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Coming Full Circle on Giving Back to The College and Community

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Chris Wilson has two reasons for his success: hard work and Keyano College. The first one came naturally to him. The second was thanks to Syncrude Canada, his then employer, who sent him to Keyano to complete a Heavy Duty Mechanic apprenticeship. Today, Wilson is the owner of Birch Mountain Enterprises Ltd., (BME) a fluid handling, waste management and steaming specialist group, known for its excellence in industry and based in Fort McKay.

Wilson, 41, began his Keyano journey in 1996. He was working for Syncrude as a general labourer until this point when he took the company’s offer to start an apprenticeship. By 2000 he had completed his journeyman certificate in the same field.

His 11-year productive career at Syncrude Canada taught him much about the heavy industry business. In 2005, in consultation with Syncrude’s management, as well as his family and friends, he started his own company, Birch Mountain Enterprises.

“Syncrude and Keyano taught me everything. I was fortunate to work for Syncrude. At the age of 25 I started to have many business ideas, but not the courage to start. And, within a year, I would see someone else start what I had been thinking,” recalls Wilson.

“So I finally took the chance, thanks to my brother, Lee Wilson, and friend Ivan Boucher, who encouraged me to start Birch Mountain,” adds Wilson, who was born and raised in Fort McKay, and is a member of the Fort McKay First Nation.

The company was started with one mechanic’s truck. Fort McKay Group of Companies supported the endeavour, and a month later, Wilson’s brother, also a Keyano graduate, and a Syncrude veteran, joined him. Ivan Boucher came on board a year later, and you guessed it, is also a Keyano alum, and a Syncrude veteran. The men soon added steam trucks, which are mobile, industrial pressure washers to the fleet and ventured into fluid handling; potable water was next.

 “We realized we were getting busier with things snowballing for our business. Syncrude came on as a client, and in 2008 when the recession hit, we were growing. Because we could fix our own machinery, thanks to our Keyano education, we didn’t need to hire additional staff. All three of us can vouch for being out till 2 a.m., to fix a truck for a 6 a.m. work start,” Wilson shares with a chuckle.

“Keyano gave me the fundamental tools to start and grow my business. Small class sizes meant getting more attention from my instructors. They were all so helpful with practical teaching styles, especially Mike Simard (now retired),” recalls Wilson.

“BME’s exceptional growth now includes complete vac services, steaming, fluid hauling, hydro excavating, gravel hauling, and waste management.”

In addition, it owns and operates the Tumbleweed General Store and Petro-Canada gas station in the Fort McKay Industrial Park. Continually adapting to meet the needs of the industry, the company is embarking on an innovative wastewater treatment plant, which will improve the well-being and overall quality of life for surrounding First Nation communities and the greater Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo population.

His diligence, and dedication to his work has now made BME a proven and dependable fluid handling, complete waste management and steaming specialist company, serving all major oil sands contractors and producers in the Wood Buffalo region. The company boasts 270 employees, 58 per cent of whom are Aboriginal; seeks First Nation and Aboriginally owned sub-contractors whenever possible, and is wholly Aboriginally owned and local.

And, this hasn’t gone unnoticed. BME has been a recipient of the 2016 CANDO (Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers) Economic Developer of the Year Award, was the 2014 NAABA (Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association) Entrepreneur of the Year award recipient, and the 2014 Regional Aboriginal Recognition Award (RARA) as well as the 2008 Youth Aboriginal Entrepreneur for Alberta.

The business continues to expand. A division of Birch Mountain Enterprises, Mountain Fuels was established in 2016 to provide convenient and reliable 24/7 cardlock fueling service as well as bulk fuel delivery.

Lee Wilson remembers starting out small, and working hard alongside his younger brother. The Vice President and Manager for BME, he was born in Fort McMurray, and raised in Fort McKay. Lee started his Keyano education in 1994. Four years later he had secured his heavy trades journeyman status.

“Being able to work with Chris is rewarding. Going to Keyano meant not having to leave home, and that was just great. They have world-class certification, which is recognized through Canada. I have my Red Seal, which means I can work anywhere in Canada. I’m a firm believer in education, and promote it with my children too,” Lee shares.

In addition, Lee appreciates the support Birch Mountain Enterprises receives from Keyano in order to keep the business going.

“Not only do we hire trades professionals, but office administration folks. And, we continue to send people back to Keyano College for health and safety, and human resources courses, to name a few. Without Keyano’s support for the region and industry, we wouldn’t be able to function. We would have to send employees down the highway. They are a great resource in the community.”

Chris agrees. Not one to sit on his laurels, or to keep his success to himself, Wilson is a huge community supporter. Through BME, he continues to create numerous sustainable career and training opportunities for members of the Fort McKay First Nation, so they can live and work on the reserve. The company champions childcare, sports, education, and traditional activities in the hamlet. In addition, Birch Mountain has provided financial support for well over a hundred programs and causes in the region over the years.

Youth programs are near and dear to Wilson, who sponsors many local initiatives. This includes Native Youth hockey teams, Trappers football association and Bowman’s Taekwondo Prestige Fighting Championships to name a few. Northern Lights Regional Health Centre’s Festival of Trees has also been on the list of .

This giving back was front and centre on May 3 last year when the city was engulfed in flames. Wilson donated six, 100-barrell water trucks, and continued to help with the firefighting efforts for days before being hired by the city.

Nevertheless, Keyano tops his list of causes to support. He is sponsoring the Foundation’s annual Gala for the next three years, and has been lending a hand for various projects related to Huskies Athletics, youth, and academics for a number of years.

“Chris Wilson has been a great supporter of Keyano for years now,” says Dr. Tracy Edwards, President and CEO of Keyano College.

“He has helped us through his company, as well as supporting us as an individual.  He buys tickets to our Gala event, contributes as a sponsor, and on top of that does not sit on his hands when the live auction comes up. We truly appreciate his generosity to support our students.”

Indeed, last year’s Gala saw him purchase $40,000 worth of items during the live auction, in addition to being a sponsor for the last three years. Next, he has eyes set on sponsoring Keyano’s Sport & Wellness Centre equipment, a gym he frequents “all the time.”

So what drives him? Why Keyano?

“I’m very fortunate to be able to give back. To support Keyano – where it all started for me is very important. And, at the end of the day it’s being a good neighbour, coming full circle,” he says. 

“I’m inspired by Syncrude Canada, Imperial Oil, and Shell – this is what happens when major companies support local contractors. We are then able to give back directly to the community we were raised in. I’m eager to help. If it wasn’t for Keyano, I might not be where I am today.”