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First Nation, engineering firm breaking new ground on joint venture

In his 25 years in the engineering profession, Eric Zakrewski calls his Thunder Bay company’s business venture with Fort William First Nation a “gold star example” in Northern Ontario of a successful partnership between the private sector and an Abor
Upgrading the pow-wow grounds at Fort William First Nation has been one of the successful outcomes of the Oshki-Aki Limited Partnership, a joint venture between the band and True Grit Consulting.

In his 25 years in the engineering profession, Eric Zakrewski calls his Thunder Bay company’s business venture with Fort William First Nation a “gold star example” in Northern Ontario of a successful partnership between the private sector and an Aboriginal community.

Now entering its fifth fiscal year, Oshki-Aki Limited Partnership is creating employment and mentorship opportunities for Fort William members to learn and build skills toward permanent careers in the consulting and engineering field.

“This has been one of the things I’m probably most proud about in terms of our achievement as a private sector engineering firm,” said Zakrewski, the president-CEO of True Grit Consulting. “We set out to become partners with these folks, they trusted us, and the business and relationship has flourished.”

Incorporated in Dec. 2011, Oshki-Aki LP is a partnership between Fort William First Nation and True Grit Consulting that created a new environmental engineering company.

Almost $20 million worth of completed or ongoing construction projects has involved the business venture that functions as the de facto municipal engineering department.

“Fort William has so much on the go and there’s so much potential for large scale development that we see this as a much longer term relationship,” said Zakrewski.

The joint venture has participated in resurfacing 12 kilometres of road on the reserve, a three-year project that includes a $3-million reconstruction of the Mission Road main drag to bring it up to modern standards by this fall.

Using Fort William’s own contracting firm, the Oshki-Aki partners have completed a number of on-reserve community and infrastructure projects, including a collaboration with FORM Architecture Engineering to refurbish the pow-wow grounds, a project which won a City of Thunder Bay beautification award.

But the work of the joint venture extends beyond just performing work on the reserve with a successful bid on environmental work at the Lac des Iles palladium mine.

“That’s a project that dials Fort William into the ongoing work on the mine site and I think that’s a success story,” said Zakrewski.

The limited partnership is 99 per cent owned by Fort William. The general partnership that exists is a 50/50 split between True Grit and Fort William. It serves as the governance body for the limited partnership. Directors from both entities steer the business activities of the LP.

Zakrewski said the joint venture has always been profitable. Though reluctant to talk numbers, he said it pays a “fairly significant” dividend to its community shareholders. True Grit provides the administrative and accounting services.

Zakrewski finds the reasons private-First Nation joint ventures often fail is because the companies fall short in delivering meaningful work with lasting value for the First Nation.

Rather than offer members token positions, Oshki-Aki commits to hiring full-timers from the community with the intent to train, mentor and license people for technical positions, be they surveyors or lab technicians.

“As an example, we have a Fort William member being mentored on a multi-million dollar site remediation project in Attawapiskat,” said Zakrewski. “We’ve actually created full-time jobs and are training people in the field, in the office and working in the region on as many different types of projects as possible so that they get the widest skill set.”

As they acquire skills, members pick up professional certifications and they’re shepherded by experienced engineers, surveyors and scientists.

The joint venture has one full-time Fort William member and they are in the midst of recruiting a second, with some summer students arriving soon. Ideally, Zakrewski would like to have 10 to 15 full-timers in the fold.

“Frankly, we see this as a tremendous opportunity to build a recruitment pool of skilled workers for our firm as well. That, to me, is a true meaning of a partnership.”

Rather than rely on a government-funded Aboriginal training program, True Grit budgets for this type of training.

“We set aside amount of operating costs to train all employees and have rolled Fort William members into that program,” said Zakrewski.

He ultimately believes these partnerships can be an effective way to engage First Nations in the consultation and accommodation process, especially on environmental assessments (EA) for resource extraction projects.

“What better way to build transparency in the process than to have community members out collecting the data in the field that will become of an EA where the community will be consulted as a key stakeholder.”

These ventures put First Nations at the “centre of the action” and checks off all the boxes in creating jobs, building capacity and providing obvious economic benefits.

“I think it’s a new way to do business, quite frankly, and it will be adopted more and more across Canada as a new way to advance these projects rather than have them stumble and stagger through complex consultation processes with government, First Nation and mining companies.”

Next in the Oshki-Aki pipeline are several large projects at Fort William, including the detailed design and engineering phase for a 45,000-square-foot office complex on the reserve.

They’re at a similar stage for a new elders’ active living centre that’s heading toward construction later this year. A 21-home subdivision with new streets, water and sewer services is wrapping up, with Oshki-Aki completing all the engineering and contract administration.

And next up is a $2-million modernization of the reserve’s antiquated sewage treatment, which was holding back Fort William’s economic development and expansion plans.

If there’s one project that holds the greatest economic interest, it’s the Grand Trunk lands, a 1,600-acre parcel of prime industrial land that Fort William bought back from CN Rail in the 1990s.

It’s considered a key driver in their economic development plans. The joint venture is engaged in a feasibility study to determine its “highest and best use” for commercial and industrial development.