DAVE TUCCARO is arguably the most successful aboriginal business person in Canada. The founder, President, and CEO of Tuccaro Inc., he was born March 3, 1958 and is third eldest of eight siblings. He grew up in Fort Chipewyan, a small community in northeastern Alberta. Dave is a member of the Mikisew Cree Band. After graduating from high school, he started working in the oil sands industry. He was trained as a crane operator; however, it was not long before he was pursuing his fortunes as an entrepreneur. He joined the Neegan Development Corporation as General Manager in 1991, at a time the company was on the brink of financial ruin. He turned the company around and in 1993 took over, buying out the four Indian band owners. He has been nominated three times for the prestigious Entrepreneur of the Year Award, as well as for the National Aboriginal Achievement Award. In 1995, he won the Regional Aboriginal Recognition Award and was also honoured by his hometown of Fort Chipewyan as “Outstanding Business Person 1994.” He was instrumental in the setting up of the National Aboriginal Business Association and is the founding President. In 1995, David spearheaded the formation of the North-eastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association and is the past president. Many similar associations, right across Canada, have been modeled on David’s conception.
WKS: If you’ll agree, I’d like to start by talking about the importance of relationship building as it applies to your partnerships in the resource industry.
DAVID: Well, first of all the reason I had to build relationships is that I owned a company back then that was providing services to the oil sands industry. As a result of that, I needed to build relationships. You’ve got to do that. As you’re building your business, the relationships are really important to grow your company. Because once people start to get to know you, and to understand you and trust you, and know that you can deliver the services, they tend to use your company a lot more.
WKS: You mention understanding and trust. That’s a huge part of relationship, isn’t it. And that’s something that can be a decisive impediment — lack of understanding and trust.
DAVID: Yeah. There are different levels of success and different levels of development throughout the aboriginal communities in Canada. I’m lucky. I’m in a region where there are oil sands — the biggest oil deposits in the world. There are other regions where they’re developing diamonds, such as in the Northwest Territories. They’re talking about mining them in northern Ontario now. So those regions have a really good opportunity to get ready, to get structured and set up for the resource development that’s going to happen. The Quebec Cree have done really well. There’s the Voisey Bay project in Labrador.
These regions are areas where our aboriginal communities have access to opportunities, and the reason why I say that is that we’ve been winning more and more in the courts, where the courts have affirmed that proponents and developers of the resources have to consult with us. They have a duty to consult. And that’s where we have to take our advantage and make sure that we come out of that with contract opportunities and full-time job opportunities, as well as ownership opportunities in the future.
WKS: You mention power. I just read a December 4 article in the National Post, by John Ivison. The headline was “The fate of our resources is in the hands of our most disadvantaged citizens.” He seems to think aboriginal people have all the power over resource decisions, and yet there’s that idea again of native people being forever disadvantaged. Do you think this is another barrier to relationship building — that we underestimate our power and potential? If so, how much of an opportunity are we missing simply because we don’t see proactively the relationships we could be building right now, from a position of strength and opportunity?
DAVID: I’ve always believed that the aboriginal communities could have a huge say in how resources are developed across Canada. I was saying that fifteen, twenty years ago, when I was speaking at conferences. I was saying that we could own or control one-third of Canada’s land mass, and I don’t mean through reserves. I’m saying through traditional territories that we normally would be a part of just by having been here for tens of thousands of years.
We’ve always had the power to direct development, but we didn’t know we had that. We didn’t know because we’ve been suppressed by a government that said, through the Indian Act, that they’re going to look after the Indians. We were lulled into a position where we didn’t feel we had any power at all. But now, over the past fifteen years, or more, we’ve started to understand and learn how to do business with the Canadian corporations and oil companies. Now that we know how to do it, we’re saying that it’s our turn. We need to benefit from all this development that’s happening in our communities right now. It’s our turn. We need to take our place.
We have to learn how to sit down with the CEOs from huge corporations and tell them that we want to be a part of these developments. “In order for you guys to get a license to operate, you have to get something in place to ensure the aboriginal communities are involved.” That’s where it’s come to today.
WKS: The Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal has shown us again the failure to do this. We see the familiar clash of different values and cultures. The relationships —the trust and understanding — didn’t develop there because the differences were never bridged. How, for you, does culture come into building these relationships with the resource sector?
DAVID: I think that as native people we’re going to have to face change. We’re probably the best adaptors to change in the history of the world. And everything is changing. Two hundred years ago, we were dealing with the Hudson’s Bay Company, more than anyone probably. We were fur traders. We lived off the land anyway, so we knew where the furs were. When the Hudson’s Bay Company came over to buy the furs, we knew how to do it. Back then there probably wasn’t even a government in place yet. But we knew how to do it.
Over the years, with resource development, multi-national corporations were coming in from all over the world. They’re finding more and more resources — minerals, oil, gas, liquid natural gas — and they need to exploit them to keep their homes warm, keep the lights on, fuel their vehicles, that sort of thing. As native people, we’re not necessarily opposed to development. What I think we are doing is going through this huge change in how we do business with the Canada and the rest of the world. We need to learn how to do it because we can’t live off the land anymore. The land has been taken up by farms. Look at all the southern parts of the provinces across the country. Those lands were ours before the Europeans came, but they moved us out of the way because that was valuable land — valuable farm land. That was the land they needed to develop and live off of. That’s where the railroad systems are, and the highway systems. So they moved us up north into regions which were less desirable to them. Well guess what. Those lands are rich in the resources that are desirable today. It’s our turn. We understand their laws. We have lawyers ourselves that look into how these licenses to operate need to come about.
So it’s our turn. Culturally I think we’ll change again. I used to live and work with my parents on a trap line. My kids will never see that. There’s no need for them to, because there’s no value in that. My kids have graduated high school and gone to college. They have some higher education, and they’re going to have to do things differently than I did. We’re constantly changing, some regions faster than others.
What you’ve seen with the Enbridge proposal was that people aren’t at a stage yet where they want to change that quickly. Or if they’re going to, they want to ensure they’re involved and that they have ownership in it. And that’s the right way to do it. That’s what we need to do more and more across this country.
WKS: The transition from a trading-based subsistence economy to an agricultural-based economy is reflected in the treaties. In the negotiations of the numbered treaties, around the 1870s and onward, there was a trading of land for knowledge and economic relationships, because our ancestors understood that we need to adopt to change. The idea was that we would learn the skills of the white man, in particular farming, so we could ease the transition into a new way of sustaining ourselves. What does this transition look like today, as we move past the industrial age? What skills should we be getting today?
DAVID: Back then it was “Let’s give the Indians thirty acres of land each.” Multiply that by a thousand Indians, and that’s 30,000 acres. I don’t know how they came up with the calculations, but I’m assuming that’s what happened. Well, today what’s happening is that the farmlands are still there, but we haven’t really adapted to being farmers except for a few cases in the south. You can’t farm where I’m at in northern Alberta. It’s pretty rugged and cold. From that perspective, it won’t work for us. What we’ve learned to do though is to realize that they’re coming to take the land that would normally sustain us. And we’re saying you can’t do this anymore. You have to make sure we’re involved in this. We have to get opportunities out of it.
Now what’s happening with some of the projects is like the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. Those guys negotiated 33% ownership in the pipeline itself. So they’ll have long-term revenues coming in even after construction of the pipeline is completed. They’ll own a third of any oil or whatever is going down that pipeline as long as the pipeline is in. That’s what the Northern Gateway should be. The people along that pipeline should own that as well. There’s no reason why they can’t. Enbridge finally came to the table with a ten percent ownership offer for the aboriginal communities, but that’s not enough. We need to sustain ourselves and begin using the land for resource development.
WKS: I’m curious to know where you see all this going. Could I ask you to look into your crystal ball?
DAVID: What I see looking forward is that we’re smart enough nowadays to put together the relationships, not only in Canada but with groups of people from different countries, that will allow us to develop the resources ourselves. I’m working with a group called Spirit Eagle Energy. We’re proposing an energy corridor to the west coast. Up here in Fort McMurray you have the Fort McKay First Nation, a reserve with one of the richest oil sands deposits. They’re sitting right on top of it. They’re looking at developing their own oil sands project, and building it themselves instead of partnering with Shell Canada or Imperial Oil.
WKS: That’s interesting. So they’re looking at strategic relationships — relationships that take them to a new level.
DAVID: They want to do it themselves — sell the oil themselves. In Alberta a couple years ago there was a proposal by one of the First Nations that wanted to build the first native owned refinery in Alberta. That’s the kind of thinking that’s happening right now. I think that’s what the future is going to look like for native people, not only in Alberta but across Canada.
WKS: I’m a member of the Six Nations of the Grand River, in Ontario. There are businesses based at Six Nations which are going directly to China and Pakistan and making nation to nation business deals, cutting out the usual Canadian middlemen.
DAVID: Yeah, well I got a call from CSIS [Canadian Security Intelligence Service] one day, and the lady asked me, “What’s going on with the native people in Canada? Why are they going to China, and what are they doing there?” She said that she was afraid that the Chinese would take advantage of us in some of the deals, and that they’d take some of our land and our opportunities away. They’d just come in and do whatever they want, and then leave. I said, “Well, that’s really not all that different from what the Canadian government has been doing to us for the past 300 years.”
What we’re doing now is we’re going to meet with the Chinese directly, with our own trade missions. I never got an invitation from Prime Minister Harper to go on the last Chinese trade mission, so we have to do this ourselves. That’s what’s happening right now. We’re finding that there’s funding all over the world, and that people are interested in working with us and building relationships with us because we have access to the opportunities.
WKS: We’re living in interesting times.
DAVID: No question. There’s no boundary any more for us. For too many years, we’ve been stuck in boundaries and in a structure that the federal government stuck us in. And it’s time for us to wake up and learn how to do things ourselves.
WKS: I appreciate your giving me this time.
DAVID: Good luck with everything.