Showcasing The Business Talent of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation

By Rajitha Sivakumaran

acdenGrowing up in the Northwest Territories, Garry K. Flett, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), worked in Fort McMurray’s Oil Sands industry for 30 years before retiring. But in 2009, when ACFN approached him with the prospect of working for its multi-disciplinary company, ACFN Business Group (now Acden), he couldn’t refuse. He is now the president and chief executive officer of one of the largest Aboriginal-owned companies in Canada.

Acden’s humble inception, the challenges it faced and its ultimate growth weave together to create a remarkable story. In 1994, the business was founded with a single pickup truck and a handful of employees. The ACFN Chief of the time, Tony Mercredi, approached Syncrude Canada about a business opportunity that would create employment opportunities and bring economic benefit to the First Nation. With support from Syncrude Canada, ACFN formed Denesoline Environment, specializing in waste collection and removal.

Owned by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations and rebranded as Acden in 2013, the corporation is actually a group of 17 different companies with an employee base of over 3,000! Acden has a versatile business portfolio, offering essential services for the planning, construction, maintenance and reclamation of Alberta’s oil sands. Today, its founding waste management business has grown to include recycling services, and is the largest supplier of non-hazardous waste management services in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB).

Acden’s six wholly owned companies provide a variety of services such as waste management and recycling, light and heavy duty automotive services and repair, facilities maintenance and management, and specialized industrial ultrasonic cleaning. In addition, Acden Manufacturing is based in Fort Chipewyan and manufactures personal protection equipment like Kevlar wristlets and gloves. Additional services such as road building and earthworks, engineering, environmental consulting, steel fabrication and welding, janitorial, camp management and catering services along with earth sciences and reclamation services are provided through multiple venture and equity partnerships.

Multidisciplinary, specialized and successful
“We attribute our success to our employees,” said Flett. “We are proud of our people, we’re proud of our growth and we’re proud of our management. We are lucky to have loyal, dedicated employees who continue to help us conquer the many challenges created by rapid growth.”

According to Mitch Mercredi, business development manager, Acden’s broad scope and diverse range of service offerings continue to be a great success stimulator for the company, specifically in its strategy of vertical integration. “By having 17 companies and over 3,000 employees, we have the diversity, resources and capacity to tackle projects of any scope from the initial planning phase of an oil sands project through to reclamation of the land — that’s what sets us apart,” he said. Despite being a group of companies, clients benefit from a scalable, single point of contact. Essentially, Acden is a one-stop shop.

The corporation’s continued success is pivotal not just from a business perspective; it plays a large role in the wellbeing of the entire Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

The ACFN, along with all other First Nations across Canada, are provided essential service funds from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. In 2013, the Harper government passed the First Nations Financial Transparency Act (Bill C-27), which required the financial statements of 581 First Nations to be publicly available through a website. This included all financial reports on Aboriginal businesses, and entities that fell outside of essential service funding. The Chief and the Council thought this was heavy-handed and feared that Acden would lose its competitive business edge if its financials were made public. Unfortunately, non-compliance meant no funding, but this was a risk the AFCN decided to take.

“It is the ACFN’s desire to gain their independence through economic development. The funding that they don’t receive from the government, they currently receive through Acden, so it is imperative that we continue to grow and provide consistent, high quality service,” Flett said.

Aside from supporting ACFN, Acden is a proud supporter of the RMWB community. Through sponsorship, donations and employee participation, Acden provides support for many charities, organizations and associations in Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan. From the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure (three-time winner of the Corporate Spirit Award) to educational institutions like the Athabasca Delta Community School and Keyano College, to health initiatives like the Northern Lights Health Foundation, Acden’s community efforts are even longer than its list of business ventures.

In 2014, Acden partnered with Shell Canada to provide educational materials to schools in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. About 15,000 pounds of supplies left over from a contract site, including paper, file folders and binders, were sent to schools in Fort Chipewyan, Anzac, Conklin and Janvier. The materials were initially destined for recycling, but collaborative effort allowed them to reach classrooms instead.

But striving towards business prosperity and lending a hand in the community are only two parts of the company’s footprint in Alberta. Acden is committed to protecting the environment too and its headquarters is a fine example of that. In 2010, when Acden and its subsidiaries were scattered throughout Fort McMurray, the need for corporate headquarters emerged. Three years later, its LEED Gold certified corporate headquarters was completed, the only building of its kind in Northern Alberta.

Environmentally friendly from top to bottom, the building is equipped with a number of green features: rainwater collected from the roof is stored in an underground cistern and used in washrooms; it is 33.5 percent more energy efficient than similar buildings; 25.6 percent of materials presently found in the building come from recycled sources. Even maintenance at the Acden corporate headquarters is done at a minimal cost to the environment — employees use green cleaning products. An employee driven/monitored program ensures employee and corporate events produce zero waste.

“To further streamline our environmental efforts, we launched the Better Earth Program in 2015. The program serves as a platform to activate environmental consciousness throughout Acden by utilizing a combination of action, awareness and education,” said Claire Rogers, Acden’s communications advisor.

With all these great initiatives under its belt, the company is focusing future plans on maintaining its growth, supplying economic prosperity and employment to the ACFN and giving back to the beautiful land it calls home in any way that it can.