As flames engulfed Fort McMurray on May 1, 2016, the CEO and co-owner of one of the region’s largest contracting companies was wading waist-deep through a ravine to get her children. As the evacuation was unfolding, nearby roads were blocked off, so after driving south from the Fort MacKay head office of the Bouchier Group, Nicole Bourque-Bouchier parked her car and crossed through the water, rounding up her frightened kids and their passports, IDs and photos. As the evacuation continued, they fled south. Not long after, she was frantically writing emails to her management team. Though the extent of the damage wouldn’t be known until much later, she knew instantly that the wildfire – which would soon swell to more than half a million hectares and become the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history – would have a devastating impact on the financial health of her company. “This was going to be our catchup year,” she says, with a nod to the weak economic conditions of the past year and a half. “We were just getting the right organizational structure in place to support that growth. We’re going to have to revisit all of that.” Bourque–Bouchier is a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, and her husband, David, is a member and councillor of the Fort MacKay First Nation. They formed Bouchier in 1998 with a single piece of used machinery and have built it into one of the largest and most reputable businesses in the Wood Buffalo region, employing more than 700 people and boasting a roster of clients including Cenovus, BP, Imperial Oil and Shell. They’ve branched out from equipment contracting to servicing the oil and gas sector. But the immensity of the wildfire means Bouchier and other Aboriginal companies are part of a more troubling narrative now, too, one that threatens the hard-fought gains of the last 15 years. You can’t discuss the economy of Wood Buffalo without bringing Aboriginal business into the conversation. Surrounding Fort McMurray are Conklin, Janvier, Fort MacKay, Anzac and Fort Chipewyan, homes to many First Nations and Métis communities. Around 12 per cent of Fort McMurray residents are of Aboriginal ancestry, three times the national average, and around 12,000 Aboriginal people live within the municipality. Since 2000, Aboriginal companies have earned more than $8 billion in revenue through relationships with the oil and gas sector; Shell, for example, has spent upwards of $1 billion with Aboriginal contractors in the last decade, and the Fort MacKay Group of Companies, owned by the First Nation, collects more than $100 million in revenue every year through its members’ work in the oil sands. Companies like Syncrude have made it policy to contract significant volumes of work through Aboriginal companies, and those numbers, and companies’ budgets for Aboriginal hires, continue to rise every year. So when we discuss the future of Fort McMurray, its recovery and rebuild after the fire, we’re also, by default, discussing the future of Aboriginal business in the region. Perhaps even more so, since many of these Aboriginal-owned businesses are small, at least compared to the corporate behemoths they work alongside. And small businesses, operating without much margin, will be hardest pressed to survive a period of diminished revenue. To say nothing of the businesses that lost everything. Take Bouchier. Throughout the fire, the company kept between 150 to 200 employees on shift, but had to give more than 300 layoffs. It was a logistical nightmare – to meet payroll, Bourque-Bouchier set up office in Edmonton within two days. “When you’re our size, you have to keep going,” she says. “You can’t say, ‘We’re going to shut down for one month.’” She hopes to hire back as many of her laid-off employees as possible. But the 15 to 20 per cent growth she’d envisioned won’t be possible. The hit to cash flow will radically alter the course of the next three months, and, depending on how quickly economic activity in the region picks up again, long after, too. “It’s going to be a big hit to our overall sales figures for the year,” she adds. “What would have been a really straight path in terms of growth projection has definitely been depleted.” Clem Organ, the CEO of Corgan Industrial, another Aboriginal-owned company in Fort McMurray, points to a separate consequence for Aboriginal-owned businesses. He, too, scrambled for four days to track down his employees, who’d scattered across Alberta and B.C. He did payroll with a notepad and pen, and had to photograph important documents, since they didn’t have scanners. On the day of the evacuation, employees ran out of the office with computers they’d unplugged in haste; in the ensuing month, they did what they could with what they were able to carry out. But the real challenge will be the long game. Because of the scale of the fire, the rebuild will leave businesses like Corgan, which aren’t equipped to deal with a project of such magnitude, mostly out of the picture. “Fort McMurray cannot heal itself,” he says. “You’ll hear a lot of sabre rattling about how locals should be rebuilding. But they can’t. We don’t have the resources – we have carpenters who’ve lost all their tools, company trucks that have been burned out, no income for a month and outstanding credit.” Not only does this shut them out of rebuild contracts, but it could lose them contracts they already have. Four Corgan employees working on a contract with Shell lost their homes, and so Shell dropped Corgan from the contract. Though it works against him, Organ understands. Taking the position of a contractor, he says, “If you’re a million-dollar company, why would I give you a $10-million contract and set you up to fail? If you don’t have a place to sleep, how are you going to rebuild the rest of the community?” If these are the concerns of the day for Aboriginal businesses in Fort McMurray, what about a year down the road? Five years? Ten? Is it possible that the fire stifles the growth that was starting to come back, and creates a low-productivity environment that’s unwelcoming for new investment? Justin Herman, the president of the Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association (NAABA) says the long-term projections are still bullish. “I know [investment] in Aboriginal businesses will decrease, as it has for non-Aboriginal businesses,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say I’m concerned, because I’m confident it’s going to bounce back. If you want to take anything positive out of it, the fire did drive the price of oil back up, which gives contractors a bit more job security.” Plus, there’s been an incredible amount of progress on the amount of Aboriginal hiring done by the oil sands’ producers. Herman says Suncor’s Aboriginal spending was around $484 million in 2014. But even with the downturn, that jumped up to nearly $600 million in 2015. “That’s a big credit to the advancement in Aboriginal business,” Herman says.
After The Beast: A look at First Nations business