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Indigenous entrepreneurs look to increase their presence in Canada's supply chain economy

More inclusive project procurement bring wealth of opportunities to aspiring Aboriginal businesses and communities
Steel River Group donation
Aboriginally owned Steel River Group delivered cases of water to Indigenous groups and communities during last summer's heat wave in Alberta. (Company photo)

"Soft, relentless pressure will get you to where you're going."

Those words have been resonating with Jordan Jolicoeur of Carvel Electric this week in remembering his many chats with a mentor, Mel Benson, a respected Cree business leader in the oil and gas industry from northern Alberta, who recently died.

For Jolicoeur, a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta and the CEO of the Alberta-based electrical services company, those words embody the type of persistence it takes for Indigenious, Métis and Inuit to make inroads into Canada's supply chain economy.

This is a touchstone issue with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), which bought together a group of entrepreneurs in a virtual panel discussion this week to talk about what can be done to ensure a greater presence by Aboriginal business in Canada's procurement process.

Jolicoeur took Benson's advice to heart in his approach to running the family electrical contracting business with his brother.

The pair learned the trade from their father, wiring homes in First Nation communities at an early age. 

Since taking over the Stoney Plain, AB, firm in 2013, the brothers have expanded from a small residential client base to working with some of the biggest industrial players in Canada in the oil and gas, pipeline, refinery and railroading sectors.

Fourteen of Carvel's 16 employees are Indigenous.

"We know where we're going; we know who we want to work for," said Jolicoeur of the strategic direction they've followed.

Carvel's customers are keenly aware they can expect a call or email every three months from the ambitious Jolicoeur to follow up on their last conversation.

"I'm pretty relentless," he said. "If you want to get somewhere, you gotta keep pushing."

One of CCAB's key national strategies is developing a large membership of corporations committed to increasing Aboriginal involvement in corporate supply chains as a means of building wealth within Aboriginal businesses and communities.

Event moderator, Philip Ducharme, the CCAB's director of innovation and entrepreneurship, said their organization works with the federal government and other organizations to find out what's in the project development pipeline two or three years down the road in order to prepare Indigenous companies for the RFP (Request for Proposals) process. 

"So many times we say when the RFPs come out, it's too late for our Indigenous businesses to grow their capacity or respond to it." 

Ottawa has taken the initiative on Aboriginal procurement by mandating that all departments and agencies allocate at least five of per cent of their procurement contracts to First Nations, Inuit and Métis businesses by 2024. It's hoped this policy will deliver roughly $1 billion worth of contract work to being annually awarded to Indigenous businesses.

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The panellists offered advice on how large corporations can increase the number of Indigenous businesses participating in the supply chain process.

Jolicoeur mentioned a frequent stumbling block is often trying to identify the right person to guide you through the procurement maze.

"Give an Indigenous entrepreneur one point of contact that can help them navigate through the gauntlet of their procurement portfolio." 

He lauded Alberta energy giant Suncor's method of assigning an employee to be paired with an Aboriginal company to assist them through the process.

Trent Fequet, president-CEO of the Steel River Group of Companies, said it's up to corporate managers to really facilitate those relationships.

Alberta-based Steel River is an Aboriginally owned management and construction consortium with 3,000 employees.

To help Aboriginal companies secure larger contracts, Fequet suggested government and corporate Canada help them with bonding and insurance requirements by looking at different ways of sharing risk inside of the contract models. That will provide opportunities for Indigenous groups of companies to participate and take that next step.

The practice of joint venture partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous companies was a topic of discussion. Although there have been documented successes, the panellists said there are still red flags to watch for.

Jolicoeur said he's fielded many pitches to do project-specific joint ventures.

"It's something I don't fully understand," particularly if it doesn't mesh with his company's long-term goals, he said.

Does it make sense, Jolicoeur asked, to invest and tool up on a collaboration for a one-off project partnership, build up that additional capacity within your company, and then not be able to sustain it after the project ends?

"I've yet to find a partnership in that model that would make sense for our company."

Jolicoeur said he's a staunch believer in building a solid foundation and organic growth.

Fequet said it comes down to the basics of staying true to your core beliefs when aligning with the right partners and the need to control the dialogue in these situations when approached.

"Always look through the lens of your core values when picking the right partners."

Many corporations, he noticed, will move into a region for project work and introduce competition instead of identifying the available Aboriginal capacity in the area to come up with the right solution for the client.

Steel River follows an ecosystem business model, based on collaboration and mutual respect, by forming partnerships with industry and First Nation partners, the end goal being to build Aboriginal capacity and maximize employment in First Nation communities.

When Steel River enters an area for work, they take stock of existing and aspiring entrepreneurs, providing support by backstopping them on equipment purchases and helping to grow them into full-fledged forestry, industrial service, and civil construction companies.

To provide sustainable employment for Aboriginal people, Fequet suggested some large multi-million-dollar government civil contracts could be restructured to be spread over years, instead of months, to allow First Nation companies to gradually build capacity.

When it comes to relationship-building and partnerships, Brenda Dragon, the Fort Smith, NWT, owner of Aurora Heat, a small manufacturer of natural hand, foot and body warmers, encouraged entrepreneurs to maintain their autonomy. She favours "growth on my terms." 

Dragon maintains a unique supply chain by building relationships with wild fur harvesters to make warmers from beaver pelts, "a very abundant animal" in her area. She said she's struck partnership deals with two sports organizations, Hockey Canada and Nordiq Canada.

"We connect people with nature using natural products."

During the pandemic, to stay afloat, Dragon tapped into government relief grants to hire a tech-savvy assistant to elevate their web presence and take her entire business to the Cloud. She reconnected to her customers through email marketing campaigns and surveys, and has realized increased sales by setting up an online store on the Shopify e-commerce platform.

Despite the challenges of COVID, Dragon often faces pushback "by people who make it their business to really destroy (the) natural way of life for Indigenous people and for many people in Canada."

But her business provides 10 full- and part-time positions in a territory of Canada where 44 per cent of Indigenous women are unemployed.

All three entrepreneurs stressed the importance of giving back to the communities they live and work in.

Dragon said Aurora Heat's social impact program involves contributing one dollar with every product purchase for on-the-land youth programming.

Jolicoeur said his electrical contracting firm annually sets aside an entry-level position for an aspiring Grade 12 Indigenous student with an interest in becoming an electrician. The company has added four new employees to its ranks in as many years.

Among the entrepreneurial, social and cultural programming at Steel River, employees there can partake in a voluntary program whereby they can pledge a small donation, deducted from their wages, to support families and community organizations in need.