First Nations businesses growing with Saskatchewan resource boom

Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs embark on joint venture that provides services to the energy industry and trains workers for oilpatch jobs

Ed Standinghorn, Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs director of industry relations, says one of the main aims of his group is to break down barriers to entering the workforce for First Nations members | Handout

By Joe Ralko

A three-year agreement involving the Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs (BATC) and Site Energy Services Ltd. (SES) is the latest example of how the boom in Saskatchewan’s resource sector is helping the growth of First Nations businesses.

First Alliance Energy Services is the name of the new entity expected to generate revenue in the millions of dollars from work in the oilpatch, say BATC and SES officials.

“We felt it was a really good fit for us,” said Ed Standinghorn, director of industry relations with BATC. “In addition to providing a range of services in the oilfield, we also have a training module getting our clients work ready. For example, we help them get their driver’s licences, complete their GED and so on.”

He said the new joint venture is a natural progression of the projects BATC has under its belt.

“Work we do is nationally recognized,” Standinghorn said.

Greg Cousins, vice-president, southern region, for Site, said in a letter to current and potential customers that his company provides management services for First Alliance, including safety and quality programs, accounting services and support services.

“Utilizing the services of First Alliance Energy Services is one way in which our clients can honour the commitments of industry and government to transfer some of the benefits of resource and infrastructure development to the aboriginal stakeholders most affected by development on their traditional lands,” Cousins said.

Meanwhile, the billion-dollar expansions and a greenfield project in Saskatchewan’s potash industry are being aided by a four-year-old limited partnership called PAFHQ Construction.

PAFHQ Construction is a First Nations limited partnership in southern Saskatchewan comprising File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council Developments LP (50%), Points Athabasca (17%), and Graham Construction (33%).

Created in 1999, Points Athabasca is another partnership involving Graham and a development corporation representing seven primarily Dene First Nation communities in northern Saskatchewan.

PAFHQ  is doing work at the $4.1 billion K+S Legacy potash mine under construction 50 kilometres north of Moose Jaw and the $2.9 billion expansion of the PotashCorp mine at Rocanville, in east-central Saskatchewan.

BATC is composed of six First Nations located around North Battleford in central Saskatchewan. It calls its 8,500 band members “clients.”

BATC’s initiatives are directly tied into Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s National Child Benefit Reinvestment (NCBR). NCBR has been an integral part of financing for BATC programs. NCBR provides community-based support and services with five on-reserve activity areas: child care, child nutrition, support for parents, home-to-work transition and cultural enrichment.

Standinghorn said that on-reserve members often face various challenges such as lack of work qualification and experience, lack of literacy, mental health issues, addictions, lack of child care, limited transitional financial support and culture shock in the workplace or educational institutions.

“The chiefs want the people to become self-sufficient and to get away from social assistance dependency,” he said. “The chiefs’ focus is on the reduction of social assistance clients for the reserves by 5% per year, so we have developed programs to achieve this benchmark.”

BATC, so far, has created a comprehensive assessment of 2,400 clients.

“We don’t only have a snapshot of our communities. We invested money to determine who lives in each house, what their level of education is and most importantly what barriers they face that prevent them from entering the workforce,” he said.

“We are looking at the barriers that people are facing that stop them from entering the workforce. Our mentality and team effort is focused on our clients – our people. [They] are the priority No. 1.

“Whether it’s getting our people educated at the University of Saskatchewan or through our industry relations, our people often face culture shock because it’s often the first time they enter the workforce.”

Standinghorn is confident BATC will be able to provide the skilled workers First Alliance Energy Services will require to effectively compete in the marketplace.

BATC also has become an incubator of sorts in the First Nations business community.

Sheldon Wuttunee, who served two terms as chief of the Red Pheasant Cree First Nation and was involved in the founding of BATC, now is president of the Saskatchewan First Nations Natural Resource Centre of Excellence.

“The mandate of the centre of excellence is to serve willing First Nation communities with tools, business and industry advice for sound advancement and success. The centre of excellence encourages environmentally responsible development of the natural resources within their lands and indigenous territories,” he said.

To support its proactive approach of working with existing public and private institutions to develop training programs to help First Nations people in Saskatchewan, the centre developed a unique online presence called the Export Skills Inventory and Vendor Registration Database.

The word “Export” comes from the merging of “Excellence” in the Centre of Excellence brand and “portal” for online connectivity.

“The objective of the system is to export the human and business assets of First Nation and Métis communities into many of the large projects being developed across Saskatchewan,” Wuttunee said. “Export works to connect individuals, First Nation and Métis and non-First Nation and -Métis businesses and communities.”

Individuals can create a personal profile, enter their skills and education, have a resumé created and view select job postings.

Businesses are able to submit a vendor form that will assist in the pre-qualification assessment for future business opportunities. Communities are able to review all employment data on membership and businesses and create statistical reports.

Wuttunee estimated there are between 400 and 500 First Nation- and Metis-owned businesses operating in Saskatchewan across all sectors.