Aboriginal entrepreneurs discuss successes, challenges and the reshaping of Alberta’s economic landscape
Ascending to new heights
by Benjamin Freeland | Photography by Phillip Chin
The story of Alberta’s spectacular rate of growth is a complex tale featuring a diverse cast of characters, most of whom have received scant attention in the mainstream media. It is also a story with a number of intriguing subplots, one of which has been the ascendancy of the province’s original inhabitants within the mainstream economy. For a people who remained largely excluded from the economic mainstream a generation ago, the transformation of aboriginal business in Alberta over the past two decades has been nothing short of spectacular.
Nowhere is this transformation more apparent than in the province’s oil and gas sector. Scarcely a blip on the radar screen a generation ago, aboriginal-owned companies operating in the oil sands earned more than $2.6 billion over the past 10 years, and by 2007 the value of contracts between Alberta oil sands companies and aboriginal companies stood at an estimated at $606 million. Elsewhere, First Nations and Métis people are carving out important niches across a wide swath of the economy, from renewable energy, manufacturing and transportation to media and communications and consulting services.
The story of the aboriginal business ascendancy in Alberta began in earnest in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when emboldened First Nations and Métis leaders began demanding consultation and reasonable accommodation from oil and gas and mining firms before permitting resource extraction on their traditional land, ushering in a new era of partnerships. Since then, aboriginal-owned companies have begun assuming much more prominent roles within such partnerships.
“At one time, the oil and gas companies might have just rented their pickup trucks, their chainsaws and their snowmobiles,” explains Mel Benson, a former Imperial Oil Ltd. and ExxonMobil Corp. executive from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation and a current member of Suncor Energy Inc.’s board of directors. “Today aboriginal people want a much bigger piece of the action. They want to be able to develop the roads. They want to own pipeline companies. It’s changed completely.”
In spite of the impressive breakthroughs in recent years, perception still lags behind reality and aboriginal people continue to struggle with negative stereotypes and anachronistic attitudes. “There’s still a stigma attached to working with First Nations,” says William Big Bull, former energy manager for Piikani Utilities Corporation in southwestern Alberta and current board member for the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association. “They come to us when they need us and they don’t when they don’t have to.”
Mel Benson concurs. “Some of the corporate world views our people as extra work, as high maintenance,” he says. “That’s a struggle. But what is changing is that aboriginal people are developing aboriginal businesses that can compete with anyone. And when our people get to start from an equal starting line, they do succeed.”
Alberta’s burgeoning aboriginal business sector today represents an innumerable cast of unsung heroes in communities across the province. Here we profile five standouts.
Mel Benson, Mel E. Benson Management Services Inc.
While aboriginal business has grown significantly in Alberta over the past decade, there is a handful of success stories that date back much further. One such story is Mel Benson, a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in the Lac La Biche area whose career in the petroleum sector has seen him take on virtually every role within the industry.
After a long career with Imperial Oil in Canada and with ExxonMobil out of its Houston office, Benson currently presides over his own international management consulting firm in Calgary, Mel E. Benson Management Services Inc., while also serving as a director and owner of Tenax Energy Inc., director of Ceda International Corp. and director of the Fort McKay Group of Companies. Elected to Suncor’s board of directors in April 2000, he currently chairs the company’s environment, health and safety committee and is also a member of their human resources and compensation committee.
Benson’s achievements in the oil and gas industry have won him numerous awards, including the 2003 National Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Red Cross Service Award, the Alberta Aboriginal Recognition Award and the Business Development Award. “I’ve been very fortunate,” says Benson, looking back at his career. “But I’ve also been tenacious as hell. My motto is ‘subtle pressure applied relentlessly.’”
Benson says that when given the same opportunities as anybody else, aboriginal business people have few barriers to success, but he concedes that the playing field remains far from equal. “There are still fundamental challenges because not all communities have equal opportunity in their backyards. And there’s the challenge of getting aboriginal people into school so as to allow them to participate in the mainstream economy. And participation in the mainstream economy is our only hope as aboriginal people.”
The key to accessing the economic mainstream, he says, is the fostering of a bicultural mindset among young aboriginal people, in which traditional practices go hand-in-hand with higher education and a modern mindset. He also recognizes the need for people like him to serve as mentors and coaches to an up-and-coming generation of aboriginal entrepreneurs, which he does in his role as member of the board of governors of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and director of the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board. He’s also an active member of several charitable and aboriginal organizations, including Hull Child and Family Services, the Council for Advancement of Native Development Officers and the Canadian Aboriginal Professional Association.
“We need to get our success stories out there,” he says. “People who have been successful need to go out there and encourage new business and influence educational institutions, corporations and corporate and aboriginal leaders alike.”
Marie Delorme, The Imagination Group
While aboriginal business in Alberta remains largely synonymous with natural resources and rural regions, a growing number of aboriginal business people have become increasingly prominent in the province’s major cities, a trend that reflects the province’s growing urban aboriginal population. And many of these entrepreneurs are finding new and creative ways to promote their heritage and be profitable at the same time.
Marie Delorme, founder and president of the Imagination Group in Calgary, is one such entrepreneur. A Métis originally from Manitoba, Delorme founded Imagination in 1999 as a gifting company specializing in aboriginal art-themed corporate gift items such as clothing, crystal, promotional products and art cards. The Imagination Group includes a consulting firm as well as an aboriginal art registry service called Authentically Aboriginal. Launched this year, the registry enables First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists across the country to protect their copyrighted work by registering it as authentic aboriginal art.
She has won several awards, including the Alberta Chamber of Commerce Business Award of Distinction, the Alberta Centennial Medal, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce Salute to Excellence Award and the Métis Nation Entrepreneurial Leadership Award.
Delorme contends that the business world is a particularly good place for young and ambitious aboriginal people, particularly in a business-friendly province like Alberta. “I believe that we are seeing more and more aboriginal people choosing entrepreneurialism,” she notes. “As we look for opportunities to be fully engaged in the Canadian economy, it’s a good route. I think the biggest issue our people are facing in business is lack of access to financing, and that has nothing to do with being aboriginal – that’s more of a national issue for entrepreneurs than a cultural one.”
She does admit, however, that aspiring First Nations and Métis business people still suffer from a lack of role modelling. “When I was building my career in the business world, I didn’t see anyone who was modelling the way,” she says. “There were hardly any women, let alone any aboriginal women.”
The answer, she argues, is for successful aboriginal entrepreneurs like herself to better broadcast the fact that times have changed. “If you take the view that it’s not a friendly climate for aboriginal people in business, you’re not going to achieve success,” she asserts. “If you can imagine it, you can do it. This is the message that has to get out there.”
Nicole Robertson, Muskwa Productions & Consulting
One of the most oft-heard complaints within aboriginal communities in Alberta and elsewhere is that good news stories about aboriginal people do not get nearly the exposure in the media that the all-too-familiar bad news stories get. The answer to this problem is simple, argues Nicole Robertson, a Rocky Cree originally from Sandy Bay in northeastern Saskatchewan and the founder and communications advisor for Muskwa Productions & Consulting. “You have to be a salesperson to the media. I like to think of myself as a spin doctor as I plug our stories in the media. That and it takes our people and others outside of the community to start doing it too.”
A veteran TV journalist and producer with CBC, CTV, Global and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Robertson founded Muskwa Productions & Consulting in 2001 for the purpose of helping First Nations organizations, political leaders and other clients design their media strategies. Based in the Tsuu T’ina Nation located southwest of Calgary, Muskwa’s list of high-profile clients has included the Assembly of Treaty Chiefs of Alberta, the Aboriginal Human Resource Council, the Alberta Indigenous Enterprise Corporation and the Assembly of First Nations, as well as a number of other clients.
Aboriginal voices, Robertson says, are still conspicuously missing from the mainstream media, resulting in a skewed picture of aboriginals. “People still don’t see us as business people,” she stresses. “Organizations like the Alberta Indigenous Enterprise Corporation and individual First Nations are working to change that, and it’s my job to communicate that to mainstream society.”
She adds, “Change is occurring, but poverty is still a serious matter across our treaty territories and traditional lands, and now is the time to settle land claims and to look at consultation, accommodation and compensation in this great country of ours. Also, there are issues that [the mainstream media] hasn’t even begun to look at, in terms of the historical injustices that have occurred in Canada. In order to heal from the past, there needs to be reconciliation of the things that have happened to our people; therefore, there’s validation and we can move forward and learn to co-exist together as human beings.”
Robertson also highlights the importance of breaking down barriers between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people as a catalyst for social justice, noting that her colleagues represent a mix of different backgrounds. While widespread acknowledgement of the issues she seeks to bring to the fore remains elusive, recognition of her own efforts has proven more forthcoming, with the Alberta Chamber of Commerce bestowing her with the 2009 Aboriginal Woman Entrepreneur Award of Distinction. For Robertson, accolades such as this represent a validation of the causes she champions through her work. “It’s a huge boost and honour,” she says. “Being recognized puts things into perspective. It means that the things I do are really making a difference for my family, my community and the world.”
Dale Monaghan, Mikisew Group of Companies
One of the most significant recent developments within aboriginal business in Alberta has been the emergence of influential aboriginal-run companies and recognizably aboriginal corporate brands. In some cases, this has involved First Nations themselves getting behind a corporate branding campaign, as in the case with the Fort McKay First Nation north of Fort McMurray, which has recently sought to rebrand itself by way of the Fort McKay Group of Companies.
However, the greatest such success story has probably been the Mikisew Group of Companies. Incorporated three years ago and representing the isolated northeastern Mikisew Cree Nation in Fort Chipewyan, MGOC has in recent years emerged as Alberta’s most recognizable aboriginal corporate brand, encompassing, among other things, an energy services company, an industrial supply subsidiary, a sport fishing operator and an airline company that has long served as a vital lifeline between Fort Chipewyan and the rest of the province. United under the slogan Pride of a Nation, MGOC has emerged as the primary economic driving force of the 2,500-member Mikisew Nation and a key player in the oil sands-driven economy of the Wood Buffalo region of northeastern Alberta.
MGOC chief operating officer Dale Monaghan explains that the group’s aggressive brand promotion is about much more than pure economics. “Pride of a Nation is much more than an exercise in branding,” he says. “It transcends every aspect of our operations. It is the overarching purpose and vision of every single employee – to excel, and in doing so, support our elders, all community members and the future generations of Mikisew.”
While not a member of the Mikisew Nation himself, the Edson-born businessman has emerged as one of the community’s staunchest advocates together with MGOC chairman Russell Kaskamin and the Mikisew Nation’s energetic chief Roxanne Marcel. “The Mikisew Nation has a very strong vision, and we’ve been fortunate over the past few years to have a strong chief [Marcel] and business-minded and strategic leadership at the helm of our board of directors in the case of chair Russell Kaskamin,” says Monaghan. “In order to be successful you have to commit to being in it for the long term, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The group’s formula for success has indeed garnered attention, with MGOC’s companies having received numerous business awards, including the Alberta Hotel Association Hospitality Award, the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce Environmental Stewardship Award, the 2008 Hotelier of the Year Award and Fort McMurray’s Goldstar Award. The group’s success is rooted in the local culture. “The Mikisew have always been entrepreneurial,” Monaghan says. “Back in the day, you had to be committed to survive. And things are no different today.”
William Big Bull, wind energy entrepreneur
Southwestern Alberta’s burgeoning wind energy industry is one of the province’s newest economic mainstays, and unlike many industries where aboriginal people were forced to fight their way in, First Nations have been involved from the start.
Nevertheless, wind energy entrepreneur and community advocate William Big Bull has had to fight to ensure that his people benefit equally from the region’s wind energy revenue. A member of the Piikani Blackfoot Nation in the heart of southwestern Alberta’s “Wind Belt,” Big Bull has served his community as a band councillor, employment co-ordinator, land policy developer, historical research technician and land claim negotiator.
Establishing the Piikani Utilities Corporation in 1982, he emerged 10 years later as one of the strongest advocates of wind energy development in the region, helping spearhead the region’s first wind project, the 9.9-megawatt Cowley Ridge wind farm. Not long afterwards, he oversaw the building of Canada’s single largest wind turbine, Weather Dancer 1, which since 2001 has provided the Piikani Nation with clean electricity. While currently under contract with the Walpole Island First Nation in Ontario and a board member of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association, Big Bull remains devoted to his community and continues to fight on its behalf.
Big Bull’s greatest victory to date has been his negotiation of the routing of the still-under-construction 240-kilovolt transmission line connecting the wind farms of Pincher Creek with the North Lethbridge transmission station through the adjacent Piikani and Kainai (Blood) reserves, thus ensuring yearly revenue for both nations.
“AltaLink’s original plan was for the line to go around the two reserves,” he explains. “The last thing we want is to be seen as a roadblock. We argued that this route was the best option, and ultimately they agreed with us.” With the pipeline now in the bag, Big Bull’s next project is a 300-megawatt wind farm to be built on Piikani land.
While Big Bull says there is still a certain amount of resistance to working with First Nations among energy companies, he argues that times are indeed changing. “Opportunities exist now with companies that previously had no interest in dealing with First Nations,” he says. “The best approach for us to take is to build companies that exist outside chief and council, and these companies are standing the test of time. It doesn’t matter who you are; it’s about exposure and having the right people on board.”