‘Social enterprise’ in Slave Lake leaves its mark

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

A public company which started as a ‘social enterprise’ in Slave Lake in 1969 has closed. However, many of the buildings it built are still being used in Slave Lake.

In early November 2020, SpruceLand Properties Inc. dissolved, says the Daily Commercial News. “The corporation, formerly Spruce Land Developments Ltd., was founded with the construction of a multi-family project in Slave Lake, Alta. in 1969.”

Before the company was Spruce Land Developments it was called Slave Lake Developments (SLD).

“First of all we were a town with no houses,” says Slave Laker Dennis Barton, a company founder and shareholder, “and nobody had money enough to build anything.” Slave Lake had a population of around 4,000 people “scattered all through the bush.”

Barton and his wife Wendy owned Barton’s Drugs.

At the time, Barton was the Chamber of Commerce president, he says. He’d been involved with the Northern Alberta Development Council.

Preston Manning and his father, former Alberta premier Ernest Manning, had a consulting business.

Barton had read Ernest’s ‘White Paper’ on social realignment. Barton and some other locals set up a meeting with Ernest to see about starting this type of business in Slave Lake.

During the meeting, says Barton, “Ernest called Preston in,” and told him to work with the group to start a company.

SLD started “way back in the ‘60s,” says Preston. A paper had come out that identified seven regions in Alberta that were not prospering. The south shore of Lesser Slave Lake was one of them. The commercial fishing had collapsed. Also, the mink ranches along the south shore were in “dire straights.” In the early ‘60s, Slave Lake was “borderline whether it would survive as a town.”

There are two main theories of how to approach economic equality, says Manning. At the time and now the most common is to tax the rich and give the money to the poor. However, this approach was to “better distribute the tools” of economic development such as property rights, access to capital, esp. “micro-capital”, and training, cheap mobility, and markets.

SLD had a dual objective, says Preston. To build projects with social value and to pay dividends to the shareholders. The reason SLD was a public company instead of a private one was to make sure it was owned by as many people as possible.

The goal was to sell $100,000 worth of shares, says Preston. Even at the time, this was a very small public company.

The sale of shares in Slave Lake was met with “a fair amount of suspicion,” says Preston. Many had never owned a share in anything. It took about 18 months to sell all of the shares. There was also a rule that no one individual or entity could own more than 10 per cent of the shares. Sawridge First Nation was the only group that bought the full amount.

The oilfield was starting to work in the area, says Preston. However, there was very limited housing.

The first project was Woodland Place, which was 44 town houses and two apartment buildings.

In order to build this, SLD had to raise another $100,000, says Preston. To do this, the company asked four oilfield companies for an investment. They were willing to invest in charity or real estate, but were suspicious of ‘social enterprise.’ However, the companies did invest.

“It (the oilfield investment) went around twice,” says Preston. A few years later, SLD held a banquet for the companies in Calgary. They paid each company a dividend and returned the initial investment. This caused a bit of a problem for the companies, as they had already written off the investment. So they asked if there were any charities in Slave Lake in need of money. At the time, the seniors were fundraising to build the Pioneer drop-in centre, so that’s where the money ended up.

The second project was the SLD Building, says Preston. There wasn’t a provincial building or court in Slave Lake. Instead of having the government build one, SLD convinced the province to give it a lease, which allowed it to get financing. The financing for the SLD Building was the first major loan north of Edmonton.

In 1987, SLD started looking at expanding into Athabasca, says Barton, who still has all of the shareholder meeting minutes from the company.

“All the directors, even up until ‘93, they were all locals,” says Barton. “That’s 25 years.”

SLD is an example of what can happen when people invest in the “tools of wealth creation and stick with it,” says Preston.

Around 2015 or 16, SLD sold all of its properties, and paid the money to the shareholders, says Preston. The payout was around $55 million. Many of the shareholders were the original investors or their dependents.

Many of the SLD founders and early board members have now died including Leo Boisvert, Sawridge First Nation chief Walter Twinn, Joe Mouallem.

Both Barton and Preston left SLD for politics. Barton became the MLA for Lesser Slave Lake (1972 to 1975). Preston went into federal politics, formed the Reform Party of Canada, and was the Leader of the Opposition.

Dennis and wife Wendy Barton in 2017.
Woodland Place – Slave Lake Developments’ first project and the first apartment building in Slave Lake.
SLD Building, kitty corner from the post office in Slave Lake. It was the second building built by Slave Lake Developments.

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