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Beyond Business

SMS Equipment and Fort McMurray First Nation Join Forces to Empower Community

In a region defined by its industrial strength, a new kind of collaboration is flourishing, weaving together threads of business and community. Rooted in authenticity, fueled by a desire to learn, and driven by shared aspirations—it's about enhancing lives. Together, SMS Equipment and the Fort McMurray First Nation Group of Companies (FMFN Group) are taking significant steps towards economic growth and community development, fostering opportunity, vibrancy, and prosperity.

Much of SMS Equipment's projects operate in and near traditional territory. Connections with Indigenous communities have grown organically, and marking it official was a natural next step in deepening the relationship. And so, on January 1, 2021, the strategic alliance agreement between SMS Equipment's 63N branch and the FMFN Group, wholly owned by Fort McMurray 468 First Nation, was established.

Ryan Coish, Vice President of Business Development at the FMFM Group, has been integral to the journey.

"I was part of the initial negotiations of the agreement, and I'll be perfectly honest— when working with companies new to Indigenous engagement, there's a significant learning curve," he says. "SMS Equipment was no exception, but they have embraced the learning opportunity. Of course, they've seen the benefit of this collaboration through the business aspect and witnessed this impact on the community. However, what stands out the most is that they roll up their sleeves to learn, standing behind their continuous improvement mindset."

Larry Gouthro, SMS Equipment's General Manager for the Fort McMurray region, underscores the significance of getting sincerely involved to foster economic prosperity and nurture strong community bonds.

Traditional Indigenous beaded necklace
Traditional Indigenous beaded necklace handcrafted by Elder Frida to symbolize the alliance between SMS Equipment and Fort McMurray First Nation 468.

"After an unedited tour of the reservation, we didn't focus on only the areas of impact," he says. "The new community centre and homes being built are amazing, but we could see for ourselves there's still much more work to do." Gouthro emphasizes the importance of a true 50/50 partnership—one that aligns with the Nation to identify shared goals and invest in opportunities that enhance mutual understanding and benefit.

Coish couldn't agree more.

"Developing strong strategic alliances provides the opportunity to build capacity, improve, and grow our business," he says. "We are very selective on who we work with. When we're looking at a partnership, it's a true partnership, like Larry said. It's more than the quote-unquote 'feather contract;' it comes down to having that strong relationship—not just open lines of communication and transparency, but also sharing a common value system."

Indeed, the impact of these alliances extends far beyond financial gains. Through collaboration with SMS Equipment and other key partners, FMFN Group has been able to fund critical initiatives that drive community development.

"We set on this journey in 2017, and we've grown so much since then that we now have our own economic development arm that oversees these partnerships, acquisitions, mergers, and equity opportunities," Coish explains. Because of this, FMFM Group has launched a community wellness department and Public Works division while also providing $10,000 annual scholarships to students. With SMS Equipment's support, the scholarship program has enabled an additional 28 students to pursue further education or professional development, significantly expanding educational access and opportunities within the community.

"SMS Equipment also invites our services, such as custodial and civil work for their projects," explains Coish. "We don't just sit back and collect; there are many initiatives within our alliance that I think many people aren't aware of. Without the funds that are driven by our partnerships, without companies like SMS Equipment—we would not be able to do these things."

Fort McMurray First Nation Nikinan Community Centre
Opening in 2024, the Nikinan Community Centre will be home to the Fort McMurray 468 First Nation.

For SMS Equipment, the alliance with FMFN Group represents a commitment to meaningful engagement and social responsibility. "It's been a wonderful journey," Gouthro reflects. "We still have lots of questions and will always be learning, but the Nation is willing to share with us. And we are thankful for that."

Adds Coish: "SMS Equipment started out totally green, but now they're moving towards becoming a leader in Indigenous partnerships with their willingness to understand and work at it."

Looking ahead, both SMS Equipment and FMFN Group are committed to furthering their alliance, exploring new avenues for collaboration, and continuing to positively impact the community. "Their teams always want to know where they can help and what the initiatives truly mean for people of the Nation," says Coish. "It's also been special to see SMS Equipment employees actively participating in Indigenous cultural events, genuinely caring about the needs of our community."

What impresses Coish the most over the years of working with SMS Equipment is their desire to learn. "They bring humility into the process. I think for any Indigenous communities that are looking for mutual benefit, they're looking for partners like SMS Equipment," he says.

While the alliance has accomplished a lot in a short period of time, Coish believes they're just scratching the surface.

"We're constantly evolving and thinking of new ways to share within this relationship, and the best part is we're doing it together."

Aerial view of Fort McMurray First Nation
Aerial view of Fort McMurray First Nation 468. Fort McMurray 468 First Nation is a Cree band located 38.4 kilometres from Fort McMurray, Alberta.

This article is part of the June 2024 edition of our Expert's Corner Monthly Newsletter. Stay in the know with the latest insights, trends, and exclusive features directly delivered to your inbox. Subscribe now to receive our upcoming newsletters and stay connected with industry expertise and innovations.

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