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Conference makes wide strides for Indigenous business

Procurement, Employment and Partnerships Conference and Tradeshow highlights progress and lingering issues between Indigenous communities, business and government

There have been great improvements in relationships between Indigenous people, governments and companies, but there’s still more work to be done, say those who attended a first of its kind conference.

For many, merely having a conference like this is a giant step in the right direction.

Hundreds packed the conference rooms at the Sudbury Holiday Inn for the inaugural Procurement, Employment and Partnership Conference and Tradeshow on Feb. 6 and 7, to listen to experts talk about their experiences, how things have changed, and what issues still need addressing.

The conference was organized by Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business and presented by SNC-Lavalin.

The inspiration behind the conference, according to emcee Stephen Lindley, vice-president of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs for SNC-Lavalin, Inc., was talks surrounding plans for the Ring of Fire and how to broker better relations between communities in the area, help build a better supply chain when it becomes an active mine site, as well as what they have to do in the meantime.

“We are using the time we have right now to get organized,” he said.

“It quickly turned into a conversation around three elements. Procurement, how people will purchase goods and services. Employment and training, how are we going to get people ready, so we have capacity and ensuring we have the skilled trades that we need to do the work that’s going to be done. Ensuring our Indigenous partners are building capacity so that they are ready. And partnerships; basically you can’t build capacity on your own and oftentimes, it’s just as easy to partner with somebody, so that two plus two equals five.”

The conversation revolved around back-to-back facilitated workshops instead of single presentations to get people to open up and discuss issues and solutions together, he said.

Overall, he said, the turnout was great and they have been getting very encouraging feedback on the issues and the format of the conference. Many of the workshops had a spirited interest and people have been pleased with the timeliness of the conference itself.

“It’s something people would like to see more of,” Lindley said.

Although the conversation came out of discussions surrounding the Ring of Fire, the conference is having a ripple effect across many areas, including long-term planning for communities to strengthen their economies, looming shortages in skilled trades and developing resource structures. The Ring of fire, Lindley said, is going to take some time and there are major projects that need to be done – like roads, transmission interconnections, and exploration – before any production starts.

“The conversation has been less focused on the Ring of Fire and generically around development in the region, even developing the northern part of the province as a whole,” he said.

“Any company that wants to do business in the North has to participate in the capacity building, partnering and sharing of wealth with the Indigenous communities.”

It’s imperative to work with communities now, as companies need approvals and permits. Those require approvals and negotiating processes. To succeed in that, parties need to understand cultural sensitivities and issues, and the business plans have to now show it will make life better for them, because companies now understand it is the right thing to do.

Even having conferences like this is a big positive sign that business relations have greatly improved. JP Gladu, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, was a moderator for a panel discussion on growing Northern Ontario’s supply chain.

He said 20 years ago, he wouldn’t have seen himself attending a conference like this, but 10 years ago awareness of Indigenous concerns and rights over resource projects had reached a point where companies were taking them into consideration.

“I started to feel very empowered and very lucky to do the work I do,” Gladu said.

“But the environment around a non-Indigenous audience that are very keen to engage our people, 20 years ago, no. I never heard the words Indigenous, Métis, Inuit used as much in the Canadian lexicon as I have today and that’s a wonderful thing.”

The changes, he said, have been born out of a few things. Legal and constitutionally protected rights in the courts, which have given Indigenous people more capacity to successfully fight for their rights, winning 90 per cent of the cases they go into. Government and industry now understand they can’t engage in projects without consultation. And they also consider accommodation for communities, considering equity, business and employment opportunities.

Now businesses have to consider how they can incorporate Indigenous people from the boardroom to front-line workers.

“Companies are looking through a fresh lens when they engage with our communities and it’s very helpful, for all of us,” Gladu said.

He said after the talks, he was encouraged to see companies pushing the envelope and being more accountable on their relationships. The leaders have two important tools at their disposal: treaty rights and better business skills. Using the first gets people to the negotiating table, and once there, using their skills to work out agreements, Gladu said.

Relationships are improving, and they will have to if Canada want's to stay competitive in the global market, he said.

He said he believes partnerships are the most important going forward. Partnerships can turn into equity positions in projects.

Michael Fox, the president of Indigenous Community Engagement, Inc. who co-chair the board of directors of the Aboriginal Affairs Committee for the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, sat on the panel for partnerships. He said these are issues not unique to just this project.

Fox said he was very pleased to see participants and experts openly talking about hard and complex topics affecting Northern communities, with the general consensus that everyone was happy issues were being discussed openly.

“I think any type of dialogue helps gain a deeper understanding and knowledge of everybody’s interests,” he said. “We are finding ways to overcome old challenges and new challenges that all parties are going to have.”