Read more about Suncor's engagement with Reconciliation Canada and its renewed effort to strengthen relations with Aboriginal Peoples and communities

Suncor's social goal is fundamentally grounded in an acknowledgement that we need to change the way we think and act

Read more about Suncor's engagement with Reconciliation Canada and its renewed effort to strengthen relations with Aboriginal Peoples and communities

Read more about Suncor's engagement with Reconciliation Canada and its renewed effort to strengthen relations with Aboriginal Peoples and communities

Suncor’s vision and strategy is to look beyond the energy needs of today and understand what is required for the future of sustainable development.

Building bridges

A conversation with Suncor's Arlene Strom on leading change and working together towards positive change within sustainable energy development.

Building bridges: Suncor’s engagement with Reconciliation Canada is part of a renewed effort to strengthen relations with Aboriginal Peoples and communities

A conversation with Arlene Strom, vice president, sustainability & communications, and Chief Robert Joseph, co-founder of Reconciliation Canada

Suncor has committed to a social performance goal that focuses on a new path for strengthening relationships with Aboriginal Peoples and communities. Through collaborative partnerships, Suncor seeks to increase the participation of Aboriginal Peoples in energy development over the next decade while also working to build greater understanding and trust between Aboriginal Peoples and all Canadians.

Suncor’s partnership with Reconciliation Canada is an example of this commitment to a new way of thinking and acting. Co-founded by Chief Robert Joseph, Reconciliation Canada is leading the way through dialogue workshops and other outreach initiatives to bridge the differences brought about by a history of intolerance, racism and a lack of understanding.

Chief Joseph is a survivor of Canada’s residential school system and a Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation. He recently joined Suncor’s Arlene Strom to discuss the partnership between Suncor and Reconciliation Canada – and the broader prospects for repairing the relationships between Indigenous Peoples and all Canadians.

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The first question is for you, Chief Joseph. As a survivor of the residential school system, can you talk about the impact that had on your life?

Chief Joseph: I was dropped into a residential school when I was six. I had never been outside of my home community. Suddenly, I found myself in a strange place, surrounded by strange people who spoke a language I didn’t understand. In those early years especially, I remember how terribly, terribly lonely I was. I cried until I had no more tears. At night, I’d duck under my bedcovers and fantasize about being home and safe – loved, cared for and belonging.

I was at that school for 11 years. Even though there were some good people in those institutions who tried to do their best, the overall regime of residential schools was very destructive. There was a lot of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. It was just a broken place that no child should have ever been sent to.

Like so many others, I came out of that experience with no sense of value or purpose to my life. We were dealing with a lot of unrecognized and unresolved trauma and spiralled into dysfunction, addiction, violence, brokenness and despair. Most of us fell into that space.

As you travel the country to different Aboriginal communities, you can see the inter-generational impact of that kind of trauma, mistreatment and marginalization. So many of us grew up without being mentored in how to be parents and take on adult responsibilities. When I left school, I married and had a family because I never wanted to be lonely again. For a while, I thought I had escaped my past. But then, one day, I lost my family and everything else that was important to me. It just went from bad to worse and I spiralled until I came to a point in my life where it was totally hopeless. The despair and darkness was so deep.

Lucky for me, I had an epiphany, a vision. The Creator allowed me to see the universe and this voice said to me, “In spite of what you’ve done to yourself, you are part of this and I love you.”

Is this when you co-founded Reconciliation Canada?

Chief Joseph: Yes. I had worked for many years with the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, trying to bring healing and hope to those who had lost their way. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came along, I put a lot of energy into that. The idea for Reconciliation Canada came a few years ago, after I was diagnosed with colon cancer. I called my daughter to my bedside and told her that we had to go forward with this event we had talked about – a walk in the name of reconciliation that would bring together Aboriginals and all Canadians. That walk was held in downtown Vancouver in 2013 and drew 70,000 people.

Since then, we’ve held other walks and conducted dialogue workshops across the country. We believe real reconciliation must involve all Canadians and that we need to get to the truth that our people weren’t just born into poverty and hopelessness. There were pre-conditions like the Indian Act, our removal from traditional lands and the residential school system. To get beyond that, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginals need to recognize we are all important because we are all part of the same universe. We need to create the kinds of relationships that allow us to hold each other up with mutual respect.

Arlene, Suncor has been a partner with Reconciliation Canada for the past few years. Why did the company consider this important to do?

Arlene: Right from the beginning, we had Suncor employees who were at the Walk for Reconciliation in Vancouver and saw the power of bringing people together in that spirit. They brought that back to Suncor.

My first real engagement with Chief Joseph and his daughters, Karen and Shelley, was at a day-long Reconciliation Canada workshop in Fort McMurray in 2014. I have to tell you that day was transformational for me. I was so impressed that Chief Joseph and his daughters would put themselves in such a vulnerable position by telling their story in a personal and meaningful way – and by the fact that their commitment to reconciliation and hope came out of such brokenness and pain. I was deeply moved by their courage and their ability to then challenge us to say, “what does reconciliation mean to you?”

I left that workshop and wrote down a commitment to myself. I would take what I had learned into conversations with my family, work colleagues and leaders in government. That was a pivotal moment for me, as was the opportunity to take part in the Walk for Reconciliation in Ottawa in 2015, held just before the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What really came alive for me in that experience is this notion that we are all treaty people. The concept of literally walking side-by-side in a spirit of reconciliation is such a powerful one, and I’m so grateful to have the chance to be part of that.

I’m also grateful that Chief Joseph has been willing to speak to our senior leadership. He has inspired us in many ways and helped lead a really important conversation and learning journey for all of us at Suncor.

Chief Joseph, what do you think a large energy company like Suncor can and should be doing to encourage the reconciliation process?

Chief Joseph: Aboriginal Peoples care very much for the land, for Mother Earth and the environment. They have never been part of industry and development. And what they’ve learned is that development has some downside. They think Suncor and other companies ought to be more caring and much more sensitive to the environment we live in.

Suncor has been willing to engage with Reconciliation Canada and with Aboriginal Peoples generally. I see Suncor as one of the model companies in this country and I believe they can help us reach out to other large companies. We would like to see all of these companies come up with an overarching statement about their commitment to sustainability, balance and harmony.

We need to learn how we can live peaceably, side-by-side, and support each other. In this day and age, Aboriginal Peoples must share in the benefits from development that takes place in their traditional territory. We pride ourselves on being a country that is compassionate, caring and just. But unless we close the gap between Aboriginals and other Canadians, we can’t truly boast about living up to those values.

Arlene, Suncor recently introduced a new social performance goal focused squarely on strengthening relationships with Aboriginal Peoples...

...over the next decade. Suncor has always had a relationship with Aboriginal communities and businesses, so what is new here?

Arlene: What’s new is that it’s fundamentally grounded in an acknowledgement that we need to change the way we think and act. When we see the reconciliation movement led by Chief Joseph and others, we know work is required to strengthen the participation of Aboriginal Peoples in energy development. We need to be better partners, start conversations about development earlier, listen to and learn from traditional knowledge and wisdom, and respect the unique legal and constitutional rights of Aboriginal Peoples.

We don’t know exactly what the path forward looks like, but it starts with doing things differently. We want to deepen our understanding of the history, customs and beliefs of Aboriginal Peoples and spread that awareness, not only within our own organization but among all Canadians.

At a very tangible level, we know that Aboriginal Peoples and communities are affected by our activities and they must have the opportunity to benefit from energy development. Part of that is through more and stronger business partnerships. Another part is making our own workplace more welcoming and inclusive. And it’s also about listening to Aboriginal youth and working with them to improve their opportunities for success.

Chief Joseph, which is the most important element: improving the level of relationship and trust or increasing economic benefits?

Chief Joseph: I think they go hand-in-hand. Before you can do a really good job on the latter, there has to be real dialogue and meaningful understanding between the parties. By transforming the nature of our relationship, we’ll have better results in terms of negotiating economic benefits and opportunities. What I’m afraid of in Canada is that we may pre-empt the relationship-building and just concentrate on making ourselves look good. That won’t lead to sustainable reconciliation.

To that point, Arlene, there are critics who say this kind of outreach to the Aboriginal community by a big energy company is really a public relations exercise designed to ensure you can continue to grow your business. How would you respond?

Arlene: It goes much deeper than that. The approach we are taking is founded in a recognition of Aboriginal rights that are embedded in treaties, the Canadian Constitution, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Together, they outline how we should be engaging and walking side-by-side with Aboriginal Peoples. And there’s a frank acknowledgment on our part that we haven’t always been a good partner in the past. We are listening to communities and elders and realizing how much there is to learn. We want to do better going forward.

On a personal level, I’d just add that the fact Aboriginal Peoples are still willing to engage and try to walk side-by-side is a sign of great resilience on their part and a source of great hope for our country.

Chief Joseph, there are many First Nations communities that remain strongly opposed to many aspects of resource development. Part of that is based on a lack of trust in energy companies...

...to be good stewards of the environment. How is that mistrust overcome?

Chief Joseph: It’s going to require continued, meaningful dialogue. If we can have that, then some of that trust will manifest itself. And as companies roll out their actual development plans, and if those plans are inclusive and give consideration to Aboriginal interests, that trust will grow incrementally. But there’s no magic wand that’s going to get all of us onside on one path, going down the road and singing “Kum bay ya” [laughs]. So it’s hard work, but we have to do it.

Arlene: Chief Joseph is right; it is really hard work. I think it’s a case of coming to the table – and being willing to stay there even when the conversation gets uncomfortable. When we at Suncor are invited to the table by Aboriginal communities in northern Alberta, we also have to hear about our history – and that’s not always been one of respect and deep engagement. So it’s also about owning that history and moving forward. I can’t promise it will be perfect as we move ahead. But I hope we will be willing to stay at that table, learn from our mistakes and accept the invitation to work together in partnership in new and meaningful ways.

A couple of years ago, Suncor developed an online Aboriginal Awareness program for employees that outlines the history of relations between Aboriginals and all Canadians, including the impact of residential schools. That program...

...was recently posted on the company’s external web site for all to see. What’s the thinking behind that?

Arlene: It’s part of the acknowledgment that we need to deepen our understanding, first within Suncor, but then also across the broader society. We had very positive feedback from employees who went through that training. So the next step was to share it with the general public and we’ve already had a very positive response on that front as well.

Chief Joseph, you took part in that online program and told your personal story. What do you hope comes from that as it gets more widely viewed?

Chief Joseph: Before the narrative of residential schools came up, there was absolutely no understanding of our history together, from the colonial period until now. Once it began to emerge how unjust Canada had been, Canadians began to wake up to the fact that we have some serious flaws in our relationships and our sense of who we are. That narrative is also about broken treaties, the Indian Act and assimilation efforts. It needs to be constantly retold.

In telling my story, I’m hoping more Canadians will learn about all of that. But I’m also hoping they will see that, if we can transform our relationship, our children and grandchildren – yours and mine – can grow up with the sense that we are all in this together.

Suncor has also established an Aboriginal Employee Network. What is it intended to do?

Arlene: We wanted to have a way for our Aboriginal employees to connect with each other. But because we want to increase mutual understanding and respect throughout the workplace, the network isn’t limited to Aboriginal employees. There are now more than 400 people in that network. They get together for sharing circles. It’s been a really rich learning experience for everyone involved.

Chief Joseph, when you talk about reconciliation, you stress the importance of both healing and learning. What can energy companies learn from Aboriginal Peoples?

Chief Joseph: Companies like Suncor, and governments as well, have much to learn from Aboriginal Peoples with respect to development. We have a lot of traditional knowledge about our territories that science misses. When we start to blend science and that knowledge together, we are going to be much better at keeping this planet safe and balanced.

At the same time, Aboriginal Peoples have much to learn from the larger society. When you’ve been in the cocoon so long, feeling marginalized, isolated and hated, you react from that basis. Distrust is your reflex response. We have to mitigate that kind of thinking, break down those walls – and try to create the kind of understanding that’s needed to move forward together.

Arlene, Suncor’s social performance goal similarly talks about building trusting relationships and learning from each other. Where do you see the greatest potential for that?

Arlene: There are many areas where that might happen, but I want to give one concrete example. Mark Little, Suncor’s president of our Upstream business, has worked to build trusting relationships with the chiefs of the Fort McKay First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation of northern Alberta. Because of those relationships, we were able to enter into the signing of a major equity agreement with these First Nations for the East Tank Farm synthetic crude terminal associated with our Fort Hills mine. It really is a case of talking candidly to one another about mutual interests and finding a partnership that will work for those communities and for Suncor.

Finally, Chief Joseph, we started this conversation by talking about a dark chapter in Canada’s history, namely the legacy of residential schools. Having lived that story, how optimistic are you that we can still achieve true reconciliation?

Chief Joseph: I’m very optimistic. There’s a long road ahead and the challenges are going to be hard. But recent opinion polls show a strong majority of Canadians want to find a path towards reconciliation. To get there, Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals alike will have to accept reconciliation as a core value in their lives. Through this framework, we will be prompted to always seek balance, harmony, connectedness, mutual respect and accountability. I think we can do this in Canada if we don’t lose the momentum. We can be one with each other.