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Selling more than trees.

Opportunities are mushrooming as Aboriginal communities embrace Non Timber Forest Products (NTFP) as one of their future economic engines.

Edible mushrooms, blueberries, wild rice and medicinal plants found in Northern Ontario forests were highlighted as potential First Nations business opportunities at a conference series entitled "Under the Canopy" March 30-31 at the Travelodge Hotel Airlane in Thunder Bay.

NTFP producers, experts, government representatives and academics were brought together to form a strategic long-term plan to advance Aboriginal control within the NTFP sector. The idea is to build on existing opportunities while ensuring a sustainable industry, Henry Wetelainen, co-chair of the Aboriginal Forest Coalition, says.

The coalition's role will be to gather information from various Metis and First Nations groups on how they see NTFPs fitting into their economic future. After the strategies are developed and approved, the next phase will establish funding support for initiatives longer than one year. That means organizations such as the Ontario Metis Aboriginal Association and the Ontario Aboriginal Forestry Coalition will have to negotiate with the government.

But it is baby steps for now. Entrepreneurs within communities have to be supported in order to build a market base, he says. It may start with just one entrepreneur, but many entrepreneurs become employers, Wetelainen says.

Scandinavian and European countries are far ahead of the game.

Finlanders tap birch trees to make health drinks and sell them worldwide.

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"Their industry is worth about $240 million a year," he says. "Why are we not doing that?"

Canadians import blueberry tea from Poland.

"Why are we not doing that?"

Canadians need to gain market share and the government needs to help, Wetelainen says. The Wabigoon First Nation community did a study on blueberry wine, but development halted due to lack of funding support.

"(Governments) have to commit to a long-term process and focus resources and energy into it."

As the Northern Ontario population shrinks, so too will available jobs, he says. Technology will take over more of the repetitive work, leaving Northerners to embrace new ways of looking at forest production.

We have a huge talent base here and entrepreneurs are the ones who will create the industry. But they need the marketing dollars behind them, Wetelainen says.

Access to NTFPs are regulated under the Ministry of Natural Resources. Approximately 23 pieces of legislation are currently managing the access to lands. It is said that a new strategy is being developed for NTFPs by the government, but there's no word yet.

By KELLY LOUISEIZE

Northern Ontario Business
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL REPORT: THUNDER BAY; Non Timber Forest Products
Author:Louiseize, Kelly
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:May 1, 2005
Words:420
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