Canadian Consulting Engineer

First Aboriginal-owned B.C. engineering firm launched and looking to expand

With their company barely a week old at April’s end, principals at newly-formed Embark Engineering were deep in planning to see that this 51-49 per cent partnership between North Coast Lax Kw’alaams First Nation and Kerr Wood Leidal...

May 7, 2012   Canadian Consulting Engineer

With their company barely a week old at April’s end, principals at newly-formed Embark Engineering were deep in planning to see that this 51-49 per cent partnership between North Coast Lax Kw’alaams First Nation and Kerr Wood Leidal Associates (KWL) would leave a lasting legacy.

Embark is British Columbia’s first aboriginal owned-engineering firm. A goal behind the partnership is ensuring that young First Nations high school graduates have the right courses to enter university or technical schools to take engineering courses and, eventually, work with the firm, said Embark’s general manager Frank Belfry, P.Eng. Belfry is a past president of KWL, which has a 30-year track record working with the Lax Kw’alaams band.

“We are planning a meeting with band members to see how we could work with their educational people,” said Belfry, P.Eng. “We don’t just want to create jobs – we want to create careers.”

At the same time, the partnership has found a rich source of potential new engineering candidates, since high schools are seeing an influx of First Nations students compared to several generations ago. Add to that the growing number of precedent-setting Charter cases that have come out of the courts affirming First Nation rights to resources and their exploitation, and it all points to increased need for engineers and firms wanting to do business in many of B.C.’s First Nations areas.

“There just aren’t the number of First Nations people in the engineering and technical fields. We would like to raise that profile,” Belfry says. KWL currently has one First Nations engineer working on staff and a second engineer-in-training will begin in May.

Belfry says the decision to form Embark Engineering as a partnership really came from two directions. “We have worked in their [the band’s] community, which is located at Lax Kw’alaams (formerly Port Simpson), providing all their engineering needs over the years and [we] recently helped with their new $10 million aquatic and recreation centre.”

There is also a growth in entrepreneurship among Aboriginal and First Nations. The First Nation’s ownership of Embark “fit into their business objectives,” Belry points out. The band also has a wholly-owned forest company Coast Tsimshian Resources, which in December 2010 paid out $330,000 in dividends to its band members. It employs 200 people in logging, trucking, debarking and long-shoring.

Lax Kw’alaams mayor and Embark chairman Garry Reece says it makes economic sense to have an interest in an engineering firm. Downstream he sees “huge opportunity,” such as with organizations such as the Port of Prince Rupert which is looking at new expansions. “There is a lot happening in the north right now,” he says.

As the volume of work increases, Embark (which is now headquartered at the First Nation’s office in Lax Kw’alaams) will open its first office in Prince Rupert, 35 kilometres to the south. Currently, Embark projects are being handled out of KWL’s Vancouver office.

Looking forward, Belfry envisions for Embark: “a staff of many First Nations and non-First Nations. We will see us having partnerships with other First Nations communities. That is an objective, to include other First Nations in the Embark relationship.”

“We are definitely going after other First Nations business,” agrees Reece.


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