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May 5, 2008

Aboriginal construction firms get larger share of Red River floodway expansion project

WINNIPEG

What began as an experiment driven by necessity appears to be on the verge of becoming a good news story for the Manitoba Floodway Authority (MFA) and aboriginal construction firms and their workers in the province.

On April 14, the MFA announced it was increasing the Aboriginal Set-Aside portion of the Red River Floodway Expansion Project. Ernie Gilroy, CEO of the MFA estimated the construction tenders designated for First Nation and Métis construction contractors could hit as much as $20 million for the season ahead.

That is up sharply from the $14-million per year average that marked the first two years of the initiative that began in 2006, reports Grant Warren at The Drum, an Aboriginal newspaper covering Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario.

“Basically, we’ve done about $28 million in work on the set-aside and to date,” Mr. Gilroy said.

The aboriginal set-aside began as an experiment when the floodway expansion began in 2006, in large part a response to the serious shortage of skilled labour that did, and still does, exist in Manitoba today.

The MFA entered into the project in conjunction with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Manitoba Métis Federation.

“The construction industry is experiencing a shortage of skilled workers and what we’re trying to do is to tap into a pool of workers who are ready willing and able to do the job but in the past have not had the opportunity,” Gilroy said.

Gilroy noted that two years of positive results convinced the MFA to increase the amount and scope of work to be made available to aboriginal firms. This year, aboriginal firms will continue their work on the west dikes with additional work added on the west bank of the Red River, in an area close to Lower Fort Garry. The work will involve everything from surveying to heavy equipment operations and gravel hauling.

Contract tenders will also be divided between First Nation and Métis firms.

“That will give us a better idea of who is out there to help us in the workforce,” Mr. Gilroy said.

The $665-million project was initiated to protect the province and the City of Winnipeg in particular, against a one-in-700 year flood. Since the project began, aboriginal construction companies have raised and strengthened the west dike, the most vulnerable portion of the diversion.

The West Dike, which is currently approximately 45 km in length and located southwest of Winnipeg, will be extended between 10 km and 15 km and raised in height in varying amounts to 1.5 metres to increase protection.

To qualify as bidder for work on the set-aside, a contracting company must be 51 per cent aboriginal-owned with at least one-third of the workforce of aboriginal descent.

Figures supplied by the MFA indicate that there were 500 positions made available under the set-aside arrangement. Of that number, roughly 200, or 40 per cent, of those positions were filled by self-declared employment equity members.

“There’s a shortage of heavy equipment operators and construction workers overall in Manitoba,” Mr. Gilroy said. “This gives us the opportunity to reach out to the aboriginal community but it also gives the aboriginal community the opportunity for decent jobs.”

A total of seven tenders, covering the 2008 construction season are now available for bids. The expansion project is expected to be mostly completed by 2009, with all phases complete no later than 2010.

DCN News Services

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