Indigenous Partnerships: ATCO’s Foundation for Doing Business

By Lisa Barrowcliffe

Alberta-based ATCO Ltd. is a familiar name in energy and utilities, and well-known for their ubiquitous, yellow-striped modular trailers you see at construction and industrial sites around the world. In their 75-year history, while becoming a diverse $25-billion global organization, they have maintained their unwavering commitment to working with Indigenous peoples around the world.

Building and sustaining Indigenous partnerships has become a hallmark of ATCO’s business. To date, they have more than 60 joint ventures, MOUs and other relationship agreements – some that have lasted decades and several that are majority Indigenous-owned equity partnerships. In 2023, the net economic benefit of these partnerships was $128M.

ATCO’s Indigenous strategy is based on four pillars:

  1. Employment
  2. Education and Training
  3. Meaningful Engagement
  4. Economic Participation.

Their engagement strategies are stewarded by an Indigenous Advisory Board and supported by an executive-level Steering Committee and representatives from each operating division. Indigenous Relations is baked-in to every aspect of doing business.

“I’m incredibly proud of our commitment to developing collaborative business models and programming with Indigenous communities,” says Nancy Southern, Chair & CEO, ATCO Ltd. “Our founder, R.D. Southern was ahead of his time more than 40 years ago, when he recognized the importance of true equity partnerships that bring real economic benefits and prosperity to future generations within their own communities.”

Many of ATCO’s Indigenous partners have a majority stake in projects, from solar power installations to operating and maintaining the North Warning System.

Innovative Training and Employment Program

One of the innovative ways ATCO Frontec, the operational support services division of ATCO, works with partners is through their Indigenous Skills Program. The program is currently running with their joint venture, Wicehtowak Frontec Services (WFS), a partnership with George Gordon Developments Ltd. WFS is the camp services provider at BHP’s Jansen Discovery Lodge in Saskatchewan.

WFS works to maximize Indigenous employment opportunities at the camp. The program, which helps develop a strong pool of candidates, is an immersive two-week hands-on training course on the skills needed to work and live in a camp.

During the course they cover culinary, housekeeping, janitorial and other roles, along with soft skills such as effective communication, teamwork, safety practices and navigating the challenges of working away from home. After successful completion of the program, graduates can be offered a full-time position within the lodge. To date, there is an overall 85 per cent employment retention rate.

“This program will help address poverty, as our community has equitable access to sustainable long-term employment, training, and education,” says Chief Bitternose, George Gordon First Nation. “It could be life changing for our people. The pride I’ve seen in our young graduates will stay with me for a long time.”

“It’s exciting to see the students thriving in their new roles,” says Tanya Rexin, Indigenous Relations Manager, ATCO Frontec. “The skills program has really evolved since we started it back in 2013 and we’re seeing more participants successfully retained, gaining confidence and valuable experience.”

Helping Communities Build Resilience

Indigenous communities have been disproportionately impacted by disaster events. Often, their remote and isolated locations and lack of local capacity to manage emergencies leaves them vulnerable to the impacts of wildfire, flooding and other disasters.

Combining decades worth of experience as a critical infrastructure provider with a proven ability to effectively partner with Indigenous communities, ATCO Frontec’s Partnering 4 Resilience (P4R) program demonstrates their commitment to support the communities that they operate in.

“Through our dedication to community engagement, honouring and embracing traditional knowledge and upholding cultural values, our P4R team supports building community resilience at the local level,” says Tyler Irving, Senior Manager, Disaster & Emergency Management.

P4R brings a tailored approach to each community’s needs allowing ATCO to address both long-standing and emerging challenges they face. The work ranges from risk assessment, functional training, research, through to execution and implementation of mitigation strategies, all conducted with the goal of enabling Indigenous ownership of emergency management.

Today, 18 Indigenous groups participate in the P4R program, and wildfire mitigation programs garner a lot of attention, as the risk across the country grows.

An example of the great work they are doing is the Blackfoot Wildfire Training Program. The project helped prepare the Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy for wildfire risks in the region. The unique project included research, wildfire training and education, as well as a review of Nation-to-Nation interoperability.

The team of experts focused on ensuring that the training courses supported the goals of the participating Nations, including cultural, social and community-specific aspects, while also meeting the formal firefighting training standards. Public hearings were held, focusing on the principles of the FireSmart program and how it applied to their communities.

“The Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy share similar wildfire risks and challenges,” says Irving. “It was great to witness the collaboration of the Nations throughout these cross-training initiatives, allowing them to create familiarity between wildfire response agencies and increasing their capacity to respond to wildfire events.”

“Blood Tribe Emergency Services has been very fortunate to have such a great working relationship with ATCO Frontec,” says Travis Coleman, Fire Chief, Blood Tribe Emergency Services. “Their programs and training have been incredibly beneficial to our Emergency Services department, and we look forward to continuing our partnership.”

ATCO demonstrates what it takes to be an industry leader in Indigenous relationships and participation, with programs and engagements that go beyond the expectations of a typical Reconciliation Action Plan. The result has been many successful partnerships and business ventures based on respect, transparency and trust.

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