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THE DRIFT 2019: Getting a piece of the pie

Transmission, resource projects offer opportunity for First Nation trainer
Superior Strategies owner Jason Thompson is committed to helping Indigenous people find employment opportunities. (Supplied photo)

Jason Thompson is a believer that getting a piece of the economic pie is better than no pie at all.

A member of the Red Rock Indian Band, Thompson moved away from home 18 years ago to work at the Weyerhaeuser mill in Ear Falls. Back then, there were few Indigenous faces on the shop floor.

Today, court-mandated duty-to-consult-and-accommodate requirements mean Indigenous communities and tribal groups are creating joint ventures around large resource and infrastructure projects to spin off Indigenous-owned businesses.

Thompson has carved out a unique niche for himself as owner of Superior Strategies, a Thunder Bay training and services company delivering pre-employment training.

“The dynamic is changing,” said Thompson. “Some of us – like myself – are not changing fast enough. But, ultimately, having support from the government, relative to impact benefit agreements and forcing the hand on industry to consult and engage the communities, has changed a lot. The change will increase when we start becoming owners and now we’re in a position to make decisions.”

The company is a certified provider of standard, emergency, and mental health first aid, working at heights, WHMIS, and chainsaw training, among other courses. But they’ve also worked with companies and organizations to train in cultural sensitivity, remote line cooking, babysitting and, more recently, hospitality and tourism.

“We do a lot of work in different sectors from forestry to mining to construction.”

A graduate of Confederation College’s human resources program, Thompson spent 15 years in supervisory and managerial positions in the sawmilling and construction sectors before turning his evenings-and-weekends side hustle of 10 years into a full-time gig.

“The market has definitely grown as people know who we are and what we do. The opportunities have really come to light.”

He now employs eight full-time and five part-time employees.

With offices at Fort William First Nation and Lake Helen First Nation (near Nipigon), the company decided to create a training presence in Thunder Bay and moved into a building on Dawson Road in 2017, which offers classroom and indoor space for 100.

“I don’t see a lot of Indigenous companies doing what we’re doing, working in the safety field, and I see it not only as important but a necessity in today’s business world.

“Our approach is very unique; we’re a very inclusive-type business. Over 80 per cent of our staff is Indigenous and we’re fortunate to have a strong, experienced team in our training and consulting work.”

Among those he counts as regular clients are Union Gas, Enbridge, the City of Thunder Bay, Resolute Forest Products, and a number of area school boards and First Nation communities.

A huge opportunity for Superior Strategies has come through the massive power line transmission projects in northwestern Ontario.

Thompson and his team have delivered much of the pre-employment safety training for the Watay Power project north of Sioux Lookout, and worked with Supercom Industries, the contracting and training joint venture run by six First Nation communities organizing the workforce for the upcoming East-West Tie project between Wawa and Thunder Bay.

Of the 220 trainees who went through the Supercom program last summer, Thompson estimates he handled 180.

“The opportunities are endless. We’re getting pulled in many different directions. Our whole goal is to be very inclusive in what we’re doing. If we can be a model for other businesses or different entrepreneurs to engage with communities and economic development corporations, then let’s do it.”

Thompson said there are a slew of employment opportunities – in the mechanical trades, millwrighting, and electrical work – that many Indigenous folk aren’t aware even exist. He thinks there needs to be better alignment between businesses and training organizations to produce programming where people actually graduate into jobs.

“We have hundreds of people that have been trained over the years to different programs. What we lack often times is experience. We need to change the mindset to train for employment, rather than training for the sake of training.”

Thompson said the company is in growth mode and he’s on the hunt for more safety instructors and sales representatives to staff his latest side venture, Superior Strategies Supply and Service, a supply company offering safety, industrial, custodial and medical supplies.

Thompson is on a mission to draw more attention to Indigenous businesses in the region.

He’s part of a movement in the northwest to create a regional Aboriginal business association that will encompass the Nishnawbe Aski communities and those along the north shore of Lake Superior.

“I’m tired, as an Aboriginal entrepreneur, having the conversation that ‘We didn’t know you existed.’ Well, we’re going to change that.

“We really want to be ambassadors. We don’t have enough people promoting Aboriginal business and we want to give people that platform. We’re out here and we want to make sure people know we exist.”

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.