Updated: Sep 27, 2020
Mike Deranger, President of Derantech Industries, has a powerful yet succinct goal for indigenous Canadian youth: to train them to become skilled labourers. I was fortunate enough to speak with Mike recently and hear his vision for indigenous development first-hand.
“My intent is to provide change for youth, simple as that,” he affirmed. “Industry is always talking about ways to support indigenous communities. However, because of social issues in our communities that keep us down, mechanical work is, more often than we’d like, not done by our people. Infrastructure development is a multi-billion dollar industry in which our presence is clearly lacking. My goal is to train indigenous youth so that they can apply their skills in their home reserves, where they can be beneficial to their own communities. Of course, training in a skilled trade also opens career paths and allows them to start their own companies in turn. Derantech allows indigenous youth to build on their training for the rest of their lives and achieve personal betterment. This isn’t just a working model, of course—we [Derantech] cooperate with companies like Suncor Energy and Syncrude in the oil sands industries, who have remained supportive."
Given Teck Resources’ recent abandonment of its plans for a $20 billion open-pit petroleum-mine proposal— the Frontier Mine—I asked him what the repercussions might be for indigenous workers in Alberta.
“Of course, Teck’s not the first company to make money and leave,” he responded. Companies like Shell do the same, coming in when oil spikes in price to develop bigger plants. The reality’s boom and bust. When there’s a bust, they leave, and the job market takes a hit. The only people that remain are our people. Indigenous people are the largest service-providers in the Wood-Buffalo region of north-eastern Alberta."
“Most Canadians don’t know this. When you hear about the [Wet'suwet'en] blockades, most Canadians, supported by the image cast by the media, immediately stereotype us as lazy, that we want to rely on handouts instead of working. Of course, the reality, shown through our large working presence around the Fort McMurray region, proves it’s anything but.”
Mike proceeded to tell me about the legacy of racism for indigenous Canadians around Fort McMurray. “Racism has always been bad here, I’ve dealt with it myself. My greatest concern is that the young people will experience it too. It’s important to talk about it, to work with local businesses and commerce and the provincial government to overcome it. Of course, we’ve got a high number of graduates among indigenous people here [Buffalo region] as a testament to our success. The amount of money spent on indigenous Canadians doesn’t produce a deficit—our businesses and communities actually form a surplus. This is a shining example of what Canadians need to know to overcome their old mindset. Of course, this isn’t helped by the fact that government and industry policy to interact with indigenous communities is hopelessly outdated. For example, revenue-sharing and compensation from industry towards indigenous people is often non-existent. Pipelines and hydro power projects are built on indigenous lands and not a dime goes back to the community. The people just outside the reserve are compensated—but not us. I think there’d be a lot less protest from indigenous communities if we could reap the benefits of industry. That’s the solution.”
“As we’ve become the fastest growing demographic in Canada and the Canadian economy has become increasingly globalized, we definitely need a new approach to help indigenous Canadians to be economically competitive. The foundation for this model should start with better education for indigenous youth, allow them ease of access into the economy. On top of that, financial institutions need a better understanding of working with us, as they’re presently too reluctant to support young [indigenous] people.”
I asked Mike about his stance on the Wet'suwet'en protests, and what common ground both sides could find. “Of course, indigenous Canadians have a unique perspective in wanting to respect the land. However, the majority may sympathize to a point, but many among us are business-minded people who just want economic opportunities that allow development to be achieved in a respectable way. That’s where I stand. Most of us aren’t so divided on the projects themselves, but disagree with how we’re always pushed to the side. It’s a small percentage of indigenous people who are on the front lines."
I concluded by asking Mike which political leader and party had served indigenous communities best. “I can’t say that any one party has been best for us, but I admire Ralph Klein, our former Premier, who went above and beyond to support indigenous development. Since he left office in 2006, support has really fallen to the wayside. One thing that disappointed me with Trudeau was that when the barricades were brought down, he mentioned that they “needed to come down” because of lay-offs with CN Rail. Of course, they were really in the process of lay-offs as early as November 2019, but this wasn’t mentioned by the media nor by Trudeau. Instead of depicting how CN Rail was holding the country hostage—we [indigenous Canadians] got stuck with negative label instead. This just goes to show how misinformation from the highest members of the present Canadian leadership limits our ability to move forward, and feeds into racism. The good thing about the blockades is that the issues are brought back to the table again, showing that the government and media is still uneducated about indigenous people. Hopefully, this will inspire some change in the future.”