They say two heads are better than one, many hands make light work, and it takes a village to raise a child. As these proverbs suggest, the idea of people from different walks of life working together toward common goals is not new.
But what is becoming increasingly important is for resource companies to figure out how to work with external groups toward a shared vision of social prosperity (see Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo for an example of this). As resource development increasingly takes place on the traditional lands of Aboriginal peoples, the question of how to work well together is a big one.
That’s why I feel so fortunate to have spent the last two years researching this topic through the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program at the University of Calgary. With the guidance of advisors in the faculties of Law, Commerce, and Sociology, I explored the key criteria for success in collaborative initiatives between Aboriginal communities and natural resource companies.
I was especially lucky to be able to focus my research on Aboriginal-corporate collaborative initiatives in the oil sands by looking at the evolution of these kinds of projects at Suncor over the last decade. It was especially helpful to get first hand information from representatives of Chip Manufacturing, Mikisew Industrial Supply, the Fort McKay Business Incubator, people from the communities of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation, and Fort McKay First Nation, and from my colleagues at Suncor.
Chip Manufacturing is 100% owned by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation based in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. The company makes industrial wrist protectors made of Kevlar. Started in the late 1990s with a loan from Suncor which was paid back within six months, the company now employs more than 15 local members based in the remote community.
Long-time Chip Manufacturing employee, Audrey Piche, sews industrial wrist protectors made of Kevlar. Photo credit: Chip Manufacturing.
Mikisew Industrial Supply began as Mikisew Slings around 2003 as a way to provide employment for Mikisew Cree First Nation’s Edmonton-based band members. Through a business development loan from Suncor and effective implementation of a Four-Way Accountability Agreement, Mikisew Industrial Supply is a successful producer of load bearing, lifting and tie down safety products.
The Fort McKay Business Incubator was started in 2009 as a joint initiative between Suncor and the Fort McKay First Nation. Based in the Fort McKay administration building, it provides business development support to entrepreneurs from the Fort McKay community. The Incubator’s pilot is slated to wrap up this year and the parties plan to take a close look at what’s next for this innovative collaboration.
So what did I find out after all this research? Well, you may have to tune into future OSQARs to get some more detailed answers, but basically my research focused on three main areas.
The first is Aboriginal community economic development, which I proposed as the main reason why communities would be interested in working with resource companies. The second area is what I thought was the main motivator for resource companies to enter into these kinds of collaborations: the “social license to operate.” And finally, I looked at other kinds of cross-sector partnerships to understand what challenges need to be overcome and what processes can be put in place to help groups from different sectors work together and achieve long term success.
After all that – and a case study review of three of Suncor’s collaborative initiatives over the last decade – I came up with five key criteria for success in Aboriginal-corporate collaborative initiatives:
- Community-defined development goals;
- Transparent corporate motivation;
- Mutual trust, joint accountability, and continuous communication;
- Cross-cultural bridging mechanisms, such as involvement of a culturally-literate person who is comfortable in both Aboriginal and corporate cultures; and
- A common goal with sustainable mutual benefits.
My specific research on Suncor showed a trend over the last decade toward an increasingly collaborative approach to working with Aboriginal communities. I also learned that just because an approach is collaborative doesn’t mean that it will be successful or even that it’s the right approach for the situation.
That being said, for Aboriginal communities and resource companies that truly want to work together for a shared vision of social prosperity, applying all five of these criteria would be a good start.