March/April 2015

Magic to be made

Tahltan leader proud to be building a new mining industry

By Chris Balcom

Garry Merkel has only been president and CEO of the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation (TNDC) for a year and a half, but he is already taking the company to new heights. Merkel has worked with the firm for more than 15 years and also has his own consultancy, Forest Innovations, which he founded in 1985. As the business arm of the Tahltan Nation, a First Nation in northwest British Columbia, TNDC plays a crucial role in developing the province’s resource extraction industries. Merkel has a keen understanding of the relationship between resource extraction companies and First Nations, and says he believes both groups stand to learn a great deal from each other.

CIM: Can you give us a bit of background on TNDC?

Merkel: We’re 30 years old this year. We started as a residential construction company and since then we’ve expanded to have four main divisions and 30 separate companies. The core of what we do right now is heavy construction and remote services. We develop and dismantle major projects including camps of all sizes. The rest of our companies provide a wide range of services including tunnelling, communications and transportation. We created an environmental company a number of years ago. We’re just starting an airline. We try to cover the range of goods and services that a development would require.

CIM: What have you been involved with in terms of mining construction?

Merkel: I don’t think there’s any phase of mining that we haven’t been involved in. We’ve done everything from preliminary exploration to final reclamation. We’ve built, operated and dismantled major exploration camps for up to 500 people, developed almost all aspects of a mine, provided operational support in many areas and reclaimed many operations. We’ve done blasting, tunnel building, and lots of preliminary design and environmental work for mines. For the Red Chris project, we provide transportation, shipment of goods and services, ore hauling, site and road maintenance, communications, remote services, tires, fuel … it’s extensive. We’re working out the details, but I’m hoping we’ll have finalized the details around TNDC maintaining the tailings impoundments for the life of the mine within a month or so.

Red Chris would be our biggest project right now. We’re also working with Pretium Resources on its Brucejack project; Seabridge Gold on its KSM project; Atrum Coal on its Groundhog project; and Teck Resources on both its Galore and Schaft projects. We’re also working on many exploration-level projects, but those are all at different stages.

CIM: Are there more services you’d like to offer? What’s your ideal scenario?

Merkel: I would like to move TNDC into a position where we’re doing contract mining, but I haven’t found a client that is interested in that approach yet. There are a few of them out there, but the companies we’re working with right now don’t do contract mining. We are talking to one company about that possibility and if we get it, it’s going to be huge.

CIM: How significant is mining in terms of your overall operations?

Merkel: For the past 15 years or so, mining’s probably been 75 per cent of our operations. I don’t want the amount of mining work TNDC does to go down but I want it to go down proportionally to the rest of our work. We’re working to build other industries, particularly long-term infrastructure-type projects. From our perspective, if we can get a lot more of those in place it provides us with long-term and more stable opportunities.

CIM: What have been your major challenges as a company?

Merkel: I think our biggest hurdle has been that we’re a First Nations company. One of our board members said it best: “As an aboriginal company you pretty much have to prove yourself two or three times more than other companies.” There’s a huge stigma associated with Aboriginal Peoples and companies. But my experience is that once people get past that and they understand they’re working with a company that provides a quality and cost-competitive product, it has a lot of advantages to them as a developer, both in terms of social licence and overall effectiveness.

The Tahltan have been in business as a culture for the thousands of years we’ve been in the Stikine Valley. We controlled the trading corridor into northwest B.C. and Yukon, and we fought very hard to control that corridor. That’s the essence of who we are; that kind of entrepreneurial and businesslike thinking lives in our community. We’re a very work-oriented kind of people but we didn’t have a lot of experience at managing a modern business. We’ve gone through major transformations that have changed the way we work, and thus changed people’s view of us.

CIM: Do you work mainly within Tahltan territory or around British Columbia?

Merkel: I wouldn’t be surprised to see us doing at least one major project outside of our territory this year, but we have three in the hopper. It really depends on where those projects go. At this point we would stay within northern B.C. We have to test run all the systems we’ve been building and make sure we can successfully manage an expanded scope. If you don’t have the infrastructure and the capacity to manage something, you shouldn’t be doing it; you should just say “No” and take the time to build it.

The dream someday is we’ll be able to work with other communities to help them build up too, so that they can do this in their own areas on major projects where they live and work. That’s a little ways away yet; you have to walk before you can run.

CIM: Tell us a bit about your partnerships.

Merkel: We rely enormously on our partners’ expertise, and they rely enormously on ours. It’s sort of a synergistic relationship and there’s a bit of an art in building that. I would say there is no way in hell that any First Nation or community could build a diverse economy and all of its components on its own. You have to rely on experts and partners including other businesses, governments and communities.

Building this kind of partnership and having all your partners completely committed to your cause is no easy task. We really work hard to find companies that are like us in a sense, that share our values and approach to business and have a strong social conscience. They’re very keen, they’re totally committed to the kind of dream that we believe in.

CIM: Where do you see your place in British Columbia’s mining industry in the years to come?

Merkel: When we first started, there was a company that had a mine going up in our territory, and they were going to build a road into it that proposed three major river crossings and 26 major salmon-bearing stream crossings. So we said to the company, “No, this is wrong. That’s not acceptable.”

Our people got into a serious fight with them about it. We had roadblocks and everything, until the company finally asked, “Well, what do you want?” and we said: “We want this road to be a lot more friendly to our land, our people and our fish. Here’s the design, and we want to build it.” The company thought we were just full of it but in the end they caved in. We took it down to one major river crossing and three major salmon-bearing stream crossings. It turned out we had a fairly reasonable relationship with that company afterwards.

The standard now is certainly much better than it used to be, but there’s still a lot of room to improve further. If you get into a partnership with our kind of entity, I think there’s magic to be made, frankly. We can start building some models that can become the industry standard. I think that’s where the industry is going to go. I don’t think there’s any way around it. And once you start building these relationships, I think people’s ideas of resource development and extraction are going to change.

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