Indigenous Business at The Heart of Industry

No mention of the oil sands, or really any Canadian resource, or achievement is possible without Indigenous communities.

They are original to this land, the rest are settlers. Long before the oil sands, the fur trade thrived in the region, thanks to our Indigenous peoples. And ever since they have worked diligently in subsequent industries. It should then come as no surprise that Indigenous businesses are at the heart of local industry.

Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association (NAABA)

A well-known steward of Indigenous businesses, NAABA — The Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association — is a non-profit that “seeks to be the voice of Indigenous business in our region,” explains Michelle Toner, NAABA Executive Director.

“We want to create an environment that promotes the success and engagement of Indigenous entrepreneurs in our region. We ensure that businesses that receive the Certified Full Aboriginal Business designation are majority-owned and controlled by an individual that is First Nation, Métis or Inuit. The control piece is very important as we see it as a means to ensure Indigenous entrepreneurs are growing their capacity in the economy.”

NAABA had 257 members last year and is in the process of renewing members this year. The group provides opportunities for members to “connect, network and build relationships with industry partners, the municipal, provincial and federal government. We want to ensure that our Indigenous entrepreneurs are highlighted, celebrated and acknowledged for their expertise, their capacity and their generosity in the community,”1 adds Toner, who has been with NAABA since February 2020.

To that end, she continues, NAABA endeavours to level the economic playing field and to ensure that Indigenous businesses are positioned to successfully bid and secure contracts for the growth and development of their business.

“We actively work with industry and government to introduce our members to their procurement decision-makers. Currently, we are in the process of engaging with our membership to gather data regarding the development of our shared services pilot program which will provide administrative services that will support the organizational structure of our business (example, marketing and communications, booking keeping and accounting, as well as human resources). These have yet to be determined as we are in the developmental stages. We are also working closely with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) in the development of their Indigenous procurement policy which is in line with Call 92 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action.”

Call 92 asks the “corporate sector in Canada to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework and to apply its principles, norms, and standards to corporate policy and core operational activities involving Indigenous peoples and their lands and resources.”



This brings us to the challenges faced by Indigenous businesses. From the obvious systemic racism to the covert stereotypes – the struggle for equality and equity is ongoing for the Indigenous Peoples. According to The Conference Board of Canada, which frames the unique challenges and opportunities for Indigenous Entrepreneurship in Canada’s northern and remote communities, June 15, 2020 Primer “Indigenous Entrepreneurship in Northern and Remote Canada” by Darren Gresch and Candice Shaw, “there were 54,255 self-employed Indigenous peoples in Canada in 2016. However, there is still no definitive measure of Indigenous entrepreneurial activity.”

The authors go on to add the reason for the obstacle to gauging entrepreneurial activity is “due to the difficulty of collecting data on-reserve. However, according to Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census, 54,255 Indigenous Canadians (15 years of age and older) reported being self-employed. Of these, Métis made up 53.2 per cent of the Indigenous self-employed population, followed by First Nations at 41.4 per cent, and Inuit at 1.8 per cent.”

The report goes on to mention the three major challenges faced by Indigenous entrepreneurs are: financial obstacles, socioeconomic and infrastructure constraints, and cultural considerations.

The most common financial challenges are “insufficient capital, unsatisfactory credit, and unfavourable valuations. In response to these challenges, Indigenous entrepreneurs often rely on personal savings where available. They also rely on suboptimal sources of funding, such as high-interest loans that lock people into unfavourable terms.”

Socioeconomic and infrastructure constraints feature the difficulty in accessing education and lower numeracy and literacy scores for Indigenous students. Lack of health and social services coupled with higher rates of poverty among Indigenous communities stand in the way of entrepreneurial success.

Furthermore, cultural considerations have to do with “unique linguistic, social, cultural, and historical factors, as well as institutional structures. For example, linguistic minorities are less likely to attract investment or venture capital. There can also be incompatibilities between Indigenous cultural values and mainstream entrepreneurial culture.”

These are just the tip of the iceberg, Toner says many obstacles related to Indigenous businesses are related to the Indian Act.

“Section 89 of the Indian Act prohibits use of reserve land as collateral – banks are reluctant to provide loans if assets cannot be seized in case of default. On many reserves, except some that have developed self-government agreements, the house may be owned but the land is not – therefore it cannot be sold – which makes it impossible to build up equity in your home, as is possible for non-Indigenous people. Even on those reserves where homes can be owned, there is a disparity between the equity in a house on a reserve compared to a house not on a reserve.”

That’s a good segue into systemic Indigenous racial discrimination.

Toner continues, “Federal government policies put in place by Canada’s founding fathers created many of the issues and challenges Indigenous Peoples still live with today and contribute to the negative attitudes towards Indigenous Peoples and their businesses. Enduring stereotypes and an underlying misconception that Indigenous culture is counterintuitive to good business strategies are inhibitors to Indigenous entrepreneurs. There is also the balance of walking in two worlds. Staying true to traditions and cultures and navigating a colonial economy that could allow you to be very successful from a financial standpoint.”

In addition, “starting a business in a rural area can be more difficult due to lack of reliable Internet. This isn’t the case for those living off-reserve or in an urban area but for those living in our rural communities, this can be a reality. In addition access to supplies depending on your business is not as easy when you are living in a fly-in fly-out community,” she adds.


Community Leaders

You’d be remiss to think pointing out challenges means a picture of doom and gloom. Local Indigenous businesses are national leaders – names like the Bouchier Group, The Fort McKay Group of Companies, Golosky, Tuccaro, and many more are synonymous with phenomenal success. In fact, you’ll meet many outstanding business leaders in Below the Surface as you continue reading. Later in this article, we’ll introduce you to two unusual suspects – business leaders who are making a mark on the community – both their own – and the one at large.

Toner notes, “NAABA members provide direct service to the oil sands industry and work day in and day out with oil producers. Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo is home to some of the most successful Indigenous businesses in the country. They are an integral part of our oil and gas industry.”

“In terms of contributing to our community, one only needs to take a look at who the major sponsors are of many of our events in town. In 2019 at a previous AGM it was determined that over 30 per cent of all donations to Keyano College were provided by Indigenous businesses. In addition, the Northern Lights Health Foundation reported $1,137,500 of their Gratitude Campaign came from full Aboriginal members of NAABA. These are only two examples. Whether it is the Food Festival or combative sports, local sports teams or the food bank, time and time again you will see support led by Indigenous business.”

“NAABA is proud of its entrepreneurs and the impact they have in our community through their significant contributions. Indigenous business leaders are our community leaders and there is a great deal to be learned from their experience and wisdom both from a traditional perspective as well as a colonial business perspective. NAABA events are open to the public. We encourage the community to join us when we gather, to learn more about the skills and capacities of our Indigenous entrepreneurs and what opportunities might be available to work with these amazing companies.”

Athabasca Tribal Council (ATC)

Athabasca Tribal Council, which provides essential services to the five First Nations within the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo also provides employment and training services to members.

May-Britt Jensen, Director of Employment and Training for ATC has been with the organization for two years. She shares more on how ATC assists.

“We line up an employer prior to starting a training program with support from the Government of Alberta. And, work with employers to hire clients. At the moment we are seeing a high need for security guards for COVID traffic control in retails stores and onsite. As well, there are many employment opportunities in the early learning childcare sector.”

She adds, nowadays some of the in-demand programs for training are: the Haul Truck Program delivered by Keyano College, GRIP Project – Greater Regional Indigenous Project for entry-level position site contractors, Class 1, Class 2 and Class 4 driver training, as well as upskilling.

“The Indigenous people have long been here, before industry. They should be part of the region’s growth and opportunities available here,” she notes.

Commenting on the challenges faced by the Indigenous population when it comes to training, Jensen says, transportation is number one.

“If you live in the outlying areas, and you work in the northern communities, there are no buses. That is a major challenge.”



Derantech Joint Venture Group

Owned by Mike Deranger, a long-time Fort McMurray resident, the Derantech Joint Venture Group (DJVG) was founded in 2017. His company Derantech was started in 2003 at Suncor Firebag. Deranger is 50 per cent Dene from Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca and 50 per cent Blackfoot from Piikani Nation in southern Alberta.

The Joint Venture Group was created in collaboration with Gemini Machining, a company from Nisku. It is a partnership to create a majority Indigenous-owned company specializing in a broad range of products and services ranging from welding, machining, fabrication, to mechanical fields, to name a few, and to develop a skilled Indigenous labour force in said fields.

Derantech has 20 employees currently at Suncor base mine and Fort Hills. DJVG sees up to 50 people for various projects.

“Our focus has always been in skilled trade development, mobilizing Indigenous youth to train as apprentices and journeymen for projects. We also believe our Indigenous youth represent an untapped resource of workers that could easily alleviate the skilled trade shortage we are currently having in Canada,” shares Deranger.

“Our young Indigenous, Métis and Inuit represent the fastest-growing demographic in the country. Through social media, higher graduation rates and successful training facilities across the country they have put themselves on a level playing field making themselves a very capable, able and willing workforce,” he adds.

In fact, his passion to help Indigenous youth led to founding Sunshine Children’s Educational Society in 2007 to support local indigenous youth in education. In 2014 he founded Pathways “gathering our Nation’s youth for trades” and directed a committee to host the first annual conference in 2016 at the West Edmonton Mall, which was a resounding success.

Commenting on the challenges and opportunities faced by local Indigenous businesses, Deranger notes, “we live in a changing environment today and many things that worked in the past for Indigenous businesses no longer work. We need to adapt and make changes in every field including education, government, industry and evolving technologies. We also had some very good ideas in the past that may need to be revisited and tweaked to accommodate and provide opportunities in employment and business for our most precious resource, our Indigenous youth. This past year First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNMI) graduates of the Wood Buffalo region had an 88% graduation rate, which happens to be 33% higher than the provincial average.”

“I have always been an advocate for Indigenous youth skilled trade development. I believe our next generations will create big changes in our country. I see our people in the highest levels of government, industry and education in the next 10 years, it has already begun.”

“The reason for my focus on skilled trades is the lack of support for our failing infrastructure on the reserves across the country and as you know these were in the recent debates in our national election. If our youth were trained in the same manner as everyone else in the country we would have running water on every reserve and our communities would be more than just ditches, culverts, and broken houses. We could actually create a strong Indigenous economy and be in control of our own infrastructure development no different than any other municipality. This would provide us with the resources needed to alleviate our growing social issues including the uncovering of our children in mass graves happening now. I am glad to be able to use my platform to ask the tough questions to those in positions of authority and be a part of the important changes that are happening in our Indigenous business communities at a time when we need so much positive energy,” Deranger adds.

Medika North

A member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Robyn Villebrun is a registered nurse and President of Medika North Inc., a company that specializes in occupational health testing. Originally from Fort Smith, NWT, and Fort Chipewyan, she moved to Fort McMurray in 1998 for school from Fort Chipewyan as grade 10 was not an option available then. She founded Medika in 2016.

“I always wanted to own a business. Before I even got into nursing school, I was also accepted into business school. I was at a crossroads and had to choose a career path. I ended up choosing nursing as it was a passion, close to home and in the end, it all worked out,” recalls Villebrun.

As we speak, Medika has almost 60 healthcare personnel. At the end of a major project, the plan is to scale the numbers down. Villebrun says her group provides an essential service that will always be needed.

“Healthcare is extremely important to the oil sands’ most vital asset – their people, their employees. At Medika, we provide strategic healthcare planning, quality and professional health services and innovative solutions. We really are here for the health of people…catering to their immediate needs that are legislative compliant requirements. We are local, and proudly Indigenous offering 24/7 services.”

Commenting on challenges and opportunities in her business, she feels, “healthcare, in general, is never black and white when it comes to decisions.”

“We use a holistic approach model along with guiding principles in our decision-making regarding the health of the people we service. Therefore, complex decisions can be challenging for any healthcare professionals. However, we do have very seasoned healthcare professionals including me, and our physician to make these decisions. It’s a collaborative approach and a team effort. Being a local Indigenous business provides Medika with opportunities as we have the ability to tap into and collaborate with local networks such as NAABA and their amazing opportunities and connections. This business community is one of a kind and I’m extremely impressed with the growth and traction over the years.”

Suncor Partnership

A recent impressive announcement testament to Indigenous businesses at the heart of industry was Suncor’s signing of agreements with eight Indigenous communities in the RMWB to “acquire all of TC Energy’s 15 per cent equity interest in the Northern Courier Pipeline Limited Partnership. This historic partnership includes Suncor, three First Nations and five Métis communities who will own a 15 per cent stake in this pipeline asset with a value of approximately $1.3 billion, which will provide long-term, stable revenues that will benefit the communities for decades to come,” as per the September 16 Suncor news release.

Mark Little, President and Chief Executive Officer, Suncor Energy says in the news release:

“We’re excited to have eight new business partners in the RMWB and continue on our journey of Reconciliation with yet another opportunity for increased participation by Indigenous communities in our business. Suncor’s journey includes our commitment to learn about Indigenous culture and history with open hearts and minds, to stretch our perspectives, and build genuine relationships with Indigenous Peoples based on mutual trust and respect. We’ve heard from communities that opportunities like this are key to helping (them) thrive and we are proud to play a part in supporting their members.”

“We are thrilled to partner with our Indigenous brothers and sisters in the Wood Buffalo region to build long-term prosperity for our community and future generations. WLMG is committed to making bold decisions and to doing things differently, ensuring the best future possible for our community and our families,” notes Justin Bourque, CEO, Willow Lake Métis Group.

The Northern Courier Pipeline and associated storage facilities are located in the RMWB, connecting the Fort Hills asset to the East Tank Farm Development (ETF), another Indigenous equity partnership.

“This partnership demonstrates our ability to be a strong player at the table and will allow us to fund programs that otherwise wouldn’t be able to happen. It’s our hope that industry will follow suit and allow further opportunities for Aboriginal communities in the North to participate in ventures such as this,” enthuses Samantha Whalen, Councillor, Fort McMurray 468 First Nation.

Fostering tradition and working towards a brighter future, our Indigenous businesses are leaders and difference-makers. They have made Canada and our region stronger, and better, and for that, we will always remain grateful to our Indigenous communities. 


Fast Facts About Indigenous Communities and Energy Development in Alberta

  • Indigenous people are a growing proportion of oil and gas employment. In 2019 they made up 7.4%, up from 4.8% in 2018.
  • Young Indigenous People are among the fastest-growing demographic in Canada. Between 2006 and 2016, the Indigenous population grew at four times the rate of the non-Indigenous population, meaning that in less than five years, 350,000 Indigenous youth will be part of the workforce.
  • Indigenous suppliers in Alberta are on the rise. In 2019, there were 481 suppliers, up 82 since 2016.
  • In 2019, Indigenous companies in the Wood Buffalo region had direct business valued at $1.7B with oil sands operators (73% of the total Indigenous procurement spend by oil sands companies).
  • The highest categories of Indigenous spend in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region in 2019 were construction ($595 million) and Camps and Catering ($329 million).

Source: Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA)

Kiran Malik-Khan

Kiran Malik-Khan is a national award-winning communications specialist, freelance journalist, and social media consultant. She loves telling community stories, and is a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity, women’s rights, and multiculturalism. Got story ideas? Contact her via Twitter: @KiranMK0822.

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