New district engineering firm finalized
A new First Nations’ engineering firm has become official, with four partners having signed on the dotted line at La Place Rendez-Vous here earlier this fall but which only recently was approved by Rainy River First Nations.
RRFN, Naicatchewenin Development Corp., Saulteaux Consulting & Engineering, and TBT Engineering Ltd. of Thunder Bay have combined resources in a formalized partnership to form Ozaanaman Engineering Ltd.
Rob Frenette, president of TBT Engineering Consulting Group, credited his wife, company CEO Liana Hyatt Frenette, with being instrumental in bringing together documents which provide fair representation for all parties involved.
Frenette is from Fort Frances while his wife hails from Barwick, and growing up they shared a lot of the same sense of community that many First Nation residents throughout the area feel.
“We feel a strong kinship toward the area, towards the people, the fact that there’s opportunities happening in our back yard all the time,” Frenette said.
“As we grew to become professionals and started our own engineering company over in Thunder Bay, we were a little baffled as to why there was this common belief that the experts have to come from somewhere else,” he added.
“More than anything else, that’s been part of the motivation for Liana and myself to bring TBT Engineering to what it is today—the largest independent engineering firm in Northwestern Ontario,” Frenette noted.
“We currently staff in excess of 100,” he said. “We’ve diversified significantly over the last 20 years of business and have really got the point where, as an engineering and environmental firm, we’re able to provide one-stop shopping to many of our clients.”
But what the Frenettes observed time and time again was that non-local firms were not the best way to go for First Nation and smaller communities.
Frenette recalled one of his first engineering jobs was to do a peer review of a design for a marina in Barwick.
He explained the design had been developed by a consultant from southern Ontario.
“The consultant that had put together the plan obviously had never been to the community, and had no idea that the river goes up and down 20 feet over the span of a weekend,” said Frenette.
“You have this pretty little drawing with finger docks sticking out into the middle of the river, and obviously there’s no way this is going to work.”
Frenette said he was called on to fix the design, and sought out some of the old-timers who were aware of the river historically.
“There’s a lot of wisdom in the people who have lived here, grown up here, raised their families here,” he reasoned.
“It’s just finding a way to integrate that traditional wisdom—whether that be from a First Nation community or from the non-First Nation communities—because that’s where you get you get your best engineering, that’s where you get your value, your best opportunities for making something meaningful that will last,” he stressed.
Frenette said TBT was approached by Dean Bethune, CEO/project manager of Saulteaux Consulting & Engineering, and NDC chief business development officer Tony Marinaro, about a year ago.
TBT had already worked with Saulteaux for about a year before that.
Frenette said he and his wife were excited by the opportunity—not only because they were singled out by two
communities (Naicatchewenin and Rainy River First Nations) from their home area, but because it demonstrated a level of respect from these communities.
“We hold both communities in very high regard,” he remarked.
“The economic development that’s been occurring, the benefits to the communities that we’re aware of—these are factors we believe we can align ourselves with.”
Frenette said the concept behind the partnership is to evolve the engineering skills and expertise that TBT and Saulteaux offer, merge that together with both First Nations’ economic development corporations, and form a company that, looking ahead, will be positioned to provide engineering and environmental services both on-reserve and off-reserve throughout Ontario—and possibly even elsewhere in the world.
Bethune said Saulteaux’s plan has been to do the best job it can for its clients, and that doesn’t always mean doing everything internally.
Part of the vision for Saulteaux was to go out and find those people who were good in certain areas, and TBT was one of those partners good at surveying, soil testing, and the like, he added.
“We hit it off right away,” Bethune recalled. “We started working together, everything was great.
“We didn’t have to formalize it—we had a great relationship—but we wanted to formalize it to be able to bring something else forward that nobody else was doing,” he added.
“With the state of Northwestern Ontario, with the opportunities that are there, it made sense for us to move forward as Ozaanaman Engineering and be able to put proposals together—whether it’s mining related, First Nation, or municipal—with a combined team,” Bethune explained.
“It’s a lot better than us doing it individually,” he reasoned.
Bethune said the new firm opens up opportunities, and is working on a number of First Nation proposals right now.
“It just makes sense,” he noted. “There’s a lot of huge engineering companies in the last couple years in the north, and they’re owned by somebody somewhere else.
“Nothing to do with the north.”
“We live here,” he added. “We have a long-term relationship with the people here. We’re not going to be here for a week, or just pop in and leave.
“A lot of these companies just throw a price out, get it, get the job done, and get out,” Bethune charged.
“Doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong—they don’t care.”
“Today marks a very important day for my community, and for our leadership and for the NDC board, getting into another joint business venture with TBT and Saulteaux Engineering,” said Naicatchewenin First Nation Chief Wayne Smith.
“That’s all we do—create joint-venture agreements, and we select the best candidates out there, the best companies out there that best suit what we do, and TBT is definitely a group that we’re lucky to go with.
“They are local people,” he added. “Even though the business is out of the Thunder Bay area, they know the dynamics, the geographical area.
“I think it’s great they’re on board with us and I’m happy we’re finally executing this agreement.”
Chief Smith said Naicatchewenin and Rainy River First Nations have worked together really well for the last few years on various projects.
“Moving forward with that community, it just brings a positive environment to the area, not only for our communities but the district itself,” he remarked.
Marinaro, meanwhile, said the partnership reflects the second phase of NDC’s business model, which is to build capacity and expand expertise to benefit the area for years to come.
“It’s a long-term vision,” he explained. “You want the benefits to be reaped by the children and grandchildren further down the line.
“They need to see that there is engineering here, that there is an opportunity for them to get into that field.”
Marinaro noted students work at Saulteaux during the summer, then go off to school to be trained in that field.
“I think one of them is graduating this year, and he’s coming back and he’s going to be employed,” Marinaro said.
“I mean, how great is that to able to keep the kids at home?”
Marinaro also said local companies mean keeping local dollars in the area, and there is a cost-savings to using local companies by virtue of them not having the high travel costs of firms from elsewhere.
The signing was done by Chief Smith, Bethune, Frenette, and NDC president Gary Councillor.
RRFN Chief Jim Leonard was unable to attend.