The team at Backwoods Energy Services is always in the habit of dreaming big.
“We are only really limited by our imagination,” said Mark Fox, interim CEO and COO of the unique multi-division company owned by Alexis Nakota First Nation.
“I’m humbled to have this opportunity at this stage of my career,” said the former senior RCMP investigator and energy sector entrepreneur who joined Backwoods in late 2021.
The highly successful company – which provides a range of oilfield, forestry, and security services across Western Canada – has a deep commitment to its owners.
“The unique thing about Backwoods is that the people who work here really subscribe to our mission; building an economic advantage for our First Nation. We all feel very passionate about that. It’s a big part of what brings us to work every day,” said Fox.
And that’s why Backwoods has adopted a long-term goal to have Alexis Nakota First Nation members comprise 30 per cent of the company’s workforce within seven years.
“The motto is 30 by 30. We want 30 per cent of the workforce and leadership group to be Alexis First Nation members by 2030,” said Fox, adding, “I’m essentially trying to work myself out of a job.”
He adds, “It’s something we talk about all the time and I’m convinced we can do it. We passionately want Backwoods to be run by Alexis Nakota First Nation members.”
To help achieve that goal, the management team is developing a mentorship and training program “so they can get involved in the business.”
Currently, between five and seven percent of Backwoods employees – which fluctuates between 500 and 900 – are members of the indigenous community, located about 90 km west of Edmonton.
Backwoods, which began as a small tree planting company in northwestern B.C, in 1986, migrated to Alberta and began working in the energy industry. In 2010, the original owners started up an informal relationship with the Alexis Nakota First Nation. In 2015 the band bought 51 per cent equity in Backwoods and by 2021 the ownership increased to 100 per cent.
A crucial element of Backwoods’ business model is to follow the indigenous lead and carry out first-class remediation at every turn.
“There is a real spiritual and cultural connection to put the land back to where it was before we disturbed it,” said Fox, adding, “It is really important that it be treated with the respect that it deserves.”
Giving back to the Alexis Nakota First Nation – which has a population of about 2,000 – is central part of the Backwoods philosophy.
‘We do a lot of donations in kind. They are our shareholders. We are lifting children out of poverty,” said Fox.
There are numerous success stories among the employees, including a couple of young Alexis Nakota First Nation members working at the company Matting Services division in Nisku.
“Both of those guys are first-year apprentices. They work really hard and we are really proud of them. We’re not just giving someone a job but providing a career,” said Fox, adding that when he visited the two workers recently “I tell them that they are my boss.”
Backwoods is also working to benefit other First Nation communities.
Fox said, “A big part of our strategy is to have formal relations with other First Nations in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and B.C. It’s all about economic benefits to all indigenous communities, not just ours.”
And the Backwoods boss pointed out that the customers they deal with are a big part of their success.
“They are all tier one; Pembina, Enbridge, Keyera, Trans Mountain, and more. They all talk the talk and walk the walk. They are committed to improving the lives of indigenous people and they are strong supporters of our business and our business model.”
As successful as they have been to date, Backwoods refuses to sit still.
Fox said, “We are looking very seriously at expansion. We are looking to the lower 48 states to partner with other First Nations or into eastern Canada.”