More inclusive project purchases offer a multitude of opportunities for aspiring Indigenous businesses and communities
“Gentle, relentless pressure will get you where you are going.”
Those words resonated with Carvel Electric’s Jordan Jolicoeur this week as he recalled his many conversations with a mentor, Mel Benson, a respected Cree business leader in the northern Alberta oil and gas industry, who recently passed away.
For Jolicoeur, a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta and CEO of the Alberta-based electrical service company, those words embody the kind of perseverance it takes for Indigenous people, Métis and Inuit to make inroads into the economy. of Canada’s supply chain.
This is a key issue with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), which brought together a group of entrepreneurs for a virtual roundtable this week to discuss what can be done to ensure more strong presence of Indigenous businesses in Canada’s supply chain economy. .
Jolicoeur took Benson’s advice to heart in his approach to running the family business of electrical contractors with his brother.
The couple learned the trade from their father, installing house wiring in First Nations communities from a young age.
Since taking over Stoney Plain, AB in 2013, the brothers have grown from a small residential customer base to some of the largest industrial players in Canada in the oil and gas, pipelines, refineries and railways.
Fourteen of Carvel’s 16 employees are indigenous.
“We know where we are going, we know who we want to work for,” Jolicoeur said of the strategic direction they have taken.
Carvel customers are well aware that they can expect a call or email every three months from the ambitious Jolicoeur to follow up on their last conversation.
“I’m pretty relentless,” he said. “If you want to go somewhere, you have to keep pushing.”
One of CCAB’s key national strategies is to develop a large number of businesses committed to increasing Indigenous participation in business supply chains as a means of creating wealth within Indigenous businesses and communities.
Event moderator Philip Ducharme, director of innovation and entrepreneurship at CCAB, said his organization is working with the federal government and other organizations to find out what is in the development pipeline of projects in two or three years to prepare Aboriginal businesses for the RFP. (Request for Proposals) process.
“So many times we say that when the calls for tenders go out, it is too late for our aboriginal businesses to increase or respond to their capacity.”
Ottawa has taken the lead in Indigenous procurement by requiring all departments and agencies to allocate at least five percent of their procurement contracts to First Nations, Inuit and Métis businesses by 2024. It is hoped that this policy will provide approximately $ 1 billion in contract work. to be awarded annually to Aboriginal businesses.
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Panelists offered advice on how large companies can increase the number of Indigenous businesses participating in the supply chain process.
Jolicoeur mentioned that a common stumbling block is often trying to identify the right person to guide you through the maze of procurement.
“Give an Indigenous entrepreneur a point of contact that can help them navigate through the gauntlet of their sourcing portfolio. ”
He praised Alberta energy giant Suncor’s method of assigning an employee to match with an Indigenous business to help them through the process.
Trent Fequet, president and CEO of Steel River Group of Companies, said it’s up to business leaders to really facilitate these relationships.
Steel River, based in Alberta, is an Aboriginal-owned management and construction consortium with 3,000 employees.
To help Indigenous businesses get bigger contracts, Fequet suggested that the government and Canadian businesses help them with bonding and insurance requirements by looking at different ways to share risk within contract templates. This will provide opportunities for Aboriginal business groups to participate and take the next step.
The practice of joint venture partnerships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal businesses was a topic of discussion. While there have been documented successes, panelists said there were still red flags to watch out for.
Jolicoeur said he made a number of arguments for creating project-specific joint ventures.
“It’s something I don’t fully understand,” especially if it doesn’t align with his company’s long-term goals, he said.
Does it make sense, Jolicoeur asked, to invest and have a collaboration for a one-off project partnership, to develop that additional capacity within your company, and then not be able to maintain it once the project is over? ?
“I have yet to find a partnership in this model that would make sense for our business.”
Jolicoeur said he strongly believes in building a solid foundation and growing organically.
Fequet said it’s about staying true to your core beliefs when lining up with the right partners and the need to control the dialogue in those situations when you’re approached.
“Always look through the lens of your core values when choosing the right partners.”
Many companies, he noted, will relocate to an area for project work and introduce competition instead of identifying the indigenous capacity available in the area to find the right solution for the client.
Steel River follows an ecosystem-based business model, based on collaboration and mutual respect, forming partnerships with industry and First Nations partners, the ultimate goal being to build Indigenous capacity and maximize employment. in First Nations communities.
When Steel River enters a work zone, they take stock of existing and aspiring contractors, supporting them by supporting them with equipment purchases and helping them grow into forestry, industrial service and civil construction companies. in its own right.
To provide lasting jobs for Indigenous people, Fequet suggested that some large multi-million dollar government civil contracts could be restructured to be spread over years, instead of months, to allow First Nations businesses to gradually build capacity. .
When it comes to building relationships and partnerships, Brenda Dragon, of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, owner of Aurora Heat, a small manufacturer of hand, foot and natural body warmers, has encouraged entrepreneurs to maintain their autonomy. It favors “growth on my terms”.
Dragon maintains a unique supply chain by forging relationships with wild fur hunters to make warmers from beaver pelts, “a very abundant animal” in their region. She said she has entered into partnership agreements with two sports organizations, Hockey Canada and Nordiq Canada.
“We connect people to nature using natural products.”
During the pandemic, to stay afloat, Dragon tapped into government relief grants to hire a tech-savvy assistant to elevate his web presence and bring his entire business to the cloud. She reconnected with her customers through email marketing campaigns and surveys, and achieved increased sales by creating an online store on the Shopify e-commerce platform.
Despite the challenges of COVID, Dragon is often pushed back “by people who make a point of truly destroying (the) natural way of life of Indigenous peoples and many people in Canada.”
But her company offers 10 full-time and part-time positions in a territory of Canada where 44 percent of Indigenous women are unemployed.
The three entrepreneurs emphasized the importance of giving back to the communities in which they live and work.
Dragon said that Aurora Heat’s social impact program involves a contribution of one dollar with every product purchase for youth programming in the field.
Jolicoeur said his electrical contractor business reserves an entry-level position each year for an aspiring Grade 12 Indigenous student who wants to become an electrician. The company has added four new employees to its ranks in as many years.
Among Steel River’s entrepreneurial, social and cultural programming, employees can participate in a voluntary program whereby they can make a small donation, deducted from their salary, to support families and community organizations in need.