First Nation, engineering firm breaking new ground on joint venture – by Ian Ross (Northern Ontario Business – June 30, 2015)

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. Ian Ross is the editor of Northern Ontario Business

In his 25 years in the engineering profession, Eric Zakrewski calls his Thunder Bay company’s business venture with Fort William First Nation a “gold star example” in Northern Ontario of a successful partnership between the private sector and an Aboriginal community.

Now entering its fifth fiscal year, Oshki-Aki Limited Partnership is creating employment and mentorship opportunities for Fort William members to learn and build skills toward permanent careers in the consulting and engineering field.

“This has been one of the things I’m probably most proud about in terms of our achievement as a private sector engineering firm,” said Zakrewski, the president-CEO of True Grit Consulting. “We set out to become partners with these folks, they trusted us, and the business and relationship has flourished.”

Incorporated in Dec. 2011, Oshki-Aki LP is a partnership between Fort William First Nation and True Grit Consulting that created a new environmental engineering company.

Almost $20 million worth of completed or ongoing construction projects has involved the business venture that functions as the de facto municipal engineering department.

“Fort William has so much on the go and there’s so much potential for large scale development that we see this as a much longer term relationship,” said Zakrewski.

The joint venture has participated in resurfacing 12 kilometres of road on the reserve, a three-year project that includes a $3-million reconstruction of the Mission Road main drag to bring it up to modern standards by this fall.

Using Fort William’s own contracting firm, the Oshki-Aki partners have completed a number of on-reserve community and infrastructure projects, including a collaboration with FORM Architecture Engineering to refurbish the pow-wow grounds, a project which won a City of Thunder Bay beautification award.

But the work of the joint venture extends beyond just performing work on the reserve with a successful bid on environmental work at the Lac des Iles palladium mine.

“That’s a project that dials Fort William into the ongoing work on the mine site and I think that’s a success story,” said Zakrewski.

The limited partnership is 99 per cent owned by Fort William. The general partnership that exists is a 50/50 split between True Grit and Fort William. It serves as the governance body for the limited partnership. Directors from both entities steer the business activities of the LP.

Zakrewski said the joint venture has always been profitable. Though reluctant to talk numbers, he said it pays a “fairly significant” dividend to its community shareholders. True Grit provides the administrative and accounting services.

Zakrewski finds the reasons private-First Nation joint ventures often fail is because the companies fall short in delivering meaningful work with lasting value for the First Nation.

Rather than offer members token positions, Oshki-Aki commits to hiring full-timers from the community with the intent to train, mentor and license people for technical positions, be they surveyors or lab technicians.

“As an example, we have a Fort William member being mentored on a multi-million dollar site remediation project in Attawapiskat,” said Zakrewski. “We’ve actually created full-time jobs and are training people in the field, in the office and working in the region on as many different types of projects as possible so that they get the widest skill set.”

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