In the harsh winter, after the tourists go home, many members of the Moose Deer Point First Nation collect unemployment insurance - but now they have the chance to run a modern injection molding plant, thanks to a connection with Robert Schad.
``We're happy that we have this industry,'' said Chief Ed Williams, sitting in the cafeteria at Niigon Technologies Ltd. ``The people that work here are employed, year 'round.''
Williams leads the Pottawatomi of Moose Deer Point in this isolated Georgian Bay territory about a 21/2-hour drive north of Toronto. (In Canada, they don't use the terms ``Indians'' or ``tribe''; instead, the Pottawatomi people make up a ``First Nations'' group.)
Schad, an avid outdoorsman, had a cottage in the pristine area and docked his boat there. Williams ran the marina and served as chief of the 180-person reserve.
``He bought all his gas, and we have a small variety store,'' the chief said. ``So he used to come down there on a regular basis. So I got to meet him.''
At Moose Deer Point, Schad was just another guy buying supplies, not an internationally known, millionaire machinery executive. But Williams said: ``There was something about him. He stands out in a crowd, let's put it that way.'' They got to know each other. Then around 1995, Schad asked how he could help the reserve.
``He wanted to make a contribution, was what he said,'' Williams said.
Schad's interest was further sparked by ... car trouble. His car broke down in the remote area, and a few young fellows helped him to get it running again. Their initiative impressed Schad. And yet the reserve was losing young people who left to find jobs.
Niigon began molding parts in late 2001. The closest molder is in the nearest big city, Barrie, about an hour's drive south.
``[Schad] is the only individual in this country who has made this sort of investment in a business in an aboriginal community in Canada. It has not been done before,'' said Niigon's general manager, Bob Dickson. Forward-thinking is what Niigon is all about; the word means ``looking to the future'' in Ojibway, the native language.
The molding plant, wholly owned by the First Nation, got financial assistance from the federal government and from the province of Ontario. The Factory Planning Group at Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. designed the 46,000-square-foot building, and managed the construction.
The Schad Foundation kicked in money for the project - making Niigon not just a plastics factory, but a comprehensive plan to make Moose Deer Point a model for an environmentally sustainable community. Guelph University worked with the First Nation to conduct a detailed inventory of animal and plant life. According to Chief Williams, when the researchers found a special type of salamander, the factory site was moved to its present location.
The factory itself looks much like other Husky buildings, with natural landscaping and a few ponds. But those ponds actually are a bio-filtration system that naturally treats waste generated by Niigon. Husky also claims Niigon has Canada's largest industrial installation of solar cells.
Niigon employs 12 and runs five Husky Hylectric presses and two of its Index PET preform machines. With just a dozen employees, the plant runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Small crews of just a few people work 12-hour shifts.
Obviously, this is one lean operation. ``You need to automate, automate, automate, automate,'' Dickson said. ``You hear it from Robert. It's true. Speed wins.''
But Niigon faces other challenges. In a just-in-time age, why would a customer want its molding done way up on Georgian Bay? Dickson said the company can be competitive, but it has to pick its niches. That means small, high-end components for automotive and electronics markets. ``So shipping will not be an issue here,'' he said.
Niigon molds nylon gears for cars. The customer plant, in northern Ontario, previously had sourced that work in Michigan. Niigon also molds plastic clips used to hang tomato plants in greenhouses, for an Israeli company called Pascal.
Closer to home, Niigon is working to get PET preform molding work for a new water-bottling plant just a few miles away at the Wahta First Nation in the Mohawk reserve. The plant now gets preforms from a supplier in Quebec.
Niigon also is working with DaimlerChrysler AG to initiate in Canada a version of the National Minority Supplier Development Council, to be called the Canadian Aborginal and Visible Minority Council.
Dickson said Niigon aims to be more than just a molding factory. ``We want to create opportunities here that give people knowledge. It's not just jobs. It's the knowledge. So they can learn and it's transportable,'' he said. Employees take classes at Humber College in Toronto. They also undergo extensive training at Husky in Bolton, Ontario.
The goal is to employ about 50 people and mold parts on 16-18 presses.
The provincial government gave its Ontario Aboriginal Partnerships Recognition Award in 2002 to Niigon, Husky and the Schad Foundation.
``I think what we're doing is proving that innovation can take place in rural areas. It can work,'' Dickson said.