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First Nation builds from within

Fort William First Nation goes local to construct the first phase of a new subdivision

As a professional homebuilder, Kateri Skaarup always feels an internal drive to deliver the best house possible for the client.

When Skaarup Construction was chosen to participate with seven other contractors to build a new $1.5-million subdivision in her home community of Fort William First Nation, there was extra incentive to do her best work.

“Every community member is related to, or is friends with, the families that are inheriting a house,” said Skaarup, the firm’s co-owner and chief operations officer. “They know your name is on it.”

In what might be the biggest construction project the 2,200-member First Nation has ever taken on, eight contractors were assigned eight units of the proposed 21-unit subdivision.

The subdivision project, which broke ground last May, is a unique bull-by-the-horns approach by Fort William First Nation, located across the Kaministiquia River from Thunder Bay.

Instead of putting the project out to tender and selecting one contractor to get the whole build, Skaarup said a group of local contractors were summoned to the community centre for a meeting in the fall of 2015.

The idea behind this collaborative community effort was to get the contractors to work together and build local skills capacity by hiring as many community members as possible.

“When you’re a small community, you want to keep the money in the community and have your members feel stronger and feel like they’re a part of it,” said Skaarup. “You build a sense of pride, a sense of ownership.”

Two different bungalow home plans of 1,100 and 1,280 square feet were supplied by North American Lumber.

“They’re very nice houses,” said Skaarup. “They could be in any other subdivision. They’re done very well.” The other contractors who participated were: Dan Bannon Contracting, MA Wells Contracting, Chris MacLaurin Contracting, Craig Hardy Contracting, Vanessa Fournier Contracting, Robert Morriseau Contracting and Bob Shields.

From the start, Skaarup noticed there was a competition underway among the contractors to get their frames done first, but the project gradually evolved into a “total team effort” with the contractors willingly sharing their equipment.

The process reminded her of the local Strong Man competitions she organizes.

“You’re competing against each other because it’s business but at same time you don’t want to see the other guy fail or get hurt.”

Though the project had its share of hiccups – with the delivery of building material being delayed – a sense of camaraderie was built as contractors were able to chat and share concerns.

“It was cool because I’ve been building in other subdivisions around town for 11 years – we as company – but this is the first time all the contractors were working together to get the houses done. And we all wanted the houses to be beautiful. It was kind of a little competition to make sure our house is best.

“There were a lot of friendships built and you could see that among all the crews.”

Skaarup said they were hoping to get 16 houses done this year but delays meant the remaining 13 units will be completed in 2017.

How the process will be better streamlined is unclear. Band administrators with Fort William First Nation did not respond to messages from Northern Ontario Business.

Skaarup said the demand for housing on the reserve is “immense.”

The lack of new and updated housing is frustrating to many young families with children living off-reserve who wish to move back to the community to be closer to parents and grandparents.

Skaarup said with a new generation of leadership in band administration, that’s eager to build more homes, consideration is being given to constructing duplexes and multiple unit residences in the future.

By hiring locally, she said many young people were able to generate extra cash at various stages of construction and could easily walk to the job site.

“It was a learning experience for everybody, and having to deal with everybody but we all reached our goals.”

More importantly, she said, it instilled a sense of pride among members that will remain as long as the subdivision stands.

“We can all be proud of ourselves and we can all be happy that we did our best jobs.”

What inspired Skaarup were the two young Fort William women that she hired last summer who developed a love for construction and will likely continue careers in it. It was a cool thing that I’m probably going to remember forever.”