In oil sands, a native millionaire sees ‘economic force’ for first nations – by Nathan Vanderklippe (Globe and Mail – August 14, 2012)

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COLD LAKE, ALTA. — Dave Tuccaro is driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where he will plan the book tour he will mount after Christmas when his biography is released. That biography, written by Peter C. Newman, will tell the story of the aboriginal businessman – quite possibly Canada’s wealthiest.

Mr. Tuccaro will contemplate what to do with the $102-million he will take in when he finalizes a deal to sell his business, knowing that he still holds an additional $25-million in real estate.

And he will think of how he can use those funds, built up over three decades in which he profited handsomely from the oil sands, to lift up others. Mr. Tuccaro, 54, is a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, out of Fort Chipewyan, Alta., a place that garnered attention after reports – discredited by medical authorities – that its location downriver from the oil sands created an elevated level of rare cancers.

But for Mr. Tuccaro, Fort Chipewyan was a launching pad for a career that has helped to reshape the expectations for Canada’s aboriginal communities, which face a deluge of resource development plans. Much of the public profile of the first nations’ relationship with the oil patch is negative as groups oppose oil pipelines and new mines, protesting at meetings and stoking fears that industry is devastating traditions and cultures.

Yet Mr. Tuccaro’s story – while in his 20s, he used income from working as a heavy equipment operator in the oil sands to buy a taxi licence in Fort McMurray, and three decades later comfortably negotiates with oil-sands chief executives on contracts for everything from heavy hauling to laboratory services – is in many ways a template for how business is now done in northeastern Alberta.

By his tally, native-owned and controlled corporations now count more than $1-billion in annual revenues from the oil sands. Companies run by just three bands – the Fort McKay, Mikisew Cree and the Athabasca Chipewyan – bring in more than half a billion a year, while Primco Dene Ltd., a fast-growing oil patch services company owned by the Cold Lake First Nation, says it will employ 700 people, more than 500 of them aboriginal, this winter.

“We’ve become an economic force. We’re respected now, where in the past people would look at us and say, ‘You don’t know how to do this,’ ” Mr. Tuccaro said.

His ambitions are increasingly shared among first nations, which have quietly embraced both the wealth generated by the oil sands and the substantial effort that energy companies have placed into boosting and building aboriginal businesses.

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