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THE DRIFT 2019: A vested interest in natural resources

Entrepreneurially minded Pic Mobert First Nation takes its place in industrial services
GMS Camps and Accommodations, a spinoff company operated by Pic Mobert First Nation’s White Lake Limited Partnership, provides accommodations and catering to transient workers employed by Harte Gold’s Sugar Zone Mine, north of White River. (Supplied photo)

For generations, Pic Mobert First Nation’s economic situation was no different than many Indigenous communities across Canada: on the outside looking in at natural resource development.

The northwestern Ontario Ojibwe community of 300 was surrounded by an abundance of valuable minerals and forestry on their traditional territories, but as with most Indigenous communities, they were shut out of employment and ownership opportunities.

White Lake Limited Partnership CEO Norm Jaehrling recalls making that observation 25 years ago when he was working with the community on provincial negotiations over the locations of some hydroelectric dams on their lands.

“The community was in the midst of this various rich, prosperous and busy resource zone with the biggest gold mines in the world down the road (Hemlo) and this large forestry operation (in nearby White River), and the community was effectively shut out of most of it.”

When Domtar closed the sawmill in nearby White River in 2007, it provided an avenue for Pic Mobert to get its foot in the door.

Pic Mobert and the Township of White River stepped up and acquired the shuttered mill to keep the physical asset and its forest licence intact. 

“It took adversity for us to be able to step in and say, okay, we want to be part of the solution in protecting and restarting this industry,” said Jaehrling.

As part of a three-way partnership of investors, they brought retired Tembec founder Frank Dottori aboard as CEO to run the operation, which was reopened and re-equipped under the new banner of White River Forest Products. To supply fibre to the mill, the community mobilized a logging company in 2015.

When Dottori acquired the former Haavaldsrud sawmill in Hornepayne, Pic Mobert and two other communities grabbed a 30 per cent ownership stake.

The investment put Indigenous workers on the floor, and in the bush as harvesters.

“We never cut a stick of wood. Now we co-own a company that’s one of the two largest suppliers of round wood to the White River operations,” said Jaehrling.

“We were going to own a piece of the action, we were going to have a seat at the board table, and we would have agreements and remove those obstacles to getting people to work in the mill.”

Jaehrling’s relationship with Pic Mobert began in the early 1990s, when he was economic development officer with the nearby township of White River.

He befriended the late Chief James Kwissiwa and assisted the community in tough provincial negotiations for the right to develop three hydroelectric dams on their traditional lands. 

The revenue generated from these sites has allowed Pic Mobert to spin off a number of community-owned enterprises.

Jaehrling said the complexity and level of detail involved in navigating the various phases of environmental assessment, engineering and design, permitting, financing, construction and dispute resolutions proved to be teaching moments for the band.

“One of the most valuable assets the community gained from the power station deals was gaining the confidence and skill to undertake complex business deals.”

But additional leverage came from a string of landmark court victories across Canada on the government’s duty to consult and accommodate First Nations on resource projects.

Impact benefit agreements (IBAs) with Barrick Gold’s Hemlo complex provided some labour contracts for Pic Mobert, but there was an absence of local entrepreneurial capacity to become true business partners in the resource sector.

“An IBA is just an open door. You still have to deliver a quality, reliable service in a cost-effective manner,” said Jaehrling.

White Lake Limited Partnership is the business development corporation of Pic Mobert First Nation (Netmizaaggamig Nishnaabeg).

Created in 2009, the entity has fostered the creation of a diverse mix of business lines, either wholly owned or through joint ventures, in contracting, civil construction, work camp accommodations, contract labour, diamond drilling, forestry, renewable energy, transmission, trucking, security services, among other interests.

All told, these ventures employ north of 60 people, said Jaehrling – not shabby for a community with an on-reserve population of 300.

Partnerships with established companies have been essential in serving as training vehicles to build capacity and encourage locals to become entrepreneurs.

“It’s still an important part of our business mix to bring in skill sets, systems and expertise needed to get ourselves into enterprises, but in that realm we’ve evolved as well.”

One successful joint venture was with NorPro Security and Investigations from Sault Ste. Marie, which, after the successful execution of two contracts, resulted in the creation of their Indigenous-owned security firm, Anishinabek Total Security Solutions LP.

There’ve been niche service and supply opportunities in the resource industry, particularly in providing accommodations and catering to transient workers employed by Harte Gold’s Sugar Zone Mine, north of White River.

GMS Camps and Accommodations is a collaborative effort with neighbouring Pic River First Nation and the Morris Group of Sudbury, a modular housing provider, that’s expanded its presence to Marathon and figures to play a role in the upcoming construction of the east-west transmission line project.

Their latest venture is a trucking division run through their 50 per cent-owned contracting company, BMC Contracting.

With a roster of 10 drivers and six trucks engaged in material hauls, Jaehrling said negotiations are underway to expand into forestry, hauling logs, chips and possibly finished products to market.

“There’s a real void in the realm of trucking in both the mining and forestry. Nobody is there for the long haul in our region.”

To become a sustainable, year-round operation that can keep its core staff continuously employed, expansion and diversification is warranted to ride out the down cycles in various resource sectors.

That’s largely the plan for all their business interests over the next three to five years, not only in capitalizing on opportunities locally but in extending their customer base across Canada.

“We started on our doorstep and now are aggressively pursuing contracts outside of our immediate area,” said Jaehrling. “It’s a major emphasis for us. We’re always in business development mode.”

The Drift magazine, a new publication from Northern Ontario Business, features profiles on the people and companies making important contributions to the Northern Ontario mining service and supply industry.