Energy projects critical for Indigenous prosperity, says veteran electrician

B.C. company able to stay afloat during COVID-19 crisis thanks to ongoing work on oil and gas projects

By Gregory John
Jason Victor of B.C.'s Cheam First Nation is co-owner of Chinook Electric. Photograph supplied for Canadian Energy Centre

An electrician by trade, Jason Victor knows a thing or two about sparks.

So after 30 years in the business, the Cheam First Nation member is keenly aware just how much the energy sector can spark prosperity for Indigenous people by enabling them to build up their economies.

“Oil and gas is an absolute necessity when it comes to economic opportunity for Indigenous people,” he says.

“Energy is an opportunity for Indigenous unity, where we as Indigenous people are able to reconnect across B.C. in support of this unprecedented opportunity to raise our people out of poverty.”

Victor, who is co-owner of Chinook Electric and the company’s Director of Indigenous Business Development, has spent a lot of time travelling across British Columbia searching out business for his company, which has led him to secure work on supporting camp infrastructure on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Victor, whose nation is located about 50 kilometres northeast of Chilliwack, says he has seen the benefits that oil and gas has shared with not only his community, but across British Columbia.

According to Trans Mountain, benefits to Indigenous communities from the project’s $12.6-billion expansion are expected to eclipse $500 million with over $275 million awarded through construction contracts as of February, impacting almost 100 First Nations in B.C. alone.

Chinook Electric, which is Indigenous-owned and operated, was hit hard by COVID-19 like many trades that rely heavily on residential and commercial electrical work, says Victor.

“We had two large new mall developments lined up for the company, which were cancelled due to COVID,” says Victor.

Chinook Electric in Chilliwack, B.C. Photograph supplied for Canadian Energy Centre

Before the pandemic, the company employed 10 people and is now only down to only two, says Victor, who sees a glimmer of hope as industrial and pipeline work ramps up across British Columbia.

According to Canadian Energy Centre research, small and medium-sized businesses account for 99.5 per cent of companies working in Canadian oil and gas (95.8 per cent considered “small,” with 1-99 employees, and 3.7 percent considered “medium,” with 100-499 employees).

This includes oil and gas production companies as well as pipeline transportation businesses and service and supply companies like field machinery manufacturing.

Victor was able to secure industrial work on Trans Mountain at one of the project’s work camps located in the Shxw’ōwhámel First Nation territory, which is being constructed by Horizon North Logistics.

With the Trans Mountain expansion project expected to cost $12.6 billion, it has been the centre of discussion among many Indigenous groups who are seeking to participate in its construction.

“We will be hooking up the main electrical distribution system for the camp, which will provide us with two months of work in support of the Trans Mountain expansion,” says Victor.

The camp, which is slated to house 300 people initially, will grow to a maximum of 600-700 people by peak construction. It is the first of several jobs that Chinook Electric plans to participate in over the next year or so in support of oil and gas development, Victor says.

As a company associated with a First Nation who is directly impacted by TransMountain, he hopes to gain more opportunities as the project ramps up, especially in Cheam First Nation territory.

Victor not only sees opportunity with Trans Mountain, he has also actively pursued industrial opportunities arising from liquefied natural gas (LNG) development in both northern British Columbia and the lower mainland.

“LNG is not just an opportunity for First Nations, but also for all of Canada,” says Victor, who has partnered with two First Nations that have both current and future development within their territories. The two projects he hopes to partake in are LNG Canada and Woodfibre LNG.

Chinook Electric has partnered with the Haisla Nation near Kitimat, which has welcomed both the LNG Canada export terminal and the associated Coastal GasLink pipeline into their territory through Lebo Construction.

The opportunity to work on energy projects has become even more critical, Victor says, because it has provided his company with a future beyond residential and commercial work, which he anticipates taking a much longer time to rebound from the pandemic.

The Chinook Electric team is looking to secure work on the LNG Canada terminal through the JGC Flour joint venture, which will showcase some of his team’s expertise, says Victor.

Chinook Electric has already done work within the Haisla territory where the company worked on the “Haisla Town Centre” project. This large development consisted of condos, office and retail space, a hotel and restaurant space. It’s a direct result of the LNG Canada project underway, which created demand for this new infrastructure and community-based amenities.

The first phase of LNG Canada has an estimated capital cost of $18 billion, along with the $6.6 billion cost of the Coastal GasLink pipeline to connect natural gas from Northeast BC to the facility in Kitimat. The project has support from all elected First Nations along both the land and shipping routes. According to Coastal GasLink, the project has already resulted in over $825 million in contracts being awarded to Indigenous and local companies.

“Unfortunately, without larger bodies of work, this will be much more difficult to navigate as a company moving into the remainder of 2020,” says Victor “However, the opportunities presented by the energy industry will play a critical role in ensuring we are able to stay open.”