Day after day for 26 years at her sewing machine, seamstress Mary Houle has pieced together strips of blue fabric and reflective tape to make the high quality, fire-retardant clothing worn by workers at the Syncrude and Suncor oilsands sites in northern Alberta.

Houle has sewn thousands of garments in that time, yet she's still thrilled when she sees the tag inside the garment that says it was made in Goodfish Lake.

"I wouldn't know what to do if I wasn't working," Houle said. "I really enjoy the work in here. It would be hard if there was no job here at Goodfish Lake."

Houle works alongside nine other seamstresses at the manufacturing plant on the Goodfish Lake First Nation, about 365 kilometres south of Fort McMurray.  The plant is one of two profitable businesses the band has operated for 30 years. A drycleaning plant also cleans the coveralls worn by oilsands workers.

"We basically have five-year term contracts with our customer — namely Syncrude and Suncor. Imperial Oil, we have a three-year contract with them," said George Halfe, CEO of the Goodfish Lake Development Corp.

"At the end of the term, just before they expire, we always re-negotiate and we earn these contracts by the level of service and the level of commitment that we put into our business."

Businesses created in 1978

In 1978, the band leadership realized the burgeoning oilsands industry could give the First Nation a chance to create jobs, so they tried to figure out what service the band could deliver.

"There was a need identified for coverall cleaning. As a result it has grown to be one of the largest industrial dry-cleaning companies in Canada," said the manager of the drycleaning plant, Kevin Half.

Today, the two businesses employ 100 people. The drycleaning plant processes about 20,000 coveralls each week, and a fleet of ten trucks runs the garments between Goodfish Lake and Fort McMurray.

"The majority — 90% — of the employees are from here," said 16-year veteran Ron Jackson. "Where else would a lot of these people work? You know, they'd have to go out and travel and I can't imagine how it would be without the business, employment-wise."

The money generated by the two businesses goes back into the band's coffers to help fund projects such as road improvements on the First Nation.

"We're starting to create a little bit of wealth in that capacity that we're starting to share some of the profits that the company generates," Halfe said.

The success of Goodfish Lake in creating jobs for its people has attracted attention from other First Nations in Canada. Delegations from Quebec and Ontario have toured the band's businesses in hopes of getting tips they can bring back home. 


With files from Gareth Hampshire