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Alberta’s Ermineskin Cree Nation: Industrial Relations Training Program

With Treaty #6 signed in 1885, the Ermineskin Cree Nation is a member of the Four Nations of Maskwacis, Alberta, located in Central Alberta about fifty miles south of Edmonton. With a base of approximately 10,633 hectares in the Bear Hills, the Cree people of the Ermineskin Cree Nation have a relationship since time immemorial to the area of land that now comprises the Ermineskin Reserve.

In 2014, the reserve created a new division, Ermineskin Industrial Relations (EIR), and quickly identified within it a need to work with partners in offering skills training and work placements to its people. The Canadian Business Quarterly spoke recently with the division’s Economic Development Officer, Alex Littlechild, and Programs Manager Christina Aguilar Sanchez to discuss the success of this venture.

Starting Up

Before the establishment of the Ermineskin Industrial Relations division, the reserve did not undertake any kind of dialogue with industry during consultation for training partnerships for its people. In many ways, the idea to do so grew alongside the creation of the division itself.

“This kind of started through discussion when we first formed the [EIR] department in 2014,” Mr Littlechild explains. “The beginning impetus to this was in discussions with some of our partners at the time and some of the ideas that we were discussing.”

The training program grew from the vision of EIR Director Carol Wildcat, who envisaged the possibility of offering training within the camp industry to a number of the Cree people. The original plans were to train 300 people from the reserve.

“What we were looking at doing at the time,” Mr Littlechild adds, “was creating a mock camp on reserve, building and taking down different units. It was kind of an initial big push to make this vision happen, but through some discussion we kind of had a back and forth.”

In terms of budgets and funding, the original vision proved too ambitious to put into place, so the department was forced to amend its starting position and offer training for just a hundred people, scaling down the original plans.

“The decision for initial training was through dialogue with our partners and seeing which areas had the greatest potential for hiring with a reasonable barrier to entry. We wanted to make sure we had something that we could open up to a large portion of our population. Terry Ermineskin, CEO of Ermineskin Resources Development and Trevor Saulteaux, Manager of Ermineskin Resources Development have been key in the preliminary and ongoing discussions with Industry.”

The idea was to provide training that would constitute an upgrading on skills, but for the programs to be accessible enough for people without the relevant trade skills or secondary education to be able to join and move forward through them.

“We honed in on the camp idea through a number of discussions that we’d already been having with industries that had approached us, as well as industries that we had been in contact with through our discussions upon forming the Industrial Relations department.”

From the very beginning of the department’s foundation, the reserve had started discussing a number of Mutual Benefit Agreements with different local firms to form mutually beneficial relationships for training and work placement.

“We wanted things that weren’t just temporary labour placements. We wanted people to have an opportunity for longer term employment, permanent employment within the industry, and so the camp job seemed like a natural entry point for us at that time.”

Oil & Gas industry heavyweights such as TransCanada, Royal Camp Services Ltd and CIVEO have all been involved with the venture, but Mr Littlechild explains that the energy sector is just one of several that the department has worked with.

“Because of the large number of projects that had been applied for in this period were primarily for pipeline for Oil & Gas developments, those were the ones we kind of focused on at that point in time,” he says.

With new parameters for the program agreed upon, and discussions with partners ongoing and looking promising, the foundations for the EIR training program were being laid, and things were starting to move forward.

“So what we did,” Mr Littlechild continues, “is we had these opening discussions for what at the time was Alberta Works, which has now formed into Alberta Labour-Workforce Strategies. The lady that we’re working with is still the same, Janice Barker, Indigenous Partnerships Coordinator. From there we began discussion with Ermineskin’s ASETS department to find training providers for our programs. NAIT is one of our key training providers and truly made the camp cook and attendant programs a success. Irwin’s Safety and Industrial Labour Services Ltd was a partnership formed with EIRD that not only provided training with the EMR program but also provided employment for our members and numerous other opportunities. ”

TransCanada, Royal Camp Services Ltd and CIVEO have all been involved in Ermineskin’s skills training and work placement programs

With discussions beginning in the summer of 2014, Mr Littlechild explains that internal dialogue has been continuing ever since, with almost 8-9 months of consultation needed before things clicked in terms of which programs were a good fit for all parties.

Training for 100 people was agreed upon, forcing the department to realise that its scope and size was not conducive to taking on such a sizeable project. The need to create a Project Manager position became paramount, a position which has since expanded considerably.

“Christina was bought on to kind of oversee and manage these programs. We had to form relationships with different industries in order to make sure that we had potential work placements for all these individuals on completion of the programs.”

At the time, one of the reserve’s key partners was Royal Camps, a company which stepped forward to say it would be prepared to hire individuals from the Camp Cook and Camp Attendant programs run by the reserve. Others soon followed suit.

“We found some interest in the EMR [Emergency Medical Responder] program from a few different potential hirers,” Mr Littlechild adds, “one being Primco Dene, in Cold Lake, as well as some interest from our local Maskwacis ambulance authority.”

Another key area of training was security, within which the reserve had a partnership with Risk Mitigation and Investigation firm Xpera, which likewise hired people trained from the security training program.

Managing the Programs

“I came on board in April 2016,” Ms Aguilar Sanchez explains, “so pretty much I hit the ground running. I believe my interview was on a Friday and by Monday morning I was off and running and in a room with everyone.”

Ms Sanchez describes her role as something of a mixed bag, with regular meetings with industry partners forming a large part of her duties. In addition, she meets with the province of Alberta to make sure that the agreed upon contract is adhered to.

“I oversee the day-to-day program activities. That includes overseeing my staff, making sure that the students have a curriculum that they can follow, that day-to-day program activities are ongoing, they have workshops set up. I’m a mix of frontline and in the office.”

Holding a BA in Native Studies and a minor in Sociology, Ms Sanchez has always had a keen interest in people. Having previously worked as a parole officer, she brings a great deal of experience to her current role.

“I came into this with a structured attitude, so I think that helped bring things together, especially as a pilot project where we really needed to have some firm policies. We needed to make sure someone was in charge of being aware of all the things that were agreed to.”

As with any program looking to skill-up young people and place them into lasting employment, there will always be challenges that need to be met and overcome on the way. Facing these challenges is a key part of Ms Sanchez’s job.

“We have a number of clients that have multi-barriers, where there’s a lot of engaging and motivation required. You have to look at the individual and see where their skills lie and help them to bring that out, increase their self-confidence and where you can, tweak things.”

Ms Sanchez admits that, despite having solid plans for how a day or week might go, a part of her role involves being flexible when dealing with challenges, engaging and motivating the client to overcome issues.

“There were some very marked differences in learning capabilities,” Mr Littlechild adds. “Some people were more visual than through texts or manuals, so we had to adapt in terms of things like fractions—putting more visual representations of what the fractions were. Lucinda Minde and Bobbi Houle our literacy and numeracy instructors developed a unique training program for us which has brought us great success. Their dedication to the students and their adaptable teaching style made a great difference.”

This out-of-the-box way of training is very different from the rigid format of formal education, and so requires a specific approach from all of those involved in delivering the programs.

“We’ve tried to make sure that,” Mr Littlechild continues, “in bringing these students forward and getting them employment, perhaps some of the things that were barring the way were just the way in which they were taught.”

Students are informed early on that the program has a zero tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol

There are a number of skillsets to consider, not only age-related but also around life experience. Some of the students are younger, at 18 or 19 years old, but there is also a large portion of older students at fifty years old or more.

“We really have to make sure that we’ve got quite a range of material in our class,” Ms Sanchez says, “as well as practically, where they can feel like they’re challenged, they feel like they’re accomplishing something.”

Camp culture has often come under fire due to some of its workers using the environment to engage in illicit drug and alcohol activities, and this is something the department has looked to tackle at an early stage to avoid any issues.

“They have very strict policies for wherever we’re placing them forward,” Mr Littlechild explains. “It’s kind of a zero tolerance for drug and alcohol, so we make that well known to the students prior to getting into the program.”

In addition, the EIR division provides a drug and alcohol test as part of the program, so that from the very beginning students understand the severity of any such actions. If there are any issues flagged, students are told by the end of the training that they have to test again.

“It’s a chance for them to get off their dependencies,” Mr Littlechild adds, “and find something more along the lines of, not just a job, but a career in an industry where they can benefit themselves and their families.”

Ms Sanchez explains how a practical approach to this issue is taken, letting students know very early on that the program has a zero tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol and that there are certain industry expectations surrounding such behaviour.

“We also have them sign a consent form,” she adds. “It’s basically a form where the students agree not to engage in those types of behaviour while in the program and an acknowledgement that a breach of the form will result in removal from the program. Amanda Ermineskin, Camp Projects Assistant developed this form for us and also does a great deal of the day to day support for our daily operations.”

Community Benefits

One of the key aims of the program is not just to get students into full time work, but to keep them there long-term. It is incredibly important that a level of support continues to be given well beyond the program’s completion.

“When we had some students that were hired on by Royal Camp Services Ltd,” Mr Littlechild explains, “some of them were promoted through the chain and took on different roles and responsibilities afterwards.”

Mr Littlechild explains how, once the program was set up and the ways in which education was to be provided explained, companies immediately responded to the idea in an extremely positive way, making the roll-out much smoother.

“They made accommodations that really eased the transition,” he says. “Hiring more than one individual from the reserve, so that they had somebody that they had a connection with working at the same camp.”

This kind of ‘buddy’ system helped students integrate better into the company environment, giving them positive reinforcement from others in the community which proved valuable to helping them settle in.

“There were also some adjustments that they had already made for other reserves in the past, that they brought into the program, which really helped us as well—things like, places for prayer.”

These sort of rituals would usually not be prohibited in a camp environment, but the students were lucky to be afforded access to them by companies going out of their way to find ways to accommodate these important practices.

Both Mr Littlechild and Ms Sanchez admit that over the years there have been challenges around the negative perceptions of indigenous people across Canada, and there still is, but that ventures like this one can really help to combat this.

“Being from the community of Ermineskin,” Ms Sanchez says, “I’ve been raised on reserve all my life. Having a familiar face, where the students can feel that they’re being engaged by one of their peers, was really helpful in our program.”

The importance of this connection cannot be understated, as students are made to feel from their own people that they are capable of being successful, and are much more likely to be spurred onto this success with other community members helping them.

“I don’t think it’s a belief that they’re limited,” Mr Littlechild explains, “it’s more of a lack of exposure to the outside communities. A lot of these people who are entering into this program have never had that opportunity to go out and experience how things are.”

This isolation from the wider province can often result in a culture shock for members of the Ermineskin community venturing out to work, as there are inevitably differences between how individuals interact with each other.

“We take a more community approach to how we think about the welfare of our people, and sometimes it seems more of an ‘every man for himself’ attitude in other places, and that’s something that can be very jarring for people entering into the workforce.”

In addition, the separation from the community and people they have grown up seeing everyday of their lives can represent a big shock to the system, and these changes need to be considered when sending people out into work programs.

“It can be very challenging for individuals leaving the reserve,” Mr Littlechild says, “and I think that’s part of where the ‘buddy’ system came forward, and how we discussed the opportunities for people working off reserve.”

“We really have that community aspect in our program,” Ms Sanchez adds, “a couple of examples are this week, our current Cook program students are going to be participating in a couple of community events.”

One of these events will see students taking a walk to commemorate missing and murdered indigenous women, before going on to take part in Orange Shirt Day recognizing the impact of residential schools.

“Another way that we also implement this community supportive aspect is, at the beginning of every week, so on Mondays, and at the end on Fridays, the group participates in a sharing circle, where students and staff have an opportunity to talk about their week.”

The sharing circle gives students and staff the chance to discuss any personal or professional issues or challenges they have faced in the previous week, to share them with others in order to help them move on.

“We just give them the opportunity to kind of get that out,” Ms Sanchez says, “get it off their chest. Then we kind of talk about how we can support each other, so we really have that community aspect.”

“I think the team-building skills they learn throughout the program are really vital for their success in their work placement,” Mr Littlechild adds, “because so many of them are within areas like the kitchen, where there is a very set team approach.”

A task such as making thousands of meals a day for the camp residents can be a significant challenge, and having been taught how best to communicate and work with their peers can be vital to the students’ success.

“The way in which we approach this as well, especially for the camps, is we do a 2-3 shift placement in the camp as part of the training, so they finish up with some practical training in a camp, to get the feel for what it is, they know what they’re going to be walking into.”

Ms Sanchez says, “I’ve been raised on reserve all my life. Having a familiar face, where the students can feel that they’re being engaged by one of their peers, was really helpful in our program.”

This last step of the program is vital, giving students an early understanding of the rules and regulations they will be subject to during their work placement, getting a taste of camp life in order to be prepared for what they are going to be involved in.

A Lasting Difference

“Prior to the beginning of this program,” Mr Littlechild says, “a lot of our discussions were mainly on royalties or funding specific one-shot, one-off benefits to the community. Now we’re in dialogue for long term relationships that build our capacity.”

The aim now is not only to get people into lasting careers, but also to drive more business in the long term. The EIR training program is the first step in a plan to improve the lives of all members of the community.

“We’re looking at making sure that we have everything covered to meet all the pre-qualifications for employment, and to be more aggressive and focused and targeted in our training so that when industry comes to us, it’s us saying what we have.”

The process has already bought up some interesting findings to help push these plans forward. Despite only training 25 people in each of its areas, the division has received upwards of 80 to 100 applications for each of the programs.

“The interest is there, the need is there,” Mr Littlechild continues. “There are a lot of people who are willing and capable of working, so we’d like to offer that expertise and offer our people, which are really our most valuable resource, to these companies as assets.”

By continuing to run such programs and give opportunities to Ermineskin community members, the EIR department hopes in the long term to further improve relations between first nations and non-first nations, especially in Alberta.

“Alberta is one of those places that is quite unique,” Mr Littlechild says, “in terms of Canada. There is a larger than average industrial presence, but due to that it affects all the economy as a whole. Many franchises test the waters in Alberta.”

The blend of businesses that come in to support local industry helps develop several side economies, providing unique opportunities for emerging businesses that cannot be found in other parts of the country.

“There are different things that we look at when we look at these different programs. We might not always necessarily look at putting pipe in the ground, but we’re looking at how these people are fed, what services they use, what needs to be maintained on their sites.”

The focus on these concerns is vitally important to the continued running of the training programs, and Alberta’s uniqueness allows the EIR division to seek out these opportunities and use them to help people into work.

“Not only that,” Ms Sanchez adds, “but we’re right at the heart of Alberta, so we have an opportunity to work with employers and industries that are in Edmonton, in Calgary. So we have that ability to work with employers that would otherwise be further away.”

Mr Littlechild admits that the focus on aboriginal participation is finally becoming more evident, a process that he sees as very long overdue and still in need of further development to really make the most of its opportunities.

“I am glad it’s becoming a priority now,” he says, “but in terms of things like employment in surrounding communities, I think now people are just now beginning to realise what the potential of their neighbours are and how they can best work together to help build each other up.”

This has resulted in discussions with many neighbours about forming mutually beneficial arrangements, and Mr Littlechild admits that the department hopes to get its foot in the door with many more industries in neighbouring cities and towns over the coming years.

Find out more about the Ermineskin Cree Nation by visiting