February 2012

First Nations and human relations

Running Deer Resources’ holistic approach

By Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco

Five years ago, Jamie Saulnier, founder of Winnipegbased construction company Connotec Inc., embarked on finding a solution to the skilled labour shortage in his business by tapping into Aboriginal communities. Little did he know then that by the summer of 2010, the pilot Aboriginal training program he had developed to hire people from the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation would garner The Globe and Mail’s attention and be described as nothing less than one of the most ambitious First Nations apprenticeship programs in Canada.

“I got calls from companies from all over North and South America, from as far away as Australia, inquiring how they could take what we’d done and apply it to their organization,” says Saulnier. He realized that there was both a need and a potential to take his initiative further. By the end of 2011, he had renamed his company Running Deer Resources (RDR) and launched a new division dedicated to helping Aboriginal communities and the private sector eliminate the roadblocks that stop them from working together to solve their respective challenges.

Kliff Lengwenus, vice-president of RDR, took over the day-to-day operations of the company’s construction division, whose clients have included Vale, Goldcorp, HudBay Minerals and Crowflight Minerals (now CaNickel Mining). Saulnier then turned his attention to building the new Aboriginal consulting division.

An ear for business

What makes Running Deer’s approach radically different is that it began with a lot of listening. Since 2007, Saulnier listened to countless Aboriginal Peoples, including the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, a regional Chiefs organization for northern Manitoba, as well as mining companies and others in the private sector and government. And the reason he listened so much is that from day one he knew that unless he understood each perspective, his solution would be doomed to fail.

“I had to understand Aboriginal politics, the companies’ needs, where they were contractually – everything that’s involved between a community and a mining company – and how the governments work,” says Saulnier. “I put all three (Aboriginals, mining companies and government) into separate categories and tackled them individually.”

He hired people at various times to help him with the research, including Aboriginal students from the universities’ business programs. “I listened to Aboriginal Chiefs and business leaders. Every time we turned a new stone, we found something else we had to research and understand,” Saulnier says.

As he listened, he identified some key issues. One was that most of the Aboriginal communities he spoke with had little or no human resources and training systems in place. “They are not set up from an HR standpoint,” Saulnier explains. If a construction or mining company contacted a community looking for manpower, the communities simply had no database or tools to provide them with the information. So he and his team developed an HR information system specifically for the communities – one that they can manage themselves.

There is a personal aspect to this work for Saulnier as well because, although not Aboriginal himself, he grew up in northern Ontario, and very early on became a passionate believer in empowering Aboriginal communities to become self sufficient. “We are now able to go into a community and assess where they are at in terms of an HR system and we put together a report card for them,” he says. “With that, we have the ability to work in partnership with the community to introduce our HR system and train employment coordinators to manage it. Our system allows an individual to sit down with the coordinator and answer key questions, which are all geared towards building a resume for the needs of a construction or mining company. That resume then goes into the community database, which identifies the people who are ready to work right now, the people who are close to being ready and the people who need a lot of training to be ready.”

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