deirdre Tombs
Windspeaker Staff Writer