The Diversified Aboriginal Entrepreneurs of Cold Lake, Alberta

By Rajitha Sivakumaran


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Although political borders may separate Alberta from Saskatchewan, the territory encompassing Primrose and Cold lakes is of great importance to the Cold Lake First Nations (CLFN) community — it is their traditional home. The area is also home to the ever-expanding Primco Dene Group of Companies, which draws its name from the lakes and the Dene language of the CLFN people.

Owned solely by the CLFN, Primco Dene traces its roots back to 1999 when it emerged as a single company with 50 employees, specializing in catering and janitorial services. Oil sands development was starting to progress on the traditional lands of the CLFN at that time and that opened up a special niche — a business opportunity to boost the economy of the community and offer employment to its members. Primco Dene was created to occupy this niche.

Now Primco Dene has grown to incorporate 10 companies with specialties that include maintenance, emergency medical services, internet and computer amenities, expertise in security and commercial franchises. Recently, the company incorporated Cold Lake Crane into its long line of services, providing the oil industry with crane and heavy haul services. Its partnership with Astec Safety Inc. last year now allows Primco Dene to add safety training and equipment to its list of specialties.

“We’ve diversified with a lot of different services,” said James Blackman, Primco Dene’s president and CEO. Blackman began his career as an elected councillor at the age of 22 for his nation. After serving a few terms, Blackman took a step back from politics and endeavoured towards business. Under his leadership, Primco Dene has now become a model for Aboriginal business.

Primco Dene’s claim to fame

Blackman has worked for the CLFN people for over 20 years. The advantage of being both an entrepreneur and a community member is the chance to actively improve the lives of people he already understands. The legacy of Primco Dene lies with the employment opportunities it provides to its people. The group of companies is the proud employer of 900 workers, which includes 700 Aboriginal workers from 100 different communities across Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Blackman points to this employment regime as Primco Dene’s claim to fame.

“One of the things that keeps us so structurally sound is the fact that we have a social licence within our communities because we employ so many members ourselves as well as a social licence from our leadership because they know that we are constantly pushing the bar for indigenous engagement and involvement within our company,” Blackman said.

When it comes to Aboriginal engagement, Primco Dene walks the walk. The company was recognized with the Aboriginal Engagement Award last year in Calgary at the Global Petroleum Show.

“When we’re walking the walk, industries support us and they want to give us more work,” Blackman said.

Consequently, Primco Dene has made a name for itself in northeastern Alberta by actively engaging and supporting the community with donations to cultural and sporting events and contributions to infrastructure like housing and roads, education funds, and youth and senior programs. Most notable is its financial support for the Aboriginal Relations program at the University of Alberta.

Aside from contributing to the success of Primco Dene, Blackman often extends his role as an advocate of Aboriginal business to community projects like the Casino Dene. Primco Dene has also been involved in the early stages of the upcoming Casino Dene Hotel and Conference Centre.

A fine model for Aboriginal business

The triggers behind Primco Dene’s success and rapid growth are multifactorial in nature. Part of it comes down to excellent leadership and progressive business decisions. Being a natural leader is Blackman’s strongest attribute. His progressive mentality towards business, which involves diversification of specialties, is another reason why Primco Dene is so successful.

“I believe in diversification. Diversification within an Aboriginal community is the secret to success,” Blackman said, adding that the business would otherwise entail a single line of thinking and pursue a one-dimensional path. Being situated in Alberta, the oil province of Canada, this line of thinking has helped Primco Dene stay afloat during the oil crisis.

“Because we’re so diversified, we’re weathering the storm. We always knew that we had to do services that were going to be resilient. The hardest thing to do in an Aboriginal community is to start and stop businesses. It takes a long time to regain support and social licence so you have to build a company that’s diversified,” Blackman said.

Diversification serves the community well too, giving members various employment options — after all, not everyone wants to be a chef or a paramedic. This is one of the reasons why Primco Dene is able to employ such a high number of workers and the number is expected to grow. Plans for the future growth of the group of companies is underway — Blackman spoke enthusiastically about his intention to open up to 15 more franchises in the next five to eight years.

“I like Primco Dene because the board of directors and the leadership of the Cold Lake First Nations are very supportive of a company that really walks the walk when it comes to Aboriginal engagement and employment. It’s easy for me to wake up and want to work for a company that focuses on that being a priority and not just profit,” Blackman said.