PCL recently became a member of the Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association (NAABA), reflecting our ongoing efforts to engage with Alberta’s Indigenous communities and businesses. 

We sat down with NAABA’s executive director, Michelle Toner, to learn more about the organization’s mission and to hear her perspectives on why building stronger relationships between industries and Indigenous communities will lead to a better future for all.

PCL: Let’s start with the basics. Can you tell us about NAABA’s mission and share some of the organization’s history?

Michelle Toner: The story of NAABA goes back to the early 1990s when Fort McMurray was in a significant construction phase. A group of Indigenous entrepreneurs saw all this work happening in their back yards, but the opportunity wasn’t really coming their way. So, several individuals got together and charted out what it would look like to have an organization that advocated for Indigenous businesses coming together, working together and joint bidding on work. 

Really, the mission of the organization is to build unity within Indigenous businesses and create opportunity for these businesses in our region by removing barriers and creating access to information. 

PCL: Where do you think NAABA fits in creating space for the industry to engage in reconciliation and Indigenous communities?

MT: As an umbrella term, truth and reconciliation can lead to some uncomfortable conversations. Simply put, we create the opportunity and the space for people to ask questions. I feel that most organizations want to do the right thing. They want to engage in activities that speak to the TRC’s Calls to Action. They want to do what they can, but they really don’t know how. They don’t know who to talk to, they’re scared to make a mistake, and they don’t want to offend people. 

We often hear, “I don’t know what to do,” and I admit, “It’s okay. I sometimes don’t either. We’ll ask the people who do know.” NAABA plays a really important role in opening the door for non-Indigenous people and organizations to be in a room with Indigenous people and have those sometimes uncharted but necessary conversations. 

PCL: How can an organization like PCL support Indigenous communities by being an active and engaged member of NAABA?

MT: Being an active member gives you an opportunity to develop relationships with Indigenous businesses that are highly regarded for their professionalism, their safety, and their commitment to this region. Engaging with NAABA members and having the opportunity to sit down with Indigenous business provides completely new perspectives. It provides the opportunity to engage in relationship building and move away from being purely transactional. And, ultimately, it levels the playing field. 

Also, being an engaged member is taking the steps to say, “Hey, maybe there are different questions we can ask to both find the best fit for our organization and also be more inclusive.” It can be uncomfortable, but growth happens in the uncomfortable. You’re growing as a person and as an organization when you’re engaging in these ways. 

PCL: Why do you feel it’s important for industry organizations to reflect on and engage with Indigenous communities on this deeper, more intentional level? 

MT: I think if you look at the concept of seven generations before and seven generations into the future, Indigenous people were here long before the industries, and they’ll be here long after all the oil is taken out of the ground. This is their territory, their homeland. Slowing down and having those conversations allows you to think, “What am I doing in my everyday decision-making that is going to impact the next seven generations?” If you look at it from a sustainability perspective, slowing down and having these solid relationships and looking into the future allows you to ask, “Am I making a decision for tomorrow or am I making a decision for 70 years down the road?”

Also, if you slow down, you really get the best of people, as opposed to that type of drive-by, fast food kind of transaction. Sometimes it takes a little bit more time, but the outcome is much more beneficial and much more powerful. 

PCL: Lastly, what would you like to share with anybody who is considering becoming a NAABA member?

MT: We have two types of members and our goal is to help them find opportunities to work together. Our Certified Full Aboriginal Members are businesses owned and controlled by somebody who is First Nations, Métis, or Inuit. It’s important to us that these businesses are not just Indigenous-owned but also Indigenous-controlled as well, so that Indigenous people are making decisions, having input, and actively furthering the development of the Indigenous economy. 

Then, we have our Associate Business Members. These are organizations such as PCL and other industry players. The role of these members, ideally, is to engage with our Certified Aboriginal Business Members. NAABA really acts as a database of opportunities for those organization that are committed to increasing their Indigenous content and relationships, and who are looking at ways to take action under the 92nd Call to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

So, if this sounds like your organization, I encourage you to learn more about NAABA and our business community by visiting www.naaba.ca.