The Pioneer Pipeline made its first delivery of natural gas in May 2019 – four months ahead 
of schedule.

The natural gas pipeline in central Alberta stretches 120 kilometres from Tidewater Midstream and Infrastructure’s Brazeau River Complex west of the Town of Drayton Valley to two of TransAlta’s power generation facilities on the outskirts of Edmonton. Approximately 130 million cubic feet per day of gas are pumped through the line to help the power plants transition from coal to natural gas.

The Pioneer Pipeline project’s smooth progress is due to many factors, but the most important might be the involvement of Steel River Group, an Indigenous-owned and operated Calgary-based construction management company with a distinct approach to engaging Aboriginal communities with an interest in construction projects.

“A lot of construction companies feel they need to partner with First Nations right now,” says Trent Fequet, president and CEO with Steel River Group. “We don’t do it based on need; we do it based on want – we have reimagined how an Indigenous business creates and captures value for our people, and we want to align with partners who share our vision and values.”

Fequet, who hails from the indigenous Innu community of Pakuashipi in the eastern province of Quebec, believes strongly in the power of employment to transform communities. After years of working on mega-projects like the Diavik Diamond Mine in the Northwest Territories and the Albian and Horizon oilsands projects around Fort McMurray in northeast Alberta, he founded Steel River Group to bring the idea to life that Indigenous communities and industry can proactively partner for positive natural resource development.

The basic idea is simple in principle but hard to execute. Steel River Group forms partnerships with like-minded Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses. There is a strong emphasis on long-term thinking and development.

“We never want to form relationships based on a single project,” says Fequet. “We look for a longer-term alignment to maximize sustainable opportunities and employment. We always look for a multitude of projects we could approach.”

Fequet calls this an “ecosystem” approach because it brings different organizations into long-term relationships that are symbiotic and sustainable, like the webs of relationships in ecosystems.

The results to date have been undeniable. For example, Steel River Group partnered with the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation – a First Nation with approximately 2,000 members and 145 square kilometres of land in central Alberta – in a jointly owned subsidiary, Backwoods Energy Services. The energy services company has grown to sustain between 150 to 200 employees and annual revenues have grown from approximately $5 million to more than $90 million.

And with many more partnerships on the horizon, Steel River Group’s ecosystem approach seems to be spreading.