The McLeod Lake Indian Band is part of the Tse’khene group of Indigenous peoples that includes Bands at Fort Ware (Kwadacha) and Ingenika (Tseh Kay Dene). The main community of McLeod Lake Indian Band is located on McLeod Lake Indian Band reserves no. 1 and no. 5 near the unincorporated village of McLeod Lake, approximately 140 kilometers north of Prince George on Highway 97.
Of the Band’s approximately 500 members, close to one-fifth live on reserve at McLeod Lake and 150-200 live between Bear Lake and Prince George. Roughly 100 members of the Band live in the Vancouver-area while the remaining resides outside of British Columbia.
For thousands of years, the Tse’khene were hunters, living primarily on moose, caribou, bear, and beaver. After the Northwest Company established a trading post at McLeod Lake in 1805, the Tse’khene people established trap lines and sold furs at the trading post. Their traditional pattern of life became securing game in the fall, trapping in the winter and spring, and picking berries and hunting birds and fish in the summer.
That changed dramatically in the 1960s, when the provincial railway and John Hart Highway were built, opening up their land to non-indigenous settlement and economic development. In 1969, the W.A.C. Bennett Dam created a 650 square mile lake, flooding the hunting and trapping areas of the McLeod Lake Tse’khene.
With their traditional livelihood gone, in just a few years the Tse’khene people were transformed from an isolated, self-sufficient hunting and gathering society into an impoverished and despondent society lacking jobs, hope and, in the eyes of many Band members, a future. Meanwhile, nearby municipalities like Prince George and Mackenzie were thriving from the growing forest industry.
In the late 1970s, the Band decided this situation could not continue. After several attempts to gain contracts from forest companies, they founded Duz Cho Logging, a company that reflected the determination and resilience of the Tse’khene people. Its success would finance a journey to economic independence for the McLeod Lake Indian Band that started with their signing to the Treaty 8 accord and led to them becoming one of British Columbia’s largest logging contractors.
Background: Treaty 8
Treaty 8 is an accord that was signed between Canada and First Nations in 1899 to secure peace and settle land claim issues, when thousands of prospectors were passing through First Nations territories to take part in the Klondike gold rush. The McLeod Lake Tse’khene did not sign the treaty.
In 1987, the year before they founded Duz Cho Logging, the McLeod Lake Indian Band advised the Government of Canada that it wished to settle its land claim issues by signing and adhesion to Treaty 8. The Government of Canada agreed to an adhesion, but the Province of British Columbia refused to transfer land. The Band response was to obtain an injunction preventing the harvesting of timber on their lands. The Province of BC responded to that by joining the negotiations.
The negotiations took more than a decade, with the Band using millions of dollars generated through Duz Cho Logging to pay for legal counsel. In 2000, the McLeod Lake Indian Band was brought into Treaty 8 through the McLeod Lake Indian Band Treaty No. 8 Adhesion and Settlement Agreement.
Under the agreement, the Band received approximately 20,000 hectares (around 200 sq. km.) of Provincial Crown land, as well as other benefits, including $38 million, which is held in trust. With the approval of a Board of Trustees, the Band is permitted to spend the interest from the Trust (beyond inflation and projected population growth) on administrative, community and economic development projects. Trustees are elected by Band Members and are independent from Chief and Council.
Duz Cho Logging (DCL)
The name Duz Cho is Tse’khene meaning “big wood”. It’s a fitting name for a company that has had such a meaningful impact on the McLeod Lake Indian Band.
Using equipment originally purchased by Tse’khene Logging, a company former Chief Harley Chingee had started in 1978, the first contract DCL completed was to log 60,000 cubic metres for Mackenzie-based Finlay Forest Industries.
The company grew steadily until 1996 when it was awarded a $26.5-million contract to clear a 340-kilometer right-of-way over difficult terrain for a hydroelectric line connecting the Kemess Mine to the Kennedy substation near Mackenzie. The contract included harvesting 300,000 cubic metres of timber and constructing more than 200 bridges. Duz Cho Logging completed the project in a year, meeting all regulatory requirements and cementing its reputation as a dependable full phase harvesting and road construction contractor.
As the contracts rolled in, so did the accolades, with Duz Cho Logging winning the Aboriginal Business of the Year Award at the 2001 ANTCO/ANDEVCO (All Nations Trust Company/All Nations Development Corporation) Aboriginal Business Awards. The company continued to grow until 2008, when BC’s forestry industry was hit hard by the global economic crisis, a weak US economy and the mountain pine beetle infestation.
Duz Cho Logging’s annual revenues dropped from approximately $19 million down to $6 million. Fortunately, the company and its board of directors saw the downturn coming and were prepared for the crisis. They hadn’t purchased major new equipment during the previous two years and were in good financial shape in terms of debt to equity.
To weather the economic storm, they cut their operating budget by 40 per cent and everyone took pay cuts. They scaled back to a four-day work week and layed off workers, including Band members. The company also looked at synergies like equipment sharing with the other Band-owned companies, Duz Cho Construction and Summit Pipeline Services.
Despite doing just 30 per cent of its usual business for two years, Duz Cho Logging managed to remain a key player in the forestry industry during the downturn. As a result, when the industry began to rebound in 2009, Duz Cho was able to renew old contracts and obtain new ones as the forest and mills resumed or increased operations.
By 2011, revenues were back up to $28 million. Today, the company is one of British Columbia’s largest logging companies, employing 140 full-time and seasonal workers (around 20 per cent Indigenous), four contract feller-bunchers, four contract processors, 11 contract logging trucks as well as additional owner-operator equipment as required. It harvests approximately 800,000 cubic metres of timber per year and is forecasting record revenues of $38 million in 2012.
While Duz Cho Logging’s success has been based largely in timber harvesting, log hauling and road construction, the company recognizes that its long-term success will depend on the diversification of the business. To that end, Duz Cho Logging has diversified to service the gas, oil and mining sectors, while maintaining its core harvesting operations.
That diversification is especially important because, although Duz Cho Logging is now reaping the benefits of the increase in allowable cuts due to the mountain pine beetle infestation, once the mature pine has been harvested over the next decade, it is expected the allowable cut of the forests will be reduced, forcing Duz Cho Logging to scale back its harvesting operations and its workforce.
While the McLeod Lake Indian Band continues to build on its forestry operations today, diversifying its economic activities into other industry sectors has been a priority for more than a decade as evidenced by Duz Cho Construction and Summit Pipeline Services.
Duz Cho Construction (DCC)
Duz Cho Construction was created in 2002 to work in the oil and gas, coal and general construction industries in the Peace region. For the Band, another goal of the company was to bolster the Band’s presence in the eastern portion of its traditional territories, which extend to the BC-Alberta border.
It took the new company a year to secure its first oil and gas contract after hiring an individual with credibility in the industry and using the assets of Duz Cho Logging and the Band to finance a wide range of equipment.
Since then, Duz Cho Construction has built leases, performed clean-ups, reclaimed leases, cleared pipeline right-of-ways, performed grubbing, cleared seismic lines, and upgraded roads, leases and drainage ditches for a number of companies in the oil and gas industry. The company also clears sites and builds roads for major industrial operations in the mining and energy sectors.
DCC presently has its offices in Chetwynd and has property in Dawson Creek, which it uses for repairs, storage and mobilization.
SUMMIT PIPELINE SERVICES
Summit Pipeline Services is a Thunder Bay, Ontario-based company whose core business is the construction, maintenance and rehabilitation of pipelines for the oil and gas, pulp and paper and processing industries, as well as municipalities throughout Canada.
In 2004, the McLeod Lake Indian Band purchased 80 per cent of the shares in Summit Pipeline Services and has since opened offices in Calgary, Chetwynd and Dawson Creek. Together, the Band and Summit’s management team continue to secure new western clients.
Since purchasing Summit Pipeline Services, the McLeod Lake Indian Band has also successfully run training programs for Indigenous people in metal trades and heavy equipment operation.
McLeod Lake Indian Band’s goal is for Summit Pipeline Services to become a 100 per cent Band-owned business and a major contractor in the oil and gas industry.
While its focus is on strengthening its existing businesses, the McLeod Lake Indian Band is open to new business ventures that promise profitability for the Band and opportunities for its membership. It also assists Band members to establish their own business ventures. These currently include owner-operated equipment, forestry and construction businesses, steel sales and fabrication, and the provision of accommodation.
Duz Cho Logging’s business leadership, economic performance, community contributions and excellent environmental and safety record have earned it numerous awards, including the Forest Products Association of Canada’s 2012 Aboriginal Forest Products Business Leadership Award, the BC Aboriginal Business Awards’ 2012 Community Owned Business of the Year Award, and the Mackenzie Chamber of Commerce’s 2011 Commercial Business of the Year Award.
As proud as he is of the recognition, Chief Derek Orr is most proud of how Band businesses are improving the quality of life for Band members, as well as for people in the communities the Band’s businesses serve.
In the McLeod Lake Indian Band’s declaration of Business Goals and Principles, the first one listed is, “businesses must generate independent income to be used by Chief and Council to meet the social, health, and educational needs of Band members.” To that end, the Band mandates that 20 per cent of the net profits from Duz Cho Logging and Duz Cho Construction go back into the community.
In 2011, that meant $1.6 million for community services and initiatives in administration, health, education and culture. With Duz Cho Logging enjoying record profits and performance in 2012, that contribution will be even greater in 2013.
Recent projects and initiatives have included:
- a staffed $750,000 daycare centre for band families
- a Head Start program to give preschool children a head start in their education
- home equity and home improvement programs
- scholarships at the College of New Caledonia
- education programs to help members graduate and go to university
- funding for lunch programs, amateur sport, and charitable events and organizations on reserve, in Mackenzie and in neighbouring communities
Future projects that are in the planning or early development stages include:
- a lakeside cultural camp which will bring elders and youth together to practice Tse’khene culture
- a community boat launch
- a gas station in McLeod Lake
Just as the boards of the Band-owned businesses report quarterly to Chief and Council, the community meets quarterly with Chief and Council to share information and opinions and discuss a wide range of issues related to Band life and business. Another important gathering for the McLeod Lake Indian Band is the Annual General Assembly for all Band members, community neighbours, vendors and business entities. In 2011, they had 287 attendees. In 2012, it was close 400.
The McLeod Lake Indian Band and its Band-owned business are dramatic examples of the potential and the ability of Indigenous peoples to succeed in business. For Chief Orr and his people, their greatest success has been restoring the Band’s independence, self-sufficiency, pride and its belief in a bright future.
Along the way, their actions have been shaped by Band’s guiding principle, “Making sure the footprints we leave behind are the ones our children will be proud to walk in.”
As Chief Orr says, “We want to chart our own path and economic development will help us do that.”