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First Nation development corporations eye growth opportunities

As much of Western Canada is suffering from low oil prices, a number of companies are being sold for cheaper than usual.

As much of Western Canada is suffering from low oil prices, a number of companies are being sold for cheaper than usual.

That’s the best time to invest and buy, said Paul Gruner, general manager of Dakwakada Capital Investment, at a panel discussion Thursday.

The Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce’s annual general meeting featured a first: three CEOs of Yukon First Nation development corporations sharing their thoughts on their work.

Development corporations are fundamentally different from other private companies as their sole shareholders are First Nation governments, Gruner said.

Air North wouldn’t be where it is right now if it wasn’t for the influx of First Nation capital, he said.

Dakwakada is the for-profit arm of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

Two weeks ago it sold its asphalt plant that was part of Castle Rock Enterprises.

“It was an opportunity for liquidity,” Gruner said.

Few people know that the company has a similar facility in Anchorage, Alaska, that it will be shutting down and moving to Whitehorse.

For Dakwakada, it’s time to look at diversifying its portfolio.

Currently the corporation is heavily invested in the construction industry, Gruner said.

He looks to Alaska, where last year the nine largest indigenous development corporations made over $10 billion in revenue.

“They’re a major employer in Alaska, a major GDP driver,” he said. “When I look at Alaska I see a major opportunity on how to mature and grow.”

First Nation development corporations have social responsibility for their citizens, said Nelson Lepine, manager of the Carcross Tagish Management Corporation.

“There is serious investment in the people, the citizens,” Lepine said. “We’re trying to get citizens trained, employed, with the understanding the lights have to stay on.”

That, he said, is a long-term investment.

“The idea is that if you start building the foundations of the people, the opportunities will continually come.”

Gruner said the corporations “could do better.”

“That is an area we need to put more of an emphasis on,” he said.

His development corporation has a seat on its board for an elder and a youth. It also offers summer student programs.

In Carcross the First Nation launched a tiny house construction program aimed at teaching people work skills.

From a population of 325, the First Nation received 42 applications, way more than expected, Lepine said.

Of the 15 who graduated, 11 are working on building the First Nation’s learning centre.

“Every single one of them were on social assistance before,” he said.

Each First Nation development corporation also has to deal with issues specific to its traditional territory.

The Selkirk First Nation, for example, heavily invested in providing services for the Minto Mine, located on its traditional territory, said Ernie Bourassa, CEO of the Selkirk development corporation.

The development corporation also operates the Pelly Crossing gas station and store, but is much smaller than Dakwakada, Bourassa said.

“We’re in our infancy,” he said. “The development corporation has adopted a passive investment approach since its inception due to lack of capacity.”

Because development corporations work with and for First Nation governments, that allows them to be better integrated into projects in the community, Lepine said.

For example, the Carcross/Tagish First Nation changed its building code, he said. Now all residential homes built are required to have solar panels installed.

The First Nation then launched a training program to train its citizens to install renewable energy infrastructure, partnering with Yukon College.

“The idea is you get the citizens interested,” said Lepine.

“These individuals can then go [start] their own business.”

Contact Pierre Chauvin at