With Roberta Soo-Oyewaste, manager of the Pasqua First Nation Group of Companies
A little over a year ago, Pasqua First Nation acquired Pro Metal Industries in Regina — the band’s first investment in manufacturing. Why manufacturing and why now?
For starters, Saskatchewan has led Canada in manufacturing growth over the past decade, outpacing the national average more than 13 times over. Wages have kept pace as well, creating sustainable, quality employment opportunities for our people. And finally, it helps to deepen our relationship with the commodities sector — specifically, oil and gas producers and potash mines. This diversification, toward strategic areas of our economy, better positions us to leverage some of the major, new capital projects in the region, from the K+S potash mine in Bethune to the Enbridge Line Three replacement, which will run through Treaty Four Territory (which Pasqua First Nation is a part of).
What is the approach you have taken to strengthen those relationships in the resource sector?
Resource developers recognize the need to engage Indigenous Peoples. It is not the sole responsibility of those companies, however, to do so on their own. First Nations have an equal role to play in coming to the table. Through the leadership of Chief and council, we made the decision early on that we wanted to be a supplier of high-value solutions — not just of temporary labour or low-value services. That is why the band and Pro Metal have invested heavily in the clean technology space, exploring partnerships and manufacturing opportunities to provide developers with Indigenous-made solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet their ecological obligations. Some of the technology we are pursuing we believe will be game-changing. As the traditional keepers of the land, water, and air, it makes a lot of sense for Indigenous Peoples to take a leadership role in solving those big-picture problems.
How do you transition brand new Indigenous employees into that kind of a complex environment?
The short answer is that Pro Metal has had to vary its revenue mix to expand the types of positions available. For example, in a minimal amount of time, we have become the first — at least we think — 100 per cent Indigenous-owned military supplier in Canada. Perhaps more importantly, we’ve also brought on production of an agricultural implement line. Most fabrication jobs, such as welders and machinists, require an advanced set of skills. But, by introducing an assembly-style workflow, we’ve been able to bring on otherwise untrained workers and provide them the training once they are in the business and demonstrate what they have an interest in. Over the course of roughly 16 months, we’ve doubled the size of the company and have gone from zero Indigenous employees to roughly 50 per cent.
What advice do you have for other manufacturers looking to increase their Indigenous workforces?
Indigenous or non-Indigenous, everyone is a unique individual. So, why would you treat everyone the exact same? Take the time to get to know your employees, who they are, where they come from, and what they’re passionate about. It can be a daunting experience for an Indigenous person to enter a workforce where there are no other Indigenous peers. Just imagine for a second yourself in his or her shoes if the roles were reversed. That’s why you tend to find some organizations with a strong Indigenous presence and many with none. Therefore, onboarding multiple employees, or at least in close succession, can be an effective strategy. The best approach, though, is to be open, proactive, and sincere in your conversations. Take a genuine interest. Break down artificial barriers. Understand and embrace different cultures. There will undoubtedly be discussions — like how to manage Treaty Day, which is generally a holiday for Indigenous Peoples — that will impact your entire team. It’s best for everyone to have a shared understanding and a common language.
What do you think the future holds for Indigenous Peoples and the manufacturing industry?
It would be fair to say there is a close correlation between improved employment outcomes for Indigenous Peoples and the number of Indigenous-owned businesses. To that extent, I think there is immense opportunity for First Nations investment in the manufacturing sector. And it is something we are already starting to see on the Prairies. As with any investment in any business, however, it is essential to do your due diligence, ask the right questions, and ensure you have the right people on the bus. We have been fortunate to benefit from the help of an excellent team that has expert knowledge in acquiring, reconfiguring, and growing globally competitive manufacturing enterprises. There’s no doubt that has been a big part of our success, and we’re hoping it can serve as a model for others to follow.