Tragic childhood paves path toward energy for Indigenous entrepreneur

Business owner says energy and resource sectors key to overcoming poverty on First Nations

By Gregory John
Lax Kw’alaams First Nation member Chris Sankey, owner of the Blackfish Group of Companies, and director of the C2C2C Unity Corridor Foundation. Photograph supplied for Canadian Energy Centre

When Chris Sankey recalls his childhood, fond memories are intertwined with an inescapable sorrow.

The loss of his parents to suicide and cancer, the tragic result of addiction, lack of opportunity and poverty, became the motivation for the 46-year-old father and business owner to change his own family’s future.

“When my parents struggled to pay the bills, put food on the table and clothes on our backs, I felt it immensely,” says Sankey, owner of the Blackfish Group of Companies.

“Their work was seasonal, and the finances didn’t always go where it was needed. I felt helpless and ashamed of what I didn’t have compared to my peers.”

As member of the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation, located 24 kilometres north of Prince Rupert, Sankey has seen firsthand how his coastal community has benefited from working in both fisheries and forestry, which provided employment for his parents while he was growing up. He’s also watched as opportunities in those industries have all but evaporated.

But as those traditional industries have ebbed, Sankey says the energy sector has provided new horizons for both his own young family, as well as his community.

Lax Kw’alaams, which means “island of roses” in Tsimshian, is home to 3,800 members. Sankey calls Prince Rupert home, and it’s where he operates three energy services companies. He also previously served on his nation’s council for six-and-a-half years.

Crediting the leadership and mentorship he received through sport, Sankey put his own economic dream into motion, to ensure his own children – aged 5, 7 and 15 – will never have to experience what he did in his own childhood.

“In the end, I simply want my kids to be proud of their dad,” says Sankey.

“I want my kids to know that no matter how hard life may get, you can overcome any challenge life throws at you.

“Growing up I’ve suffered immensely from a very abusive upbringing after my father passed, but I don’t consider myself a victim.  I consider myself a survivor.”

Lax Kw’alaams is strategically located along the north coast of British Columbia where they have the opportunity to work on and support the $40 billion LNG Canada development as one of the nations that will be impacted by the shipping corridor created by this project.

And it’s with projects like that that Sankey believes will change the equation for communities that far too often battle poverty and the hopelessness that comes with it.

“The energy sector, resource sector and marine port related developments will help us address community homelessness, addiction, and overall poverty unlike any other industries can right now,” Sankey says.

Joining forces with a group of business partners, Sankey built the Blackfish Group of Companies from the ground up, which includes a heavy civil operations company, an energy stakeholder and Indigenous relations consultancy, and bitumen transportation energy company.

Sankey says his own experience as an Indigenous business owner, along with those of many others, should help begin the process of reclaiming stories that he says activist groups have hijacked from Indigenous people, robbing them not only of their own voices, but economic opportunities.

Finding a way to balance environment and economy through an Indigenous perspective using the connection to land, water, and air, Sankey points to other Lax Kw’laamas members, who for the first time are able to travel and become homeowners, proof points that the Indigenous world that he grew up in is changing for the good.

“It takes courage to go after your dream. Going into business takes hard work, dedication, and commitment. I continue to work hard,” Sankey says.

“There has been a lot of ups and downs. This was not easy, and I still have a way to go.  I continue to grow and overcome challenges.  Being an entrepreneur is not easy, but it is rewarding.”