Norbert Fontaine: Breaking Barriers to Build an Indigenous Business
Norbert Fontaine has been breaking barriers from a very early age. “When I was in school, our teachers talked to us about a lot of careers—the usual things like police officer, firefighter, teacher,” he says. “But I had my eye on something really different. My dream was to be a sea captain. To be out on the ocean, sailing my own boat—that was more than just a job. It was a calling.”
A crab fisherman in Sept-Îles, in the Côte-Nord region of eastern Quebec, Norbert got his first taste of life on the ocean at the age of 15, when he was invited to replace a crew member who was sick. The thrill of the work—the adrenaline, the intense physical demands—left a deep impression. After two more trips, and his first paycheque, he knew he had found his path.
“I became a captain at the age of 20,” he notes. “It’s a very young age. I had to undergo two years of training, then complete 365 days of certified work experience. Plus you take on a big burden: when you’re a captain, you are responsible for other people’s lives. But at the end of my apprenticeship, I became one of the first Indigenous captains in Quebec. And that’s something of which I’m very proud.”
Taking on risk and building a career
Norbert is accustomed to facing risk—both on the ocean and the balance sheet. And managing that risk also forms part of his ability to break down barriers. “When I started out, I wanted to own my own boat, be in charge of my own business,” he says. “But I just couldn’t see how it was going to happen. The investment is staggering. Fishing licenses cost millions of dollars. And then there are the other costs—your boat, equipment, insurance, training, crew. How was I ever going to afford all that?”
Yet years on the ocean taught him over time to trust his instincts and not be afraid of risk. And he learned onshore, as well. As director of economic development for his community, he gained exposure to business and finance, and grew his list of contacts. By 2016, he decided he was ready. But first he had to consult his children.
“My boys are central to my business,” he explains. “When putting up the kind of capital a fishing business requires, investors are looking for continuity. It can be a dangerous occupation, and my backers wanted to know that there would be someone there to take over if something should happen to me.”
As a result, he sat his sons down and had a serious talk. He explained that he could only start his own business if they were willing to come on board—by committing to train as captains, get their licenses and learn the business. And they had to be in for the long term. They agreed, and his company, Pêcheries Norbert Fontaine inc., was born.
Overcoming systemic barriers
Establishing the company was a critical step, as it addressed financing obstacles that arise from the Indian Act. Under the Act, Indigenous people on reserve cannot use land as collateral for a mortgage, thus hampering their ability to borrow. This limitation does not apply to a corporation, however, so Norbert was able to overcome it by incorporating as a business that could access secured lending. His next step was to turn to BMO. The bank has made a priority of supporting Indigenous communities through its Indigenous Banking Unit, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and is strongly committed to helping Indigenous families and businesses thrive.
“I found a true partner in BMO,” says Norbert. “The bank had advisers who not only knew the fishing business, but who also knew Indigenous people and our needs. They saw that I was very serious about running my business: keeping a tight lid on costs, respecting my employees and always having one eye on the future. So they committed to me, and I was able to realize my dream.”
That dream involves more than just being able to fulfill his life’s calling. It includes providing for his family, preparing his own sons for their careers, and helping to grow his community. In breaking down his own barriers, Norbert is paving the way for others to break down theirs.