As an Indigenous oil services business owner, I just want to work

As an Indigenous oil services business owner, I just want to work

Opinion: We don’t want outside people telling us what’s good for us and where and under what circumstances we can run our business

I am a Cree businessman. My wife and I own a successful oilfield services company out of Fort St. John, in northern B.C., near the Alberta border. She is a member of Blueberry Rivers First Nation, whose territory has become a hub for oil and gas activity. We’ve been blessed to have economic opportunity right in our backyard.

I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I have a Grade 9 education. When I was a young man I hitchhiked to Fort St. John with nothing but $20 in my pocket. I struggled with addictions. I didn’t have any money because I spent it as soon as I made it. But my parents passed along a good work ethic and I always knew deep down that I wanted to be successful and raise a family.

I started a business in 2004 with my wife and we are still going strong. Last year I was awarded Outstanding Business Achiever by the B.C. Achievement Foundation. It was a very proud day for me and my company. It hasn’t always been easy and we’ve been through many ups and downs. But I’m still here, doing whatever it takes to keep my business moving.

There are a lot of stories like mine in Indian Country, but not enough. Most of us never had role models to show us how to start a business and then manage it and grow it successfully. I was lucky because my dad had an oil service company, too, back in Alberta. What motivates me the most is being able to show young Indigenous entrepreneurs that if they believe in themselves and work hard, the sky’s the limit.

Unfortunately, in the past few years, the act of me working has become political. People are protesting and blockading rail lines over resource development in our region. Oil companies can’t get anything done because the regulatory process is so onerous. Other pipelines in our region have been cancelled. All of this affects my ability to keep my employees working and my business running.

From what I see, a majority of Indigenous peoples support these projects and want them for their communities. Times have changed. I see companies take wildlife measures, protect against erosion and leaks, and conduct environmental monitoring. If problems arise, they work to make it right. I know this because I’ve been the monitor flagging out wildlife areas. I remember once we moved a road so it wouldn’t disturb a bear den. I know the companies do their due diligence when it comes to consultation, safe work, and environmental policies.

There are a lot of successful First Nations business owners and employees working on these projects and more that want to be. I’ve seen my share of poverty and struggle. But increasingly I am seeing people have a chance to take their kids to Disneyland or buy a house. People don’t have to leave our communities anymore. They can build a good life and earn a livelihood right here.

One of the highlights of my career was hiring someone from Blueberry to be an operator on one of our road-maintenance jobs. The oil company we were contracting with worked with us to ensure we could hire local. This young man had had issues with the law and with alcohol but I had been down that road before and I gave him a chance. He’s been working with me for six years now and has never missed a day of work. He just needed someone to work with him and beside him and he made it. He turned his life around.

A job is important so you can earn wages, support your family and have choices. But more importantly, having a job or a business gives you pride. It gives you a purpose. People want to work. All of my family is working on the Coastal GasLink project in Kitimat. My parents don’t even need to work anymore but they still want to. My dad is a supervisor, my mom is in quality control, and my sister works in a contractor’s office.

We are all tired of the political strife. We don’t want handouts and we don’t want special favours. But most of all we don’t want outside people telling us what’s good for us and where and under what circumstances we can run our business. We just want to work.

Boomer Desjarlais is the co-owner of Top Notch Oilfield Contracting, based in Fort St. John. He is a member of Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, Alberta.


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