Kitselas First Nation chief councillor Joe Bevan

Early connections urged, businesses hear at forum

Businesses need to understand First Nations and how they do business, more than 150 people heard at Terrace forum

BUSINESSES need to understand First Nations and how they do business, more than 150 people heard at a forum here Nov. 4-5.

Called Nation2Nation, the forum, one of a growing number to be held regarding business opportunities, concentrated on partnerships between First Nations and companies.

Companies should be talking to First Nations about potential projects on their territories at a very early stage, said Tahltan Nation Development Corporation CEO Garry Merkel during one of several panel discussions held at the Sportsplex.

“We have had people come talk to us at the investment stage and that’s ideally the best time,” he said.

“A lot of industry does not understand the value in being a community based company and there is absolutely huge,  almost invaluable, value in being grounded in and having a relationship with your local community,” said Merkel, adding that being honest and clear with exactly what the business has to offer and what the Tahltan need in return is necessary.

Merkel noted that the Tahltan have two primary points of contact – the development corporation, which is owned by the Tahltan Nation, and the Tahltan Central Government, which speaks for Tahltan on resource and other developments.

Kitselas First Nation chief councillor Joe Bevan, a second panel participant, emphasized early contact as well, saying that companies eyeing large projects needing to be reviewed federally should be speaking to First Nations up to two years before the review begins.

It will be a lot easier for a project to gain First Nations support and social licence, he added.

Small businesses who may not need to have their projects reviewed to the same extent as large ones should be in touch about a year ahead of their development schedule, Bevan said.

Unlike other First Nations, the Nisga’a have a treaty setting out a rigorous procedure for projects, noted Harry Nyce Jr., the chief executive officer of the Village of Gitwinksihlkw located in the Nass Valley and another panel participant.

“As soon as the idea is hatched, the conversation should begin,” said Nyce.

One audience member wanted to know if a company that has success working with First Nations in Alberta could expect to have that count when making connections here.

Bevan said it would help to have those connections and make it easier for him to develop trust with the company.

Merkel added that it would give a company a foot in the door but he would still need to get to know the company first to know whether it clicks with the Tahltan.

“We have a presence with all the tribes you met, [in Alberta]. When it comes to building [a partnership], we are building together so we walk together, build together and make money together,” said Nyce.

All three panels said businesses must also understand that education is crucial to First Nations.

“When you run a major organization…it’s all about finance, legalities…you need an education,” said Merkel, adding he hires people for their management skills as other things can be taught to them.

Nyce said the Nisga’a realize the value of education and in terms of business, if the people have the needed skills, fewer people will come in from the outside to work.

“Human resources is very important. Education of course is very important as well,” he said.

Bevan said that while higher education is important, not everyone chooses the academic route, meaning that skilled trades training is needed.

“We’ve had to tell people that maybe it’s best to talk to a company who might want to sponsor an apprenticeship and go at it in those terms and also think of it as not just short-term gains but long-term,” he said.

“That’s kind of the Kitselas approach to our development.”