Band together or blockade? Blueberry River man hopes to form Treaty 8 contractor coalition

A First Nations contractor says a flare up over a gas plant that almost led him to blockade the project highlights the need for aboriginal oilfield firms to band together.

Clarence Apsassin, a member of the Blueberry River First Nation, says he was close to leading a blockade of AltaGas's Townsend gas plant under construction near Wonowon, saying the costs of the plant were outweighing the benefits to the First Nation. Apsassin led a similar blockade of an oil and gas project in the area in 2001.

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"We were going to set up a road block at (Mile) 109 and shut the job right down in that area. That was the plan," he said. The company intervened and calmed some of the tensions, he said.

"It's the same issues (as in 2001). Nothing has changed," he told the Alaska Highway News. "We get a little bit of work... we're thankful for what we get, but there have got to be more doors opening. We can't sit around and just let those opportunities go by if we can do (the work)."

He said the latest tensions arose when members were allegedly removed from a worker camp for drinking alcohol. Apsassin said there was no evidence for the claim.

But the deeper tensions have been over development in First Nations territories, and the perception that jobs are not going to locals.

"We're developing a coalition of contractors in Treaty 8 territory," he said. "Once it gets developed and on its feet and going, it would give us a front. The larger the numbers, the more strength we're going to have."

Apsassin says the nation has electrical, pipeline and welding subcontractors who struggle to find work. Because of their size, the companies typically joint venture with non-aboriginal businesses in Fort St. John to bid on contracts.

He added that while head offices in Calgary might commit to hiring locals and aboriginal companies first, the rubber wasn't hitting the road.  

AltaGas spokesperson Sandra Semple said the company was working with band councils at both the Blueberry River and Halfway River First Nations to hire as many local workers as possible.

"To date, our discussions and work together has gone very well. We're working collaboratively to engage qualified First Nations contractors to work on the project." 

She said AltaGas would soon hold career events at the nations.

Treaty 8 administrator Diane Abel said that while the organization supports the idea of a contractors' coalition, it’s not directly involved.

"We have heard a lot of feedback from local contractors who are T8 members and we know there is a lot of frustration," she wrote in an email. "With all the development in our territory, we would hope that our people could get some of these opportunities." 

reporter@dcdn.ca

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