Robert Starr, Supercom’s business development manager, said one of the most satisfying aspects of the company’s success in the East-West transmission line project was proving their naysayers wrong.
Since its inception in 2016, Supercom has consistently “blown away” doubters by being able to navigate the complex, sprawling East-West project, Starr said, and helping hundreds of workers in Northern Ontario.
The $700-million, 450-kilometre transmission line is expected to relieve the longstanding constraints on the electricity in northwestern Ontario, and allow communities and businesses — especially new mines crucial to sourcing minerals for the electric vehicle (EV) supply chain — to take advantage of the increased electrical capacity.
The project wrapped up in March, 2022.
“We beat everyone's expectations, and more importantly, we beat everyone's doubts,” Starr said.
“To me, that was some of the most successful parts of this project.”
But it wasn’t always a sure thing.
Supercom is the result of a business partnership formed between six First Nations situated around the shore of Lake Superior — Fort William First Nation, Red Rock Indian Band, Pays Plat First Nation, Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, Pic Mobert First Nation and Michipicoten First Nation.
Its mandate is to maximize First Nation involvement in the East-West project — a 450-kilometre, double-circuit transmission line between the Lakehead Transformer Station, outside Thunder Bay in Shuniah, to the transformer station near Wawa — by supplying skilled labour, negotiating service and supply contracts, and cultivating business partnerships.
The provincial government declared the transmission line in 2016, but in 2018 halted the process to allow publicly owned Hydro One a chance at bidding on the project.
Construction, which was partially delayed by COVID-19, began in the fall of 2019. In the summer of 2021, forest fires raged through the region, putting a halt to further work for several weeks.
Now that it’s up and running, Starr said the 200-plus workers who helped complete the project — construction company NextBridge estimates that’s 60 per cent of the labour force used in its completion — have moved on to other projects.
But they’ve earned hours towards their apprenticeships, gained valuable experience, and pocketed healthy earnings, he said.
“It’s more than just money for the coffers,” Starr said. “The more people we can get employed, and put into the workforce, it’s money for their communities, and wealth that's going to stay in those communities.”
Supercom is not the first Indigenous-owned business group to tackle energy and infrastructure projects, but it’s certainly one of the biggest in Northern Ontario, and with a push to ramp up mining operations as part of the province’s critical minerals strategy, could be one of the most important.
“What makes Supercom different is that for the first time in this area, and maybe in the province, six First Nation communities took a collaborative approach to a project that was going to happen in their traditional territories,” Starr said.
“Together, they decided that they were going to work at this collectively,” he said. “And by doing that, ensure that maximum economic benefit was achieved from the project, both from construction and from ownership.”
Starr said the group faced an uphill battle on several fronts. In 2017, the project was delayed when then-energy minister Glenn Thibeault sent planners back to the drawing board, this time allowing Hydro One to bid on any construction.
Supercom-trained workers, still waiting for the project to get underway, left for other mining or forestry jobs in the area. Others, still, were plucked by Hydro One while the transmission line project languished.
This left some doubt that if the project ramped up again, there would be enough workers in the labour pool available to see it through to completion.
Again, Starr said, they doubted the wrong group.
“Confederation College, one of our partners in the training and employment section, said you need to try and find 244 people, amongst your 8,000 members,” he said. “Even our board of directors had doubts. Everyone told us, ‘Good luck. You're not gonna find them.’”
But Starr and his team at Supercom set out on an ambitious community engagement plan in the summer of 2017. Starr said “they sold the hell out of it,” going door to door in First Nations, and embarking on recruitment drives in cities like Thunder Bay and Sault Ste Marie.
The number of new hires they were able to sign up — all people looking for training and work on the transmission line — he said, was incredible.
“We set out… and stopped counting when we had 350 people,” he said. “We probably reached around 500.”
That’s 500 people who developed skills, began apprenticeship training in different Red Seal trades, and at the end were able to bring home paycheques back to their communities.
But it’s more than just new spending power that Starr sees as the key to establishing a career.
“My joy isn't going to come from the paycheque,” he said. “It's going to come from seeing kids in my communities on brand new bikes, hopping on trampolines in their yard, pictures on Facebook of parents taking their kids out on the land in their new RV, or new boat, things like that.”
He also described the opportunities he’s been able to access as a “generational change” for First Nations.
“So with this project, we hope that we would put people in a workforce that maybe in the next generation, or even, with their siblings, could see family members taking advantage,” he said.
“And they can decide for themselves and say, ‘Hey, I could do that. Why can’t I do that?’ We were hoping to make a real change in the human resources of our communities.”
And so far, the promise Supercom has made to those communities is playing out as Starr planned.
According to Ontario’s Ministry of Energy, Indigenous men and women accounted for up to 60 per cent of the construction workforce during the project.
That represents real progress for Starr, and the potential to set a standard for new plans and projects in the region, like the Waasigan transmission line proposed between Thunder Bay and Dryden.
But Starr said even with Supercom’s success, he’s not going to concede any further battles with naysayers.
“As an Indigenous company trying to do something, everybody's going to doubt me. That’s just the way it is. We're always fighting something,” Starr said.
“And this time we were successful.”