Willow Lake Métis Nation: The best of both worlds
By September 2022 edition of Business in Calgary, and Business in Edmonton 6 September 2022 4 min read
At his lakeside cabin near Anzac, south of Fort McMurray, Justin Bourque is busy upgrading his solar panels from 24V to 48V. He lives at the cabin year-round, working his family’s trap line and living on the land as sustainably as possible.
The values and passions he pursues in his personal life are perfectly parallel to those of his public life, as the CEO of Willow Lake Métis Nation. Sharing photos of last year’s trap line haul, he grins ear to ear.
“Best of both worlds, my friend. If it's not business, I'm working on maintaining my cultural connection and my lifestyle as a Métis.”
Thanks to Bourque’s leadership — and the acquisition of 205 acres — everyone in Willow Lake Métis Nation will soon be able to do the same.
Until recently, the Willow Lake Métis were people without land, but had an independent spirit and ambition to spare. When Bourque’s uncle, who was Vice President of the board, passed away, they asked Bourque to take over his position. At first, he was reluctant.
“I had a very successful career in oil and gas,” he said, “And I always kind of saw myself as wanting to be a CEO one day. But then we started talking about our chance to do something different. We have the ability and knowledge from my skill set in the industry to talk to them at the same level.”
Operating with a business mindset, Bourque’s team set goals and started taking steps to achieve them. They restructured their not-for-profit. Deposits were placed on land near Anzac. They pursued Credible Assertion — a lengthy process that would officially recognize Willow Lake’s Métis Aboriginal rights, so they would be consulted about future Crown land decisions that affect them.
"Our purpose is to be an integrated, self-governing Indigenous community. Within 10 years, we believe we can be a nationally recognized model Indigenous community. Those are our key drivers that we set two and a half years ago."
CEO of Willow Lake Métis Nation
And then, four remarkable things happened in succession.
First, TC Energy Corporation sold its 85 per cent stake in the Northern Courier Pipeline to Alberta Investment Management Corporation. It chose to sell the remaining 15 per cent to a partnership called Astisiy, that includes Suncor Energy Inc. and eight Indigenous communities — Willow Lake Métis Nation among them.
Astisiy engaged ATB to facilitate their participation in the deal. With guarantees from the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation, a provincial entity with the resources to back $1B in loans, ATB was able to finance Willow Lake’s buy-in.
Pipeline ownership meant that Willow Lake would have a guaranteed source of revenue for the next 50 years. Seeing a path forward, Bourque then asked ATB how they could leverage those cash flows to purchase land. ATB structured a mortgage that would be debt-serviced as dividends from the pipeline are received.
And finally, Willow Lake Métis Nation purchased 205 acres on the shores of Willow Lake and named it Sohkastwâwin.
The name means resilience, and it’s well-suited to a people who have struggled to reach a place where they can reshape their daily lives and restore what they once had, generations earlier. It begins with bison.
“This land was shaped by bison. So, every single insect, plant, animal, vegetable — every organism once had some sort of connection and was reliant on an animal that touched every acre of this land. As we reintroduce those to the land, the effects on biodiversity will ripple outward.”
Sohkastwâwin’s eco-bison ranch is a meaningful step towards food sovereignty for the nation. The planned Community Culture Centre will be a net-zero facility with meat processing capabilities and a greenhouse. Housing and power generation are in the works.
Bourque lists health and dental care, support for elders and youth, post-secondary tuition, entrepreneurial bursaries and other social supports as just some of the benefits that his community members can look forward to in their modern and recognized settlement.
If Willow Lake Métis Nation’s recent successes can serve as a model for other Indigenous communities to follow, Bourque points to collaboration as a key element of what his community has been able to accomplish.
"Partnerships and relationships are how we as a nation get to move forward. Our business savvy and our ability to provide for our community relies on our ability to engage in relationships."
CEO of Willow Lake Métis Nation
Bourque’s advisors at ATB Financial echo his sentiment and expressed admiration for what Willow Lake Métis Nation has been able to achieve.
“They have such a good perspective about how they can help their community, and they're insightful about creating strong partnerships with industry. That's going to lead to more opportunities,” says William Vu, the Senior Relationship Manager of Indigenous Banking.
“Often what we do is very transactional,” adds Carmen Maslowski, ATB’s Director of Energy Services, who facilitated the land purchase. “It's exciting when we can do something that’s business-oriented, but also feels really good at the same time.”
Both hint that more deals may already be in the works.
“We're moving and leading in so many areas right now,” Bourque teases. “The best is yet to come.”
From the September 2022 edition of Business in Calgary, and Business in Edmonton. Shared with permission.