First Nations Chief shares perspective on working with industry, while respecting culture and tradition

October 02, 2020

“It’s exciting times to be a First Nation,” says Chief Willie Sellars of the Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) in British Columbia. “If you’re able to get the right team under you, you can do some positive things—not only for your own community but also the surrounding community. That’s what fires me up every day.”

The WLFN owns and operates businesses in petroleum services, forestry, professional services, ranching, land development and retail sales, and is one of the many First Nations participating in upgrading Enbridge’s T-South natural gas transmission system. Recently, we had an opportunity to tap into Chief Sellars’ perspective on the Band’s work with Enbridge and how industry and First Nations can work to align interests and economic engagement.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Enbridge and Williams Lake First Nation and how it’s evolved over the years?

When we look at any major projects coming through the territory, we want to make sure we’re capitalizing on them to the best of our ability—not only making sure that we’re meeting environmental goals but also benefiting from potential opportunities for our Band members to earn a living.

Chief Willie Sellars of the Williams Lake First Nation
Chief Willie Sellars of the Williams Lake First Nation, in north-central British Columbia

Our relationship with Enbridge has been really good. When we—seven First Nation communities—requested a meeting, Enbridge came to the table right away. We looked at projects in the different territories and the (preventative maintenance) digs in the region to determine opportunities for our members. Our participation has evolved into work on major projects like Soda Creek and the compressor station upgrade in our territory. We now have a First Nation liaison working out of the project office and getting boots on the ground for construction and archaeology, medics and security.

The spin-offs of each of these projects has been cool to see, especially in a small town like ours which is dependent on mining, forestry and resource extraction. If we can capitalize on these opportunities, it’s great for our membership and it’s great for the region.

Q: From your perspective, what are some of the ways that project proponents can more closely align their goals with the environmental, social and economic priorities of Indigenous communities?

For industry, it’s always go-go, the price is high, and you’re rewarded for getting things done in a timely manner. But what we all look at as leaders is having a healthy community. It’s about finding that balance, making sure people go to work every day and have an opportunity to provide for their families but also keeping in mind the cultural, ceremonial and traditional components of our way of life. When we talk about how we improve relationships with First Nations, it’s taking all that into account.

When we opened the compressor station upgrade at 150 Mile House with Enbridge, for example, we made sure that we had our traditional coordinator and Elder there. We blessed the grounds and started the project off in a good way by praying, participating in ceremony and singing our songs. It’s about introducing workers to that way of life so they can get an understanding and hopefully respect what we’re doing.

But there is always room for improvement. Reconciliation requires education for people to be able to understand and heal and to be able to move forward. One thing that I would love to see, and that we’re currently working on, is cultural sensitivity or Indigenous awareness training not just for industry but for others as well. Williams Lake, for example, is the hub of 14 First Nation communities. Putting together something that we could educate people on is very important for the discussion on reconciliation and continuing to build relationships with First Nation communities.

Embracing relationships with First Nation communitiesgiving them the opportunity to have a seat at the table, provide input on projects and capitalize on the opportunities is the way to change things—that’s a big part of what reconciliation is and to a further extent the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in our daily lives.

Q: Given your experience in the economic development space, where do you see opportunities for Indigenous communities and the corporate sector to work together to advance reconciliationand specifically Call to Action No. 92 in Canada’s post Covid-19 recovery?

I’m a big supporter of education—cultural sensitivity or Indigenous awareness training will help industry leaders have a better understanding of what First Nations communities are going through.

The WLFN are stewards of the land but we’re also cognizant of the local economy, having a healthy community and what a major project can do for the region. It’s not just about the WLFN and our Band members, but how it’s benefiting the City of Williams Lake and the Cariboo Regional District. For the WLFN to be successful, the region has to be successful as well.

We want to ensure best practices across the board on projects in a way that provides opportunities for Band members and to create revenue streams so that we can do things like support our post-secondary applicants. We do that by generating own-source revenues by being participants in major projects, starting up our own successful businesses that create revenue streams and job opportunities, allowing us to be flexible and creative in the development of our strategy and growing the government.

Industry for its part needs to continue the dialogue and get out into communities. One thing to think about is, what is the legacy you leave behind after a project is done? I’ll go back to the compression station upgrade – Enbridge was awesome. We were able to put together opportunities for different partners and get this First Nations liaison position. This brings an educated Band member back to work for the community part-time and that individual starts to believe in the vision of the WLFN and all the exciting things we’re doing.

Now that individual is applying for higher level positions and with her education and job experience, it makes sense. That’s something Enbridge should be proud ofgiving communities the opportunity to get these educated Band members home and building capacity in the nation. That’s Enbridge embracing reconciliation and implementation of UNDRIP in First Nations communities.

That’s a good legacy to leave behind after this project is done.