“Consultation has gone from a nice to do, to a must do”: Interview with Lee Ahenakew

SFNEDN Board member Heather Exner-Pirot talks to Lee Ahenakew, Principal of Lee Ahenakew & Associates and Executive Consultant with Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs Investments about structuring EDCs, the business impacts of the TRC, and the ongoing evolution in First Nations-Industry partnerships.

Exner-Pirot: You’ve been involved with Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs Investments in a process of reorganization.  What has that entailed?

Ahenakew: The purpose of the work we’ve done in the last year has been, first of all, to make sure that BATC investments and its structure was aligned with the way we do business and our relationship with the Tribal Council.

BATC Investments was previously owned by five individual First Nations, and even though the Tribal Council was a partner, it didn’t have any ownership of the business. We’ve restructured it so now the Tribal Council is the controlling shareholder of the business and the First Nations own almost all the equity. In that way, since it’s a Tribal Council initiative, the Tribal Council will oversee the business but the First Nations will see the benefit at the end of the day. That allows us to work more closely with the Tribal Council particularly in the area of industry relations and employment & training.  We were doing that already, but now it’s built in to our structure.

At the same time we also performed due diligence to make sure all our corporate and financial records were in order.  This makes sure we’re in good standing to access financing, grants, and enter into partnerships.

Exner-Pirot: What are some business opportunities in the Battlefords area and in Saskatchewan that you think have the most potential for growth right now?

Ahenakew: Right now we are very focused on oil and gas. The Enbridge line replacement is coming through Saskatchewan and through our territory. Our energy services business has been really focused on developing that opportunity.

We’ve bid on contracts and are also looking to supply labour for the main line construction of the Enbridge Line 3 Replacement Program.  It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. We’re now just waiting to hear if we’re successful – we’ve bid on work for the pump stations, pilings and working with the mainline contractors.

The Tribal Council has been working on their role, which is to make sure that everyone, all the community members, are trained and ready to go, have the tickets that they require, the personal protective equipment, and that they’re work-ready. It’s a two-year project and it’s our big focus right now.

Other areas BATC is interested in in including mining – that’s a new market to expand into. Companies continue to develop potash businesses. Commercial construction is also an area we’ve bid on and when the economy picks up there will be a lot more infrastructure money coming in. We’re very interested in that, as well as renewable energy. They are all possibilities. The thing we get need to get right is to invest the resources we have, and the time and energy, in to the right markets at the right time.

Exner-Pirot: What do you think are the main obstacles to growing First Nations business that we should collectively be addressing?

Ahenakew: I keep hearing, and I think it’s still a big issue, about challenges to accessing capital. Accessing loans. Banks are generally risk adverse and there are additional challenges with First Nations because of on reserve status and the ability to loan money on reserve and fund development on reserve. I think there are also banking perceptions about risk with First Nations and that factors in to it too.

I have seen real improvement in terms of companies embracing partnerships with Indigenous communities. In the last couple of years, particularly since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report was released – that’s had an influence across sectors, including the business sector. It’s had a big impact. I just read an Indigenous policy from one of our partners Badger Daylighting referencing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They provide hydrovac services for construction and it’s not the kind of company you would think would come out with a strong Indigenous policy but they did. And with young development corporations like ours, making sure the support is there to get them started and self-sustaining, as well as promoting entrepreneurship to drive the economy.

Exner-Pirot: You’ve spent most of your career in First Nations business, including as Vice-President of CCAB.  How have you seen things evolve in the Indigenous business landscape over the past 10-15 years?

Ahenakew: Fifteen years ago companies were partnering with Indigenous communities, either because they saw a business opportunity or they were doing it as part of a Corporate Social Responsibility program – the right thing to do to help, in terms of creating opportunities for employees, or having a positive economic impact on their operations.

Fifteen years ago, court cases were already in place for the duty to consult and accommodate but the corporate policies weren’t there to drive that change, particularly with resource companies working with communities. Today, rather than an initiative being because of business or Corporate Social Responsibility goals, it’s really being driven by the duty to consult. Resource companies would see it as a risk to what they’re trying to develop more than an opportunity. As Indigenous communities, particularly First Nations and resource companies start working through that, and various levels of government work through that, we’ve come to a place where there’s been some successes and some failures and we’ve learned from that, and there’s just a much stronger commitment to getting it right.  Resource companies now understand just how big the risk is if you don’t do proper consultation around development.

It’s gone from a nice to do, to a must do, to an absolute imperative. I’ve seen companies in the past who haven’t really been involved as an organization with Indigenous communities, to really embracing it. Even from 5 years ago. That’s the main difference.

In addition, companies are starting to move from the risk to the opportunity component, where they see there is an opportunity to work with Indigenous communities, both for regulatory approval, but also to have that support and involvement in the operations. It makes the business more sustainable. So now we are starting to see that transition from risk to opportunity – it’s the next phase.

Exner-Pirot: What are some of the most important things non-Indigenous companies and organizations could be doing to enter into business partnerships with First Nations?

Ahenakew: I think first of all, they need to seek to understand communities. Getting out there and forming a relationship. But understanding that building trust takes time. It’s not like doing business in the mainstream were you just look at each other’s financials, and at the bottom line.

The other part is to do your homework. There are lots of resources out there to help evaluate where you’re at as a business, such as Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business or the Aboriginal Human Resource Council; these are really well developed brain works to develop a good plan, and then based on that plan create policies to drive that organizational change.  There are international frameworks as well, such as the International Council on Mining and Metals has a Good Practice Guide on Indigenous Peoples and Mining that’s useful.

Companies should use those things, create policies, create a culture of change, get champions in the organization that day-to-day are advocating for that Aboriginal inclusion. Make it visible to everyone in the business, and make it a priority.


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