Building Success in People Since 2005
By Rajitha Sivakumaran
“My whole life revolved around being an entrepreneur and wanting something better,” Whiteknife said. Growing up in the small town of Conklin, Alberta, Whiteknife, a Mikisew Cree First Nation, experienced the battles of life early on. At the age of 16, he had his own apartment and managed to balance high school with a job as a custodian at Suncor. He was abused and bullied for most of his life, but that did not impair his spirit or his ‘reach for the stars’ mentality. He told himself that although he was cleaning the office at the moment, one day he would be sitting in the office and the next day he would be owning the office. And that is exactly how his story progressed, although it was not without a few hurdles.
As a youth, Whiteknife was a mastermind at compartmentalizing, strategizing and thinking beyond the textbook. At work, he would come up with more efficient ways of doing things and then get the entire crew on board. It wasn’t long before his supervisor noticed that these new habits were adding both efficiency and safety to company operations. It was then that Whiteknife became acquainted with the position of ‘safety officer’ – here was an opportunity that provided financial security while doing something he was passionate about. He eagerly pursued further studies and became an accredited safety officer and safety auditor.
“I loved it. I get to do investigations, I get to use my brain and I get to strategize. I just knew that safety was my area of expertise. I just kept building and building and learning more about it,” Whiteknife said, comparing the detection aspect of the work to the cases of Sherlock Holmes. He soon realized that he wanted to have his own safety company and ICEIS Safety was born in 2005.
Based in Fort MacKay and Fort McMurray, Alberta, the company specializes in occupational health and safety consulting, training and staffing. It is a member of the Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association, and certifications held by its consultants include everything from environmental site supervisor to national construction safety officer.
Even before founding his company, Whiteknife had envisioned that his future enterprise would specialize in helping First Nations with pre-qualifications for oil sands work, something that is mandatory for on-site work. “Aboriginal companies are hard-working companies. They know exactly what they’re doing. The only obstacle for them is the fact that they don’t meet the safety qualifications that industry has set,” Whiteknife explained. This was why he started consulting with multiple First Nations companies and helped them enter the oil sands industry, well before ICEIS emerged.
“We are a young company, we’re open-minded, we are not textbook. We always engage in building long-term, intimate relationships with our clients as opposed to looking at them as a source of revenue,” Whiteknife said.
His line of work was a rewarding one, and consequently Whiteknife and his company have been recognized for excellence many times. Since being awarded the Youth Entrepreneur for Alberta in 2011, both company and owner have built up an impressive portfolio, which includes Small Business of the Year (2014) and First Nation Entrepreneurial Symposium (2014). In 2016, after being nominated four times in a row, Whiteknife was the winner of the Alberta Chamber of Commerce Eagle Feather Award of Distinction.
But behind every success story, there are struggles. Since the economy started to slow down in 2015 and suppliers started going with more national brands, ICEIS Safety has been experiencing some tough times. But Whiteknife already knew the solution: diversification. The safety supplies department was shut down and the company’s new focus centred on expanding an existing initiative.
“I realized that the biggest challenge is education and training for our First Nations people in remote locations. It was a barrier for employment,” Whiteknife said. About six years ago, he created and wrote the Get Ready Program, which helps Aboriginal, Inuit and Métis people find work in the oil and gas and construction industries. Participants receive job readiness certification, help with job placement, coaching after entering the workforce, and mentoring that tackles on-the-job challenges.
The small group size (12 people per facilitator), the option to join a women-only group, Get Ready Youth Camps for younger people and ICEIS Safety’s established industry connections add to the success of the program.
The program is accredited by the Canadian Council for Certified Professionals and Indigenous Canada, but the accreditation process was a long one, taking two years. In fact, Whiteknife received a personal call from the president of the certification board commending his persistence despite the lengthy wait.
With an 80 percent success rate in the classroom, Whiteknife is now busy with a new direction, having realized that there is a need for the program to have a strong online presence. The company is now tirelessly working towards reaching First Nations groups all over Canada with the Get Ready program. It is especially important now since tough economic times means limited employment opportunities. Presently, Whiteknife is also working on making the Get Ready Program accessible to people on social assistance.
Prior to economic troubles, Whiteknife had already been doing battle on a personal level. As a gay man, he has faced scrutiny and prejudice for a long time, but these experiences have only fueled his success.
“My biggest accomplishment is that I’m able to help a lot of the regional municipalities and First Nations people. I’ve opened a lot of doors for the LGBT community. I’m very open about my sexuality in Fort McMurray and about my alter ego, Iceis Rain,” Whiteknife said.
Fort McKay, his place of residence, supports him as an individual, an artist, a business person and a community member, which is something Whiteknife finds very rewarding. He also commends Fort McMurray and the oil service industry for looking at his work and performance rather than his personal life, although it was a big hurdle at the beginning. Now it’s not an issue, Whiteknife says.
Whiteknife is often asked if he is contemplating changing the name of his company, given how it is pronounced the same way as the militant group. His answer is no, citing that he was here before them. He even vows to outlive them. He chose the name because it sounded beautiful, powerful and aggressive at the same time, and it has now become an integral part of him.
In addition to ICEIS Safety and the Get Ready program, Whiteknife, a natural-born performer, is actively pursing his singing career. He is working on a new album, and an upcoming reality and highly anticipated TV show, called Queen of the Oilsands, will feature Whiteknife and Iceis Rain.
Despite the many moving parts in his life, Whiteknife continues to call out to people who are interested in the Get Ready Program. Anyone who wants to bring about a transformative change to their lives or that of their community members should reach out to Whiteknife today.