First Nations partnership with construction company paying dividends
'A lot of good can come from that," says Muskowekwan First Nation Chief Reg Bellerose
Pat Laliberte starts work at 4 a.m., climbing into the truck and driving the water wherever it's needed.
His company, KDM Constructors, is contracted to haul water and help with construction at the BHP Jansen potash mine east of Saskatoon.
KDM Constructors is a unique partnership that's creating jobs and wealth for First Nations people. Laliberte has worked on job sites across Saskatchewan and Alberta, but the Canoe Lake Cree Nation band member said working for a First Nations-controlled company means a lot to him.
"You know, we're not just good looking and stuff like that. We've got brains, too," Laliberte said with a laugh. "Given the opportunity, everyone benefits."
KDM is a joint venture between three First Nations — Kawakatoose, Day Star and Muskowekwan — and the Saskatchewan-based SECON Group of Companies. It was established a few years ago and has already grown to 70 employees.
Saskatchewan companies have been partnering with Indigenous communities for years.
As longtime Muskowekwan Chief Reg Bellerose noted, the original links were established in the treaties when settlers and Indigenous people agreed to share the land, water and resources of the territory that would become Saskatchewan.
In many cases, those treaties were not honoured. For decades, First Nations people were barred from participating in the mainstream economy, requiring permission to go off-reserve to work or sell their farm produce.
But the creation of institutions such as the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology has produced hundreds of skilled workers.
Businesses began to form links with many First Nations in recent years. A company would sponsor a powwow or buy sports equipment for local teams. Workers would sometimes take a sensitivity training course.
SECON CEO and President Michael Sivernagle said that's all fine, but it doesn't lead to systemic change. He wanted to do more than "put a checkmark in the box" for Indigenous engagement.
Silvernagle is from Biggar and had no connections to Indigenous communities when he started his career. Over time, he met some key people.
He said he had an epiphany several years ago when he was given a copy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report.
Its 94 calls to action include a section on the economy and business. He realized he had a duty to do whatever he could to make things better.
"I feel it's our obligation and I know we're not going to solve everything, but we want to be part of the solution," he said.
The result was KDM Constructors. Bellerose, Silvernagle and others agreed to the terms several years ago. SECON owns 40 per cent, but the three First Nations control the company with the remaining 60 per cent share.
"It's different than the other arrangements in the province," Silvernagle said.
"We aren't interested in just filling construction slots with First Nations people. It's about providing opportunity to people that have barriers. That's quite different than what's going on in the province. Every company in industry seems to donate funds to training people, but there's really no link."
Bellerose said he's entered into other business deals with Saskatchewan companies, but this partnership with Silvernagle is different.
"We started to have these kind of talks, not just shared profits, but actually form a legitimate First Nation controlled company. To start to say 'How can we approach this together?' There's a lot of alignment and a lot of good can come from that," Bellerose said.
Bellerose and Silvernagle said it's also been helpful that large resource companies such as BHP consider them for contracts, especially when they do business on traditional First Nations territory.
KDM Constructors recently paid out a $1-million distribution to the three member First Nations. KDM employees are also hard at work building a new family wellness centre at Muskowekwan. They hope to open the doors later this year.
Bellerose and Silvernagle say they expect continued growth in the years to come and are in talks to land other contracts. They say these partnerships, if done right, can help both sides reconcile and honour the original Treaty partnership.