Few energy developments are as technologically and fiscally daunting as the Cold Lake heavy-oil operation in northeastern Alberta. The Cold Lake oil-sand deposit contains billions of barrels of oil in the form of tar-like bitumen. To produce it, Imperial Oil Resources operates the world’s largest thermal in situ oil-recovery program, in which the bitumen is heated to the thickness of molasses and pumped to the surface.
For more than 40 years, Imperial, a majority-owned ExxonMobil affiliate, has advanced the development through disciplined management and significant investments in research and development. However, another key to success has been Imperial’s efforts to earn and maintain positive relationships with the 11 Aboriginal communities surrounding the Cold Lake operation.
“If we are to achieve our business objectives, we must develop and maintain healthy, respectful relationships with our Aboriginal neighbors,” says Randy Broiles, senior vice president of Imperial Oil Resources.
Sandy Martin, Cold Lake operations manager, adds that Imperial has an advantage in community relations, partly because it has operated in the area for such a long time.
“We know who our neighbors are,” he says. “We consult and work extensively with the First Nation and Métis communities to listen to their ideas and concerns, and establish employment, training and business development programs that create mutual benefits for Imperial and our Aboriginal neighbors.”
Breaking down barriers
In the 1990s, Fred Cardinal, a Cold Lake production operator, and other Aboriginal employees formed a group to discuss ways Imperial could improve relations with Aboriginal communities and break down employment barriers. Out of those meetings came an official name for the group – the Imperial Native Network – as well as a number of suggestions that today are continuing to have a positive impact on the company’s community relations.
Imperial provides scholarships, supports community projects and Aboriginal-owned contracting companies, and consults regularly with Aboriginal elders and community leaders.
Martin and other managers also attend an annual gathering on Aboriginal lands, where they participate in traditional games, eat traditional foods and gain an appreciation for the culture. “Participating in these events is helpful in that we experience, firsthand, Aboriginal tradition and an appreciation for the land from a First Nation perspective,” says Martin. “Another plus: The food is delicious.”
One highly successful initiative has been Imperial’s Native Internship Program, which was recently honored by the Alberta Chamber of Resources and the Alberta Ministry of International, Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Relations. The program provides 24 months of paid on-the-job training for Aboriginal people. Graduates gain valuable technical experience working in field or plant operations.
“Imperial’s Native Internship Program breaks down barriers by eliminating common challenges experienced by Aboriginal peoples who want to pursue technical careers in the oil and gas industry,” says Rick Janvier, former human resources manager for Cold Lake First Nation and a partner in the internship program. Janvier is now the human resources manager for Seven Lakes, an Aboriginal-owned business that is a prime contractor for Imperial’s Cold Lake operations.
Since the internship program’s introduction in 1998, 31 students have participated in the program. Imperial has hired all of the graduates from this program, increasing Aboriginal employment from 2.6 percent to 10 percent of its total workforce.
Martin says that the program is a win-win for Imperial.
Not only do the workers benefit, but Imperial also benefits by gaining highly skilled employees to meet the demand in our operations.
Sandy Martin, Cold Lake operations manager
Experience as an example
Making the transition from some of the more isolated First Nation and Métis communities to working at a large oil industry operation can be intimidating. Nobody understands this better than those who have experienced it.
That recognition led to establishment of mentorship support for graduates of the Native Internship Program and other newly hired Aboriginal workers in Cold Lake. Imperial provides mentorship support for its other operations across Canada as well.
Cardinal and Dennis Collins, a Cold Lake operations maintenance planner originally from the Elizabeth Métis settlement near Cold Lake, are native liaisons for the company and mentors to new Aboriginal interns and hires. Collins notes the adjustment period can be hard on newcomers.
“They want to give back to society. But if you take an Aboriginal person out of his or her lifestyle and culture and put that person in a corporate culture without some guidance, that individual could fail. Assistance and mentoring can help.”
“We show them the ropes and give them a shoulder to lean on,” adds Cardinal. “We help them get through those rocky times. I really think it helps retain good employees – people who want to work and want to give back to the company and to their communities. And it’s so exciting to see them succeed and become role models in their communities.”
Cardinal and Collins also spend time in schools in the First Nation and Métis settlements, educating students about opportunities at Imperial and elsewhere.
“My key message to the youth is that good things will happen if you set your goals and put them into action,” Cardinal says. “I use myself and my job at Imperial as an example.”