Construction Firms Create New Departments to Better Work with Indigenous Communities


An increasing number of construction firms across Canada are committing to building their own Indigenous relations departments to help enhance how they cooperate with Indigenous communities and probably address a rising labor shortage.

Whereas the duties of every department differ from firm to firm, many seek to employ Indigenous workers, hire Indigenous subcontractors, and collaborate with Indigenous leaders to schedule construction projects.

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There are no difficult numbers on how many firms have started these departments; however, many large construction companies have, as per Mary Van Buren, president of the Canadian Construction Association.

“It’s becoming more a part of doing business,” she said.

Van Buren’s organization represents 20,000 construction companies in Canada.

Construction firms have been slowly creating Indigenous relations departments over the last couple of years, though recently more emphasis has been put on them, as per Duncan Williams, president and Chief Executive of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia.

Hiring staff particularly to work with Indigenous groups pleases Paul Proper, a regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations. He represents Nova Scotia as well as Newfoundland and Labrador.

Prosper said it is vital that firms understand the dynamics that exist in Indigenous communities and work to build open and trustworthy relationships with them before they begin construction projects on Indigenous land.

“I think it’s certainly a good thing to see that concerted effort and that emphasis on, you know, engagement within Aboriginal and Mi’kmaw communities. I certainly commend that approach,” he said.

Attracting new workers

Many firms are “attempting all kinds of different strategies to attract Indigenous and underrepresented groups into the industry,” said Van Buren.

Attracting new workers is very crucial right now due to the mass retirement of baby boomers expected over the next decade. The country’s construction sector will need to hire, train, and retain 309,000 new workers as we get closer to 2030, as per a national report from BuildForce Canada.

BuildForce is a firm that studies the construction industry and assembles long-term labor forecasts.

In Nova Scotia alone, it is expected that between 8,000 and 9,000 mew workers will need to be hired by 2020, said the Construction Association of Nova Scotia’s Duncan Williams.

“Diversity breeds creativity,” said Williams. “The more we can tap into that untapped talent, the better. It brings about creativity, it brings about innovation, but it also addresses a very dire need for labor.”

Indigenous youth could help solve that labor shortage, as per Tim Laronde, a member of the Nipissing First Nation in Ontario and national director of Indigenous strategies with Chandos Construction.

He said the fastest-growing demographic in the country right now is Indigenous youth. If this young population takes an interest in construction, it would be a win-win for the sector and Indigenous communities, he added.

“Ultimately, the end result would be creating economic wealth for these communities and for these individuals. I think it’s great the construction industry is embracing that,” said Laronde.

Laronde believes many firms are establishing departments such as his due to the calls to action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission was established as a requirement of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the biggest class-action settlement in Canadian History.

The commission made a detailed account of what happened to Indigenous children who were physically and mentally abused in Canada’s residential school system.

Part of that final report were 94 calls to action to repair the harm caused by residential schools. One call in particular on that list was number 92, which asked for businesses in Canada to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“It’s really an opportunity to try to work more closely with Indigenous communities, so I think a lot of corporations are kind of looking at their own vision and mission and they decided that this is a tremendous opportunity to help a group of people who have been disadvantaged,” said Laronde.

Chandos Construction is doing so by recruiting Indigenous workers and working on business development programs to build joint ventures with Indigenous communities. The firm is additionally examining ways to hire more Indigenous subcontracting firms.

‘Renew that relationship’

Bird Construction has been following suit by implementing policies and programs to try and positively contribute to the overall well-being of the Indigenous people the firm comes into contact with.

“How can we create an opportunity to allow these Indigenous people to grow and to thrive? That’s just a cultural philosophy we have at Bird,” said Jeff Provost, Indigenous business relations manager for Bird Construction and a Métis from Manitoba.

Apart from just recruiting Indigenous workers, Provost believes employing Indigenous businesses as subcontractors is one of the best methods to acquire and keep money in Indigenous communities.

In the northern British Columbia community, Bird is building housing for workers at a liquefied natural gas plant. A third of all Bird’s subcontractors on that project were Indigenous firms. Provost estimates on that project $148m will be paid out to indigenous firms.

Another project to establish a recreational center at Red Sucker Lake First Nation in Manitoba saw the firm put $391, 000 into the community by hiring seven local workers, along with paying for local equipment and materials. Provost said those funds represent 8.9% of the total value of the project.

“We understand that we’re probably still at the beginning of our economic reconciliation journey,” said Provost.

“I really do encourage companies out there to take this seriously … this is a gauntlet that’s thrown down for everyone in Canada to again renew that relationship with Indigenous people. It can be better. “