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Des Nedhe Development


Indigenous economic independence and business partnerships need to be part of Reconciliation in Canada. The Office of the Treaty Commissioner is featuring First Nations’ Economic Development businesses and projects.

Des Nedhe Development is the Economic Development company of English River First Nation.  They are 100 per cent owned by English River First Nation a Denesuline community.  Des Nedhe means The Great River and is referencing the Churchill River, where the people of English River traditionally lived on the south banks during the winter.

The Office of the Treaty Commissioner sat with Des Nedhe President
and CEO, Sean Willy, to learn more about their work.

How did Des Nedhe Development get started 30 years ago?
When the uranium industry began in Saskatchewan, the community’s leaders and elders said our first responsibility is to the environment, including pre-mining activities, ongoing monitoring of environmental impacts, and being present during reclamation and decommissioning. When all that was achieved and they understood where the uranium is going, they wanted to create their own business to create own-source revenue.

What are the businesses owned by Des Nedhe Development?
The first big pillar was an industrial side.  The community bought Tri-Con North, which became Tron Construction and Mining, the heartbeat of Des Nedhe. They are a 100 per cent First Nation owned mechical, piping, electrical, instrumentation, and structural steel contractor. There are not many, if any 100 per cent Indigenous owned construction companies of this size. 

Des Nedhe has a joint venture with Thyssen Mining and other First Nations, Métis and municipalities from northern Saskatchewan in Mudjatik Thyssen Mining Ltd. Partnership, which does developmental mining for Cameco in the north.

Des Nedhe has 140 acres of land just south of Saskatoon that was purchased as part of the Treaty Land Entitlement.  With 15,000 cars passing by the reserve daily, we asked how do you show the rest of the province what a progressive economic development opportunity looks like.  By being high tech, and using green energy. We are going to develop the rest of the acres and people can already see some work happening now the Grasswood Reserve.

In the retail division: we operate the PetroCanada on the Grasswood Reserve, one of the busiest in the province; a general store in Beauval; and the community gas bar in Patuanak. The retail is pretty integral to the group of companies.
We are also in the renewable power space. With a Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation partnership, we bid on a number of SaskPower opportunities, we’ve also put some bids into SaskPower to do some residential, roof-top solar panels in Beauval.

The last piece is investments. Part of the profit of Des Nedhe goes towards acquiring additional assets.  Examples include JNE welding, a large steel fabrication company; Creative Fire, a communications and marketing company; Synergy 5, a group of four FN owning three cannabis retail stores; Athabasca Catering, which provides catering services to the uranium industry; and Northern Resource Trucking.

What is the mandate of Des Nedhe Development?
To generate own-source revenue for communities, to grow the business, and to employ Indigenous People wherever we operate.

How does that fit with Economic Reconciliation?
The English River story is from long before the term Economic Reconciliation was coined. It’s the understanding that you cannot move forward, and you cannot protect your culture on government funding alone. You can’t say you are self-determinate if you are getting cheques from Indigenous Services Canada or even philanthropic institutions. At some point Indigenous People have always used the resources of their traditional territories wisely.

I look at Economic Reconciliation as new opportunities with companies that historically weren’t involved in Indigenous economic development.

Resource companies initially were legally mandated to work with Indigenous communities, but it’s gone far above that in the past 25 years. The model of northern Saskatchewan is now copied around the country. Some regions might get more hype because of the dollars they spend on their projects, but it started in northern Saskatchewan. To have a strong diversity mandate provides you a value for your company.

Des Nedhe is 30 years old and other First Nations are just getting involved in the economic development space, we’re looking to provide support to those nations. They can partner with us and create a nation-to-nation relationships and using some of our experience about joint ventures, we’ll go out and try to sign progressive joint ventures. We’ll try to use our workforce to train up other First Nations. When they have the capacity, we’ll exit. I think many non-Indigenous businesses don’t create an exit strategy for the community to take on the projects themselves because the revenues are too good.

What does success look like?
When we are all working. With challenges in the last couple of years in the uranium market, we’ve had to pivot, we’ve had to adjust, and had to earn work in other places. When we’re working, people in the community are working, they are engaged, there is activity and when it’s busier, everyone is naturally happier.

I think for long-term success the community is on a path towards self-determination. If the community is making the big decisions they want to make and they have own-source revenue, I think that’s a win for us.

How does the profits get used?
The goal from the community is to try to make profit. Part of the profit goes back into the business and we share that profit to dividends to the community. That part of the profit goes, not to per capita payments, but to support services in the community like elders services, educational services, infrastructure in the community.

What are the big lessons learned along the way?
It is one step at a time. I think you have to be honest. Des Nedhe is not perfect, but you just have to learn from your mistakes, move forward and diversify. I think there are communities out there right now that are getting resource development opportunities and one of the things we say is, “start thinking about diversifying from day one. What are your plans if the market goes awry or that finite resource eventually runs out?”

Our community leaders always remind me that we’ve been at this for 30 years. They’ve been very humble and very quiet. I think of teaching from elders about patience and the journey, and that’s what business is.

We have an independent board of directors, which is unique, we’re not run directly by chief and council. It provides more transparency, you don’t have someone in my role that can just make decisions. We’re not dependent on elected council, so if elected council changes there is stability.

One piece of advice?
It’s a journey. Take it slow. You’re not going to please everybody right from the start. With the socioeconomic conditions of many of our communities, it takes a while to turn the tide. You’re not going to be able to help everyone as soon as you start up an economic development arm and get the first contract. With your first contract, you have to reinvest in yourself to get the second contract, and reinvest in yourself to get the third. There is always this pull between the business and the socioeconomic needs of our communities.

Good governance is another piece of advice. Be transparent, there’s a lot of misinformation out there, especially in our communities. Be consistent, how do you communicate with the community as a whole?

Once you start down the economic development road, it’s addictive because you have that own-source revenue, you have those jobs, and you want to keep moving forward.

Anything else?
What I see out there right now is more appetite for nation-to-nation business. I think 10 years ago there was jealously between communities. In the past you would have heard, “oh you are from a different province, go back to that province,” but they’d never say that to a non-Indigenous firm. It starting to change now, I’ve seen more willingness to work together. Let’s work with each other. Let’s keep Indigenous money in Indigenous pockets rather than let it drain out, let’s share with each other. It something I keep running into and to me a sign that things are changing, there are discussions happening. There is a unitedness that is very pleasant to see.

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