2019 IW Winners

Aboriginal Leadership - Taykwa Tagamou Nation

Tina Sheridan

Tina Sheridan

In 2015, after five years of hard work, Tina Sheridan’s fledgling catering and camp services business, CreeQuest, was taking off.

Two years previously, she had signed a groundbreaking partnership agreement with the foodservice company Aramark. Now, the partnership had landed a major contract with Ontario Power Generation, serving the crew building the Peter Sutherland Sr. Generating Station on the Abitibi River.

Yet, her future remained far from secure. “I had just signed a major deal, but it took six months to get my first paycheque, so …I had to sell my car so I could pay my rent at the time,” Sheridan said. “Nobody knew that. That’s the reality of building a business. It’s not easy.” But if anyone could make it work, it would be Sheridan, who’s no stranger to adversity.

She survived the Sixties Scoop – the government practice of removing Indigenous children from their families to place them in foster care or adopt them into non-Indigenous households – only to witness tragedy steal the lives of her family members through alcohol and drug abuse.

In her mid-30s, as a single mother of two teenagers, Sheridan decided she wanted to follow a different path.

“I didn’t want to be that story,” said Sheridan, a member of the Taykwa Tagamou Nation, a Cree community whose traditional territory spans the land in the Moose River Basin, in northeastern Ontario. “I wanted to be a better story, and I wanted to talk about the successes of our Indigenous women and not the struggle.”

After earning her high school diploma at the age of 33, Sheridan enrolled in a community service program, where she alighted on the idea of catering as a way to earn an income.

Initially serving traditional Indigenous cuisine at small gatherings in the community, her reputation grew and the service blossomed.

Titling CreeQuest as a social enterprise, the CreeQuest/ Aramark partnership is unique: Sheridan is paid a percentage of profit to use her knowledge and contacts to source contract work, as well as ensure First Nation content is upheld and active. Aramark contributes its equipment, experience, and business development support. A percentage of profits from the venture is distributed to the communities impacted by the projects.

In the past two and a half years, the partnership has contributed more than $320,000 to a variety of cultural and spiritual programs, youth recreation projects, and Elder programs.

“When these big projects come to our community, it sets us up to compete against each other for jobs and training, but also for business opportunities,” Sheridan said. “I don’t understand why we can’t work together to all benefit from a big project.”

In 2018, CreeQuest added a new division, CQ Industrial Laundry, which is owned by Sheridan and currently has one contract providing laundry services to Detour Lake gold mine – a direct example of how a successful partnership can assist in subcontracting opportunities.

CreeQuest and Aramark employ more than 120 people at the mine site, with the goal to employ majority Indigenous workers, and Sheridan believes there is room for growth, in the laundry division particularly, which employs 12 people.

Additional locations, expanded services, and added shifts are all up for consideration. CQ Laundry recently added in-house transportation services for linen.

If she can impart any wisdom to other women looking to succeed in business, it’s to surround themselves with supportive people and be prepared to work really hard – often with little reward.

“Focus on your triumphs and focus on your successes, and with big challenges that come along, I’ve always used it as a learning tool,” Sheridan advised. “Be confident: walk in that room and own it, and know that you have value.”