VANCOUVER — When British fur traders first came across the Tahltan First Nation in northwest B.C. almost two centuries ago, the aboriginal group already had its own trading economy, being positioned as a middleman between the coastal tribes and those living north and east of the Stikine.
After fending off these colonists for decades, the Tahltan Nation eventually lost its monopoly when the Hudson’s Bay Co. opened its first trading post in the traditional territory during the Cassiar gold rush in the 1870s.
Now, with mining and exploration companies flocking once again into northwest B.C. to explore and develop world-class copper-gold deposits, the Tahltan Nation’s legacy is coming full circle, and the aboriginal group is ready for business.
Owned by the Tahltan Central Government, as well as band councils at Telegraph Creek and Iskut, the Tahltan Nation Development Corp. (TNDC) was established three decades ago to participate in economic activity within the tribe’s ancestral lands.
Over time, TNDC has grown from an urban construction company to a multifaceted, multimillion-dollar corporation with over 25 partners servicing the natural resources industry, with projects including reconnaissance work, construction and reclamation.
In November, TNDC expanded once again in a new partnership with Geotech Drilling Services, an international surface and underground drilling company based in British Columbia.
As a result, the jointly owned Tahltech Drilling Services will be the preferred drilling company operating in the Tahltan territory, which includes B.C.’s “Golden Triangle,” a hot spot for exploration in the province and home to Imperial Metals’ (TSX: III; US-OTC: IPMLF) new Red Chris copper-gold mine and Pretium Resources’ (TSX: PVG; NYSE: PVG) advanced Brucejack gold project.
The partnership will also provide subcontracting, employment and training opportunities to the Tahltan community.
“This new partnership adds to the incredible depth and range of services we provide to the resource sector,” TNDC CEO Garry Merkel tells The Northern Miner during a phone interview before departing for a week-long business trip across the province. “We have a skilled labour force and we’re continuously growing our base of skilled and reputable partners, with the aim to strengthen our capability and competitiveness in the industry as the economic recovery unfolds.”
Ever since the provincial government installed the 287 kV Northwest Transmission Line, which extends for 344 km near Terrace to Bob Quinn Lake, Merkel says that exploration and development in the region has gotten “a lot more serious.”
“We’ve seen a number of promising and feasible projects emerge,” he says, noting Seabridge Gold’s (TSX: SEA; NYSE: SA) KSM gold-copper project as an example. “KSM is going to be one of the biggest mines in the world, and its owner is deeply committed to the local community. We’re a community company that provides cost-effective and reliable quality services, so it’s a marriage made in heaven for both of us. They’re willing to make long-term arrangements, and that will give us an opportunity to procure the equipment needed to build an operation of that scale, and in turn that would help us scale up as a business.”
TNDC employs over 130 full-time and up to 300 contract workers from the local community, and owns and leases a fleet of heavy equipment, including bulldozers, excavators, graders, loaders and trucks.
It focuses on road construction and maintenance, earthworks and heavy construction, gravel and mine tailings hauling, remote industrial camp operations and building construction. But work doesn’t stop there.
Through its partners, TNDC also provides services such as helicopter and aviation, communication, blasting, engineering, environmental, fuel supply, IT management and medical.
Its current projects include earthworks and road alignment at Pretium’s Brucejack project, camp and catering services at Seabridge’s KSM project, and earthworks and camp services at Imperial’s Red Chris mine. Past projects involved developers such as AltaGas (TSX: ALA), Teck Resources (TSX: TCK.B; NYSE: TCK), Barrick Gold (TSX: ABX: NYSE: ABX) and Novagold Resources (TSX: NG; MYSE-MKT-NG).
Merkel says that TNDC and all of its partners rake in over $300 million in gross revenue a year, which makes the corporation a powerful economic force for the Tahltan Nation, and a “one-stop shop” for service seekers in the growing natural resource industry.
“A wise First Nation entrepreneur once said that the problem with being an aboriginal company is that you have to prove yourself four times as much as any other company, just because of the stereotypes out there. It’s just the way it is, at least for now,” Merkel says. “With every company we work with, in the beginning there’s trepidation, because they probably had negative experiences with First Nations in the past, and I acknowledge that, but once they see what we can do, every one of them has said that we’ve proven to be as cost-effective, efficient and reliable as anybody else in any situation. We’re a substantial corporation regardless of whether we’re aboriginal or not.”
While securing jobs for members of the Tahltan nation is part of TNDC’s vision of the future, Merkel says that adhering to the traditional values of his ancestors, who were equally as entrepreneurial, is the lifeblood of the business.
“We look for partners who have the same values and philosophies as us. Life is too short, and I don’t care what you do, it’s all about relationships. With Geotech, as an example, we’re aware of their principals and they’re all solid people. They care about community, the people and the land, which are all the things that we care about, and the same goes for all of our partners.
“We’re not interested in wrecking the land just for jobs or money. But land is meant to be used, and the trick is to use it right … as a people we’re in the business of supporting these projects, provided they’re environmentally and socially acceptable to our community.”
It’s Merkel’s view that the most important aspect of conducting any business is in communication.
“Doing business requires the parties involved to sit down, and push each other around the whole bunch, but the first step is to commit to each other. It’s a bit like a labour agreement when you work with a community. You have to dedicate yourself to developing the relationship,” he says. “At some point, after full discussion, you may decide to go with another option because we can’t provide that level of service at a desired price. We’ve been in that situation, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, because by then a relationship has been established and we worked through it together.”
Merkel adds that choosing services provided by TNDC is a step in the right direction for a company of any size that wishes to engage with the local community in northwest B.C.
“Beyond the fact that we’re more than able to provide a level of service that’s comparable to our peers, there’s a certain altruistic and probably a financial incentive to working with First Nations, on all fronts,” he argues. “If you have a positive relationship with a First Nation you are more likely to have your work dealt with in a more expeditious manner, and more likely to deal with the issues that concern the community in an effective and timely manner. In this business, just like any other, time is money. If you have a poor relationship with a community, or a poorly developed one, and you’re not engaging them in the benefits, or not doing outreach to understand what the issues are and not designing the project to deal with those, then you’ll end up being delayed a whole bunch, and delays are costly. For us, it’s also a way to get to know the project, meet the people involved and ensure that the project advances in a responsible manner.”