Former Independent Contractors and Businesses Association president Philp Hochstein was the moderator for the "building the aboriginal connection" session at the Open Shop Leaders Forum held on May 9 in Whistler, B.C., with panelists Laurie Sterritt, the director of aboriginal development and business development at BC Hydro, and Terry Brown, a partner at Legacy Bowes Group Business Advisory Services.
Brown began by saying the reason to do business with First Nations is not only a young workforce but also that there are over 1600 grants available and only 300 are used every funding cycle. There are also programs for education and training, and environmental and natural resources projects are also eligible for funding when First Nations communities are involved.
The main challenge with nations, Brown said, is to create world class proposals, and instead of hiring consultants, he appealed to those in the room to assist First Nations to meet this challenge.
Best practices, Brown said are to realize that every nation is different. Find out the "ask" of the nation. Is it jobs, economic development, or social benefit? He added one can also talk to those who have already done business with a nation, and the federal government has first nation profiles and organization management status web sites.
Brown broke down the three types of First Nations as "warriors, workers, and leaders." He said warriors equates to activism, and that activism can be bad for business and hold back a nation.
Sterritt said she was drawn to BC Hydro not only to facilitate more aboriginal engagement but also to help with the many capital projects being developed in remote locations.
"These communities are going to be around a long time and so are we, so we'd better do something different," Sterritt said.
Commitments from BC Hydro include sharing information about projects in traditional First Nations territories, find opportunities for meaningful infrastructure, employment and training for First Nations.
"We have a strategic imperative to improve our relations with Aboriginal communities," Sterritt said.
She added that in some cases, working with First Nations means owning up to past mistakes.
With increased building, BC Hydro will rely on its contractor network to engage with First Nations she said.
One very important reason for increased engagement is that it is often difficult to attract workers to remote areas, and First Nations are already in those areas and could be long-term partners and workers with BC Hydro.
If a company is new to this change in engagement, Sterritt advised, it can be best to try for incremental change rather than tackling a big problem all at once.
The BC Hydro process is to first create awareness trough outreach, scholarships and site visits, then create skill-building through youth programs and pre-apprentice programs as well as supporting training for pre-requisites. Training consists of apprenticeships and other aspects of corporate work, and finally hiring and retaining.
In the last year BC Hydro has had 53 aboriginal hires, and 18 out of 20 youth hires were aboriginal. BC Hydro also completed and implemented a new aboriginal procurement policy and new procurement contracts, and supported procurement and capital projects across the province.
BC Hydro is asking First Nations to tell them who they are partnering with for projects, which may in some cases be self-owned.
"Demonstrate leadership, be courageous and challenge your assumptions," Sterritt said," and don't be fearful of doing the wrong thing."
Sterritt also said it's important to approach a community with a long-term relationship in mind. "If you're coming just to get what you need short term, they can see you coming a mile away," she said.
"It's like climbing Everest," Brown added. You don't climb Everest without help from a Sherpa, and you shouldn't enter into a relationship without talking to firms like BC Hydro who have already engaged with First Nations. "Know what you're getting into. I've seen horror stories and I've seen great successes," Brown said.