Arctic drilling review exposes gaps in northern training

Aboriginal northerners want more from frontier exploration

March 21, 2012

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Illustration Gracia Lam

Last September, the National Energy Board wrapped up its 16-month long Arctic Drilling Review with a five-day roundtable discussion in the Northwest Territories town of Inuvik. In amongst the presentations by industry, government, and even local high school students, one man asked a question about something very important to communities in the Beaufort Delta region where future Arctic offshore work in Canada will inevitably take place.

“The training that usually comes to our communities is at the low end, so we end up with the low-end paying jobs,” said Joshua Oliktoak. “It would be nice if we could get some real training into the communities at the community level, where it will be successful. And it would be nice if we could get some training where it’s going to help us get work after the job is done within the region.”

Oliktoak’s request was reasonable. Northern oil and gas work has long followed a boom and bust cycle, and the industry hasn’t always provided benefits to the people that call Canada’s North home. For the past few years, the North’s oil and gas sector has been in bust mode. This is largely because Imperial Oil Ltd. and its project partners have yet to decide whether to construct the $16.2-billion Mackenzie Gas Project, and partly because offshore exploration and drilling was halted while the NEB reviewed offshore practices.

Today, industry is mulling over the NEB’s recently released Arctic Drilling Review findings, and an MGP construction decision deadline of December 2013. It would be a good time for the industry and government to think about how they can ensure aboriginal northerners truly benefit from the next oil and gas boom – if it arrives.


The N.W.T.’s oil and gas potential is well known. The 6.2 billion barrels of oil in the territories’ onshore and offshore, according to the Canadian Centre for Energy Information (CCEI), is 25 times more than what’s been produced by Imperial Oil’s famous Norman Wells field since 1920. CCEI statistics also show six trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in the Mackenzie Delta on the Arctic Coast.

But the jurisdiction also has just under 44,000 total residents, and lower-than-average levels of education outside of regional centers such as Yellowknife, Inuvik and Norman Wells. This combination can present challenges to companies looking for any northerners to work on oil and gas projects, let alone people with the skills and education that today’s increasingly complex trade and management positions require. But making sure there’s a steady supply of qualified workers is also essential to a company’s success in such a remote location.

“Our experience has been when we’ve used northern employees, they’ve been as good or better than anybody we’ve brought in from the south,” says Henry Sykes, president of Calgary-based junior explorer MGM Energy Corp. “From a cost perspective, but also from a cultural perspective, it’s always made more sense for us to hire from the North.”

More and more companies are learning this. Local workers are comfortable working in the harsh cold and usually want to stick around for the long term. Particularly in the Arctic, turnover of skilled employees shipped in from elsewhere can get incredibly expensive. Sykes feels developing a sustained economy through the oil and gas industry could help ease the skills shortage. “With the creation of long-term employment, I think you’ll find people are prepared to get the education they need,” he says. “I would have a very hard time encouraging my kids to go to university, spend those years working hard and spending money, if there were no jobs for them. That’s demoralizing and sends the wrong message.”

Roughly four years ago, MGM Energy, which is focused on oil and gas exploration in the N.W.T.’s Mackenzie Delta and Central Mackenzie Valley regions, started a joint-venture program with the Gwich’in Tribal Council. Though the project has since been dissolved, the plan was to have the First Nation contribute lands while the company paid the multimillion-dollar bill to research and develop the lands while also hiring and training Gwich’in students and members interested in the industry. “You have to start this the right way,” Sykes says. “Start by creating economic opportunity. Then show people how they fit into the economic opportunity.”

Perhaps the most important thing – for the North’s young aboriginal demographic in particular – is to see a link between education and employment. A survey completed by the N.W.T. government in communities impacted by diamond mine development showed 93 per cent of a mine employee’s family members agreed, or strongly agreed, that having a household member employed at the mine made them recognize the importance of education. The survey also revealed nearly as high a percentage of respondents agreed, or strongly agreed, that it increased their desire for education.

As a first step in the Beaufort Delta, Imperial Oil has already started mixing short-term educational components into its training programs. The company is an active player in the N.W.T. Not only does it own and operate the Norman Wells field and is the lead proponent of the Mackenzie Gas Project, but it’s also the operator in a joint venture with BP Canada where the two companies hold two deepwater leases in the Beaufort Sea they acquired separately for a combined $1.8 billion. In the summer of 2008, Imperial Oil conducted a 3-D seismic program on one of those leases in the Beaufort Delta. It followed this work up with an offshore data collection program in the summer of 2009. For the two programs, the company trained and employed 24 people from surrounding Inuvialuit communities, mainly as wildlife officers.

But the training for these positions included an environmental technician program in partnership with the local Aurora College, as well as basic hazardous materials training and safety training. “That program was developed in consultation with the six [Inuvialuit] communities,” says Imperial Oil spokesperson Pius Rolheiser. “There was a desire expressed for providing long-term capacity building, not just short-term jobs, so that we don’t just provide temporary jobs, but we also provide capacity building so that we equip young people with skills that will serve them long term.”


The idea of providing transferable skills and training in the North isn’t new. In 1980, Dome Petroleum, in partnership with government, started a training facility known as “Tuk Tech” – so named because it was located in the small Inuvialuit community of Tuktoyaktuk, which served as the hub of industry’s offshore activities in the Beaufort. The facility offered everything from food services skills to basic office skills to introductory carpentry and heavy equipment operation. In the first two years, 86 northerners successfully completed a variety of programs.

“From what I saw, it was a very successful program,” says Doug Matthews, who was living and working in Tuktoyaktuk as an area economic development officer with the N.W.T. government at the time, and is now a consultant and energy writer. “But the success of the Tuk operation was very much driven by a company that was intent on doing this. If you don’t have that type of drive within the company, it ain’t going to happen. It doesn’t matter how many government programs you have.”

Another secret of Tuk Tech’s success, says Matthews, was the fact that training took place locally. People who were sent out for training often had children and important family networks they left behind, making the transition all the more difficult. “Socially, on-the-job training and locally provided training is something that made a lot more sense,” he says.

Unfortunately for O.D. Hansen – currently working as the manager of communications, technical and regulatory services for the Aboriginal Pipeline Group (APG), but originally from the Gwich’in community of Aklavik – local training wasn’t available in the late 1980s after industry left the region. So, he uprooted his young family and moved to Alberta to work for the Inuvialuit Petroleum Company. Since then, Hansen has earned an applied degree in petroleum engineering technology and held a number of management positions, including his current job with the APG, an aboriginal-owned proponent of the Mackenzie Gas Project.

So, how does the industry get more aboriginal people like Hansen working in higher-level and more skilled positions in the northern oil and gas industry? “At the end of the day, it almost always boils down to an individual’s decision on making that effort to stay in school or go back to school and obtain that education,” he says. “But we need sustained industry. I think the diamond mines have proven that if industry’s there for a number of years, the number of trained northerners will go up because they have sustained work and it will keep them there.”

When thinking of how to train aboriginal northerners for skilled industrial jobs, a lot can be learned from the N.W.T.’s diamond industry. Hundreds of aboriginal employees work at the territory’s three diamond mines. And while many observers would like to see more at the management level, the industry does have a growing number of skilled aboriginal workers and tradespeople.

One of the big reasons for this is the N.W.T. Mine Training Society. Started as a partnership between industry, aboriginal leadership and governments in the early 2000s, the society focused on trades and technical training. Many of the skills taught were transferable to other industries, such as oil and gas. Within five years, the society had trained as many as 300 people at a cost of roughly $18- to $20-million. The program was the first of its kind in Canada, and the Yukon and Nunavut mining industries have since implemented similar programs.

“What we tried to do was design training programs as though the program was an actual employment scenario,” says Dan O’Neill, a territorial bureaucrat who helped start the society. “At the end of the program, we ensured that we attached employment with that training, so we would have a graduation ceremony where we’d be handing out diplomas to the students and industry would hand out a job offer at the same ceremony.”

The kind of training and education that ends up providing meaningful work requires significant time, money and resources. But O’Neill says the program’s success hinged on the significant financial and in-kind contributions from both industry and government, and the fact that everyone was working toward a common goal. It also helped that government and the society would ask industry what skills were needed in the short- to medium-term and design the training program accordingly. “The model, it is unique,” O’Neill says. “But you could take almost any industry and place it over top of the template.”

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