Tyrone Mcneil

Tyrone McNeil, a nationally recognized advocate for Aboriginal education and training, is excited about the opportunities that Trans Mountain pipeline right of way maintenance and related work is creating for members of Seabird and other First Nations in the Fraser Valley. And, as the Manager of Stqó:ya Construction and the board chair for Seabird College he’s seeing tremendous positive impact that existing right of way contracts have for nearly 100 Aboriginal workers.

We recently sat down with McNeil for an interview at the Seabird reserve near Agassiz — the answers below are excerpts from that conversation.

How did Stqó:ya Construction Ltd. get started?

Jakes Construction has been working with Seabird since the mid-1990s. It got to the point where Seabird felt that we’re in effect acting like a partnership with Jakes so it was formalized in July of 2012 with creation of Stqó:ya as a limited partnership. That’s when they hired me on as manager.

You’re also the board chair for Seabird College, which is located on the reserve. How does the college benefit First Nations?

The majority of First Nations in the province haven’t graduated with their Dogwood (Grade 12 graduation certificate). So we’re bringing them back, people from 20 to 65, building the Adult Dogwood program into the heavy equipment operator (HEO) certificate program. Just out of our little college here we account for about half of the First Nations (people) in the province that graduate each year (in BC) with Adult Dogwoods.

So you give them greater capacity to master the concepts and skills around something like operating on a right of way?

Exactly. A lot of the existing training programs out there don’t suit my needs as an employer, HEO in particular.

When did you start contracting with Kinder Morgan Canada?

In the fall of 2012, on right of way maintenance. We cleared a specific area, but before we did it Kinder gave me this fat contract to sign. It was a fulsome contract for a tiny bit of right of way maintenance work. But since then the relationship has grown. We got the contract for Bid Area 3 on the Integrity Dig program, so all they did was amend that existing contract.

We will certainly take on as much work as possible through Kinder, but it’s not going to be our only opportunity. We’ve got all kinds of rights of way coming through our community, and even through our backyard here. We’ve been telling all of those folks that at some point in time we’re going to be stepping up, and we’re going to be taking that work over.

What kinds of work were the people on your crew doing before joining Stqó:ya?

I looked at that, at about the point that I had 80 on my call list. Probably about 98 per cent of them came off of social assistance. There is kind of a misconception out there that First Nations aren’t willing to work, and to work hard. I had lots of guys I knew personally that when they work, they give ’er. But when you don’t know them, all you see is First Nations, and if you don’t trust them you’re not going to hire them.

The other side of it is that we have a number of members that just didn’t have confidence in their skills. So our training programs built confidence, and we told them ‘Oh by the way, if you do really well on the training side I’ve got a job waiting for you.’

Quite often if someone takes a day off work, it’s something to do with culture, the spirituality side of culture or the family side of culture. So that alone has created a lot of comfort in the crew. They can continue being who they are as Sto:lo people, as First Nations people, and have a good job to go to — provided they communicate with me on a timely basis.

What kind of work do you do for Kinder Morgan?

It’s twofold. One is maintaining the ground of the right of way, free from trees and shrubs getting too high. In some cases, up here in Popkum, if you’re flying up in helicopter you can’t even see the ground. The branches arch in over it, so we have to go up and trim the branches and in some case trim trees back as well.

We have a long-term interest in the land. Our work with Kinder gives us an opportunity to be better stewards of the land, particularly in that narrow right of way. KMC seems to have a tremendous integrity program where they will jump on anything that’s brought to their attention. We really appreciate that.

In the future, I think we can play a significant role around emergency response because again, we have a vested interest in making sure there are no spills. And who better to maintain that part of the integrity program, the emergency response side of it, than us? We’re not going anywhere and the pipe isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future either.

What’s your vision for taking advantage of opportunities to participate in resource sector work?

We’re providing comfort to people at Kinder Morgan Canada that we provide high quality professional services. It’s primarily aimed at First Nation inclusion, First Nations employment, but not at the expense of doing a good job.

I feel confident that we have capacity to compete to fill virtually all of Kinder’s needs in the whole upper Valley here, and even down to Coquitlam, with the Integrity Dig program. I can see us putting together crews and keeping it pretty steady there.

At some point in the future we will be approaching other pipelines and saying, ‘Hey we’ve got pretty good capacity here. And by the way, you’re right here in our backyard so we’ve got pretty high expectation that at some point in your future, we’re taking over those contracts as well — but doing it in a way that is mutually beneficial.’