by Mark Halsall Mark Halsall

Aecon believes building inclusive and collaborative relationships with Indigenous communities is not only good business but also a way to address a looming labour deficit in the construction industry

One of the challenges facing construction companies in Canada is a potential labour shortage in the coming years. According to a national report from BuildForce Canada, an estimated 257,100 construction workers will retire in the next decade, while only 227,600 workers will enter the construction workforce during this time — a shortfall of nearly 30,000 people.

One of the country’s leading construction and infrastructure development companies, Aecon, has a solution for this problem.

“Canada’s workforce is aging quickly,” said John Bonin, director of Indigenous relations for Aecon. “We need to start looking at the Indigenous population as a way to start backfilling our workforce.”

Bonin says while Indigenous communities represent the fastest and youngest growing population in Canada, they often tend to be overlooked.

“The Indigenous population is largely untapped, and I think that it’s important for companies like Aecon to be leaders in looking to that resource to fill our needs,” he said. “Aecon is one of the largest infrastructure companies in Canada, and we’re always looking for employees who have certain key skill sets and diverse backgrounds. It helps us with our infrastructure projects when we have a really diverse group of employees being able to support us.”

To this end, the company recently teamed up with Indspire, a national Indigenous registered charity, to support Indigenous students pursuing post-secondary education.

Through the three-year partnership, Aecon will donate to Indspire’s Building Brighter Futures: Bursaries, Scholarships and Awards program, which provides financial assistance to First Nations, Inuit and Métis students.

The Aecon Group Indigenous Bursary will be awarded to Indigenous students with a demonstrated need for financial support who are enrolled in an engineering, business or technical trades program at a Canadian post-secondary institution.

“It’s important to have a good education,” said Bonin. “This bursary opens the door for students who are in those fields to possibly look at Aecon as a potential future employer, and also for us to look at and keep track of them as they go through their post-secondary education.”

Under the bursary program, $50,000 will be awarded annually, with $25,000 donated by Aecon and the rest comprised of matching funds from the federal government.

Bonin notes the money will be used to help Indigenous students offset some of their education costs to allow them to focus on their academic studies.

“Indigenous youth who are able to have that education can quickly get into the mainstream economy to support themselves,” he said. “That creates confident and educated Indigenous graduates, so it opens the doors for them down the road.”

“Because we work in many Indigenous communities as well as within the Indigenous traditional lands and territories, we’re always looking at ways to participate with each community.”

– John Bonin, Aecon

Inclusive approach

The Aecon Group Indigenous Bursary is one example of Aecon’s commitment to building inclusive and collaborative relationships with Indigenous peoples across Canada. The company also fosters Indigenous participation through apprenticeships, employment training, joint ventures and other sustainability and business development initiatives.

“We’ve been working closely with Indigenous communities and have had our Indigenous relations program in place for over 10 years,” said Bonin.

“We need to respect that Indigenous peoples have a right to be involved with all of the work that we’re doing, to be included,” he added. “We purposely create plans that include Indigenous communities within our construction projects.”

Bonin says for any major project in Saskatchewan or elsewhere in the country, Aecon will look at creating an Indigenous engagement plan that spells out how the company can encourage hiring and procurement opportunities for Indigenous communities in and around the project area.

“Because we work in many Indigenous communities as well as within the Indigenous traditional lands and territories, we’re always looking at ways to participate with each community,” he said.

“This gives us social license to do our work,” added Bonin. “It’s really important that in the work we’re doing, we’re recognizing that Indigenous participation is one of the key aspects of doing the job. It’s just the way we do business now.”

The Moosomin First Nation in northwestern Saskatchewan is among the beneficiaries of Aecon’s Indigenous relations program.

Earlier this year, Moosomin started a new company called MediMask Canada that manufactures surgical and N95 respirator masks. The First Nation was recently added to Aecon’s preferred Indigenous supplier’s list as a provider of personal protective equipment.

“We really investigate all the opportunities we can on procurement,” said Bonin. “That is one of our focuses right now, to look at how we can do more procurement with Indigenous businesses as we do our projects.”

Building trust

Bonin points out Aecon’s Indigenous relations program is grounded on the principals of trust, respect and understanding.

“This is the way you build relationships with Indigenous communities,” said Bonin. “Indigenous communities look to partner with companies who they can trust, and so when you’re building those relationships, you need to be as transparent as possible.

“When we start building those relationships, we keep our communications very open with the Indigenous communities,” he added. “We ensure that they’re aware of what we’re doing, and then we want the same. We ask them to be fully transparent as to what their needs are.”

According to Bonin, Aecon’s approach to Indigenous relations has enabled it to forge strong ties with many indigenous communities.

“I think one of the things that we are most proud of is building those relationships with the Indigenous communities. We can go into the community and they know who Aecon is and they know the work that we do,” said Bonin. “Aecon started down this path well over 10 years ago, so we’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned how to make our approach scalable and make it focused.”

Bonin notes that Aecon is often asked to send speakers to construction industry events to talk about the company’s Indigenous relations program and what makes it successful.

“Aecon can and has worked with various construction organizations and associations to encourage [Indigenous participation], and to talk about what we’ve done, what’s worked, and we will continue to do that,” he said.

Bonin believes some construction companies may be at the point where Aecon was over a decade ago in terms of their attention to Indigenous relations, “but there are others that are moving very quickly and understand that it is an untapped workforce.

“I think that as a whole, the construction industry is evolving, and they see the Indigenous community as a very strong labour force,” said Bonin. “That’s going to be looked at in the future because we just don’t have the numbers of people coming into the trades that we once did.”