Fort McKay First Nation: A Success Story
For as long as local Indigenous oral tradition has been shared, stories have been told about black tar dripping from the banks of the Athabasca River. It was even used to seal the canoes used by local First Nations.
According to Cree Burn Lake archaeology, Indigenous people have been living in Northern Alberta for 9,500 years. The Athabasca River served as the highway system for those who hunted along its banks and fished in its deep waters.
History recalls that the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post along the Athabasca close to Fort McKay in 1820. This helped usher in the prosperous fur trade and trapping economy to the region.
Nearly 80 years later, Fort McKay signed onto Treaty 8, a peace and friendship agreement with the Crown. It guaranteed its Indigenous signatories to “have the right to continue with our way of life for as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow.”
But then came the oil sands and the circumstances leading this once isolated community to work with industry came with a struggle.
When industry suddenly arrived with heavy equipment and government backing to clear the land for mining, Fort McKay resisted.
Dorothy MacDonald was chief of Fort McKay First Nation (FMFN) at the time and the first elected female chief in Alberta. She is often remembered as a beloved warrior for her community.
When she passed away in December 2005, her husband, Rod Hyde, noted in a remembrance document that before his wife’s stance against industry, oil companies did whatever they wanted and neglected the aboriginal neighbours.
MacDonald set up a road blockade, organized in part by now Chief Jim Boucher, in 1983 to protest the logging trucks speeding through her community. Soon other community members joined her, supporting her crusade against industry, and its lack of consultation and regard for them. The six-day protest made national headlines and the Alberta Government sent officials to negotiate with MacDonald and industry.
The result was a capped speed of 30 km/h and guaranteed pilot trucks to accompany the logging trucks to ensure the community’s safety.
MacDonald went on to champion trappers’ rights, women’s and children’s rights, and protection of the environment during her life.
While she recognized that FMFN couldn’t really stop the industry and its growth, MacDonald had a lasting impact on how that industry conducted itself and treated its aboriginal neighbours.
With the realization that the ways of the world were changing, MacDonald decided it was in the best interest of her community to embrace the opportunities that presented themselves with the resource development boom rather than being left in the dust.
That foresight has been continued by Boucher, who has been Chief for 29 or the last 30 years. He has taken what MacDonald started and grown FMFN into one of the most profitable and successful First Nations across this country.
While some have criticized FMFN for being a sell-out, others recognize it has taken advantage of the opportunities brought to its doorstep – advantages that have significantly improved the lives of the Nation’s members.
Boucher acknowledges that environmental activists have turned the oil sands debate into a for-or-against situation; a choice between pipelines or a clean environment.
“They say we can’t have both, but we can. We can protect the environment and allow development to proceed.”
He adds it will involve having conversations around regulations, regulatory bodies and expectations that Canadians have around these topics so that we can continue to grow as a country and be sure that First Nations’ people – along with all of Canada - grow economically, socially and politically.
“We created our Sustainability Department to do just that: to find a balance between environment protection and economic growth and development, and it’s working for us. It can work for the rest of the country as well.”
Boucher explains that adaptability is vital to navigating the ever-changing landscape, whether changes are economic, politically, or environmental.
“Our community is benefiting from oil sands development, but we do so because there are no other economic opportunities. We have to adapt in order for us to thrive. If we are adaptable, then we can find new ways to sustain our way of life and our traditions.”
In 1986, FMFN formed the Fort McKay Group of Companies (FMGOC), a large oilfield construction and services company. It started with a single janitorial contract and six employees. Now, it’s comprised of three Limited Partnerships: Fort McKay Strategic Services LP, Fort McKay Logistics LP, and Steep Bank Earth LP. FMGOC offers a variety of services such as earthworks, site services, fleet maintenance, fuel services, reclamation support services, and logistics. In 2014, the company officially expanded Fort McKay Logistics LP into the Edmonton region.
“When I was young, our people were hunters, trappers and traders, and we relied on the land to provide the community with a sustainable economy. Once the fur ban in Europe went into effect, combined with the oil industry moving into the area, our people lost everything and our economy was devastated,” recalls Boucher. “We needed a way to sustain a healthy community and to find new sources of revenue. Creating the Fort McKay Group of Companies meant that we could grow and provide a sustainable economy for our people for generations to come.”
FMFN and FMGOC have become one of the most successful First Nation controlled ventures in Canada with an average revenue of $506 million between 2012 and 2016.
“It is a good feeling knowing that our people are thriving and that our community is healthy because we were able to take advantage of the opportunities that came from the oil sands industry.”
FMGOC employs approximately 1,000 people with goal of a minimum of 20% aboriginal employee content. A primary aim of FMGOC is to provide benefits to FMFN. Some of the profits go directly into the community by way of housing development, infrastructure, health, recreation, sponsorship’s and various other community programs; the rest of the profits are re-invested in the companies to keep them financially strong.
In 1998, shortly after Canada’s oils sands strategy was announced, the Fort McKay Industry Relations Corporation (IRC), now the Sustainability Department was created to help improve the relationship with industry. The IRC also negotiated environmental and socio-economic agreements and conducted detailed reviews of environmental impact agreements.
“I encourage youth to get involved in entrepreneurial opportunities because these opportunities will allow our people to prosper and build meaningful relationships that will benefit themselves and the community,” the Chief explains.
In speaking of FMFN’s success, Boucher believes all First Nations should start managing their own wealth and affairs, and shouldn’t allow governments to be administering on their behalf. Each Nation should be governing themselves in a way that is best suited for them. “Only we know what is in our best interest, not governments. Here at Fort McKay First Nation, we work on consensus. Nothing is passed by myself and council until we all agree. We fought hard for this autonomy and we are very proud to say that we make all our own decisions.”
The latest milestone in the FMFN success story is its newly constructed continuing care facility, built at the behest of the Elders so they no longer need to travel to Fort McMurray for specialized care.
“We want to keep as many people in the community for as long as possible.”
Officially opening on June 22 during FMFN’s Treaty Day celebrations, the new facility has 16 rooms and 18 beds.
“We are very proud to be able to operate this facility, as our Elders are very important to our community,” says Boucher.
FMFN is just like any other communities with aspirations, hopes and dreams for the future, and the ability to achieve its goals.
“Fort McKay is a healthy, self-sustaining community. It is so because we manage prosperity and not poverty,” says Boucher. “Our success to date has given us the opportunity to develop young leaders among our youth. I am confident that they will rise to the occasion and will continue on with our vision.”