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Suncor makes headway on aboriginal relations

March 2004

Suncor Energy, the Canadian oil and gas company, has more than doubled its proportion of aboriginal employees in five years.

The company increased the number in Canada from three to eight per cent between 1998 and 2002, attributing the rise to its cultural awareness programmes and changed staff attitudes.

Many of Suncor’s operations in Canada, particularly in British Columbia, northern Alberta and the Great Lakes area of Ontario, are close to aboriginal communities. The company is developing one of the world’s largest petroleum resource basins – Canada’s Athabasca oil sands – and says it is in its interests to improve relations with aboriginals as they represent a ‘potential pool of employees and local suppliers’ with local knowledge.

Chief Archie Cyprien, of the Athabasca Chipewyan first nation, said the improved relations with energy companies were as much to do with local communities’ increasing militancy as with a more responsible stance by business. ‘It’s partly because the attitude of industry has changed and partly because [as a people] we’re more educated, more experienced and more vocal,’ he said.

Suncor, which employs more than 3400 people in Canada, has recently signed agreements with the Athabasca Tribal Council and Metis communities in the Athabasca region that seek to strengthen understanding and co-operation with communities.

In addition, it has signed ‘industry relations agreements’ with the Fort McKay, Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree first nations, which provide for consultation and a way of resolving disputes.

Suncor has also increased its community investment from C$1.6million (US$1.2m, £650,000) to C$4.5million during the past five years, and has raised the amount of goods and services it buys from aboriginal people from 1.8 per cent of its total spend in 1998 to 5.3 per cent in 2002.

The company provides advice and financial support to aboriginal business start-ups, including one that supplies it with log cabins and nylon slings for heavy lifting. Additionally, it now provides in-house ‘aboriginal awareness workshops’ to staff in its natural gas and renewable energy operations. The workshops include an explanation of significant legal decisions affecting relationships with aboriginals, presentations on Suncor’s aboriginal policy, and sessions on common ‘myths and misconceptions’.

The company says it is making progress on aboriginal representation, and has set itself a 12 per cent target to ‘better reflect regional demographics’. Aboriginals make up three per cent of the Canadian population, but in Manitoba and Saskatchewan they represent 11 per cent and in the Northwest Territories 62 per cent.

Suncor’s efforts mirror those of another Canadian oil and gas company, Talisman, which is also working to improve relations with aboriginal peoples. Talisman funds aboriginal student bursaries at Canadian colleges and is developing aboriginal relations guidelines for staff.




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