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Don Wing looks upon Wasaya Dowland Contracting as having a transformational effect in giving Aboriginal people the skills and confidence to tackle a looming labour shortage in the North.
With more than a dozen potential new mines poised to start development within five years, the vice-president of Dowland’s Ontario division calls the new joint venture between the Wasaya Group of companies and Dowland a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the way things are done.”
“We’re going to take that venture, we’re going to make it successful, and we’re going to change people’s lives.” Dowland Contracting appeared on the Thunder Bay scene last year when the Wasaya Group introduced the Northwest Territories-based contractor as a strategic development partner.
With 51 per cent of the limited partnership owned by Wasaya, the aim is to position itself to meet the infrastructure challenges in remote First Nation communities as resource development takes hold.
The venture is viewed as a stepping stone to train Aboriginal people in the skills required to build mines, power lines, arenas, hospitals, hotels and schools.
“When you look at what’s gone on over the last 50 years in northwestern Ontario, the First Nations have never really had a partner that gives them the capacity to participate,” said Wing.
Wing said it was the marriage of two business organizations with a social conscience that lured him back into the construction business after a decade-long absence.
“One of the reasons I came back was the good that this relationship will do.”
Wing came from a family-owned contracting business that worked extensively in the northwest and in First Nations communities as far north as Hudson Bay.
“I have a love for working with First Nations. I’ve been out of the business for 12 or 13 years and nothing has changed up there, and it needs to change.
“When you go into these communities the same needs are there; housing, water, jobs.”
In October, Dowland signed an agreement with PTH China, an ISO9001 certified company from Shaoxing, China, specializing in manufacturing pre-engineered buildings, including the constrution and installation of steel-framed buildings.
The company aims to bring this type of housing to the Far North communities.
Working on that project is Ray Williamson, a well-known and award-winning Thunder Bay developer, who joined Wing at Dowland.
“Don has a solid reputation as a leader in the community and I’m proud to be a part of it with him.
“I’m going to be here because of him and Dowland and their reputation. Their philosophy is it’s time to give back. That’s why I’m here. They’re here to help people and I’ve always tried to help people.”
Since opening its Thunder Bay office last July, the company has been using local subtrades, but expects to build its own team of tradespeople over the next 12 months.
Dowland’s slate of local projects includes the construction management for an upscale Thunder Bay condominium development and a hotel project in Marathon.
The company is also in discussion with Cliffs Natural Resources and Noront Resources to flesh out opportunities in the Ring of Fire.
“We think that we’ll play a major role in that,” said Wing.
The discovery of minerals in the Ring of Fire offers a tremendous opportunity to create employment, said Wing, if money is spent on training First Nations people within their home communities.
“As soon as you take people out of their home, and bring them somewhere else to train them, the family unit breaks down.”
Another upcoming project is a student residence for Aboriginal high schoolers who arrive in the city from remote communities.
Wasaya has been championing the residence, designed to provide a safe environment for young Aboriginals on the heels of a number of deaths of high school-aged kids.
The facility will provide accommodations for visiting families.
Confederation College is the leading site for the building scheduled to start construction next spring.
Tom Kamenawatamin, president-CEO of the Wasaya Group, said often Aboriginal high school students are intimidated to go to post-secondary. But by being located on the college grounds, “the transition from high school to college will be easier for them.”
The Wasaya Group also recently opened a youth drop-in centre in Thunder Bay’s south core that Kamenawatamin hopes can be open 24 hours a day.
“We service all the communities up north through our businesses,” said Kamenawatamin. “We feel we have a social obligation and this is one way of giving back to the communities.”
With a coverage area stretching from the Manitoba border to Sudbury, Wing said Wasaya Dowland has the capacity to bid or partner on any industrial, commercial or residential project.
With Cliffs pushing back chromite mining in the Ring of Fire to 2016, Wing said it’s not impossible to train a skilled Aboriginal workforce by then.
But what needs to come together is a credible strategic plan involving Wasaya, the tribal councils, Confederation College, and the private sector that government can get behind.
“I think it’s very doable but it needs to be a plan that everybody can buy into. And I really think the training has to happen in the communities. It’s expensive but how expensive is it when somebody doesn’t have a job?”