Sept/Oct 2011

Aboriginal Perspectives

Aboriginal entrepreneurship in the oil sands

By A. Lopez-Pacheco

“Across the country, we’re seeing a huge renaissance of vibrant entrepreneurship among the First Nation, Inuit and Métis,” says Clint Davis, chief executive of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. Until recently, Davis says he and others who work in the sector realized this renaissance was translating into a significant contribution to the economy by Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. “But we were not able to put a number to it,” he says.

That changed this past June when TD Economics released its special report, “Estimating the Size of the Aboriginal Market in Canada.” Its findings: Aboriginal households, businesses and governments will reach $24 billion this year and balloon to an estimated $32 billion in 2016. It went on to say that Aboriginal peoples have been making their mark across a number of goods and services areas, but the big boom in the last decade has been in Western Canada’s resource and construction sectors.

“There is a whole variety of different Aboriginal businesses now that support the oil sands in some capacity,” says Davis. “I always say one way to address Aboriginal unemployment is to support Aboriginal businesses because they make it a priority to hire Aboriginal people. They’re building skills and capacity, and are effectively transforming lives.”

When Tyrone Brass left his job at Syncrude after 20 years to found Bayzik Oilsands Electric, which provides industrial electrical services to major oil sands project clients, he was not setting out to transform lives but to pursue a lifelong dream of entrepreneurship. He was, however, pleasantly surprised. “You sit back one day and think about how so many of your employees have gone out and bought a home, raised their children, provided them with an education,” says they’re the first in their family or the first in their community to do so. Therefore, gaining access to seed capital is certainly a challenge, but the research we did indicated that the majority of Aboriginal businesses are actually very successful once they get past the first six to 12 months.”

Wood Buffalo region’s Ryan Pruden had to overcome this very challenge when he founded his first company, Wapose Medical Services Inc., about eight years ago. “There’s a huge potential for businesses servicing the oil sands,” he says, “but there’s a huge need for money for payroll, equipment and so on when you’re starting out,” says Pruden, who recently founded a second company, Pruden Contracting Ltd. “It can be difficult to get people to believe you are a strong, reliable business so that you can access financing.”

Another challenge is access to business mentors and supporters, something that entrepreneurs such as Pruden and Brass are trying to change. Both men are on the board of the Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association (NAABA).

“Joining the NAABA was my way of giving back to my community,” says Brass. “I wanted to become part of promoting Aboriginal business in this area to help it become better.”

Both entrepreneurs would like to see more diversification in the type of Aboriginal businesses oil companies work with. “I’ve yet to see an Aboriginal fiber optic splicing company,” says Brass. “There just aren’t any here. So there are business opportunities, but a lot of them are in the non-technical service side of things. Still, it has to start somewhere.”

Much more education and training is needed, says Brass, to address the shortage of professionals and skilled workers at every level in Aboriginal communities and in the oil sands sector. The shortage is particularly tough on smaller businesses, as it is difficult competing with the big companies in terms of pay and benefits. “I lose a lot of my good workers to the oil companies, many of which are my clients,” he says. “My approach is ‘you put some time in with me, be a good employee, learn the skills I need you to learn, and when it comes time to work for the big show, I will recommend you.’ Actually, I have work now from some former employees who went on to the large organizations. If you stifle something or someone, it doesn’t work out.”

That is the same attitude Aboriginal business leaders have toward the oil sands development. “I’m not saying the oil sands industry is perfect and that there are no issues,” says Davis. “But I find it unfortunate when the opposition characterizes Aboriginal people as being collectively opposed to the industry. That’s not accurate. The other side of this story has to be told, in terms of the positive aspect this development has had on the lives of so many Aboriginal people, not only in Fort McMurray, but across the country.”

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