NRT Training Program Far Exceeds Provincial Standards

Saskatchewan’s new minimum training requirements for Class 1a drivers has had the media and transportation industry buzzing.

As of March 15, 2019, drivers are required to complete a minimum 121.5 hours of training before taking their road test. This mandatory entry-level training (MELT) consists of at least 47 hours classroom instruction, 17.5 hours yard instruction, and 57 hours behind the wheel. During their training course, students must pass 11 separate modules before they are able to take the practical examination.

These are welcome changes to the province’s woefully inadequate past requirements, although some say they still leave a lot to be desired.

Northern Resource Trucking is one company that won’t hire a driver who just has their MELT requirements. The company demands much stricter training for its own employees, as it has done for over thirty years. Safety is the backbone of NRT’s relationship with northern communities. Its trucks share the road with northerners and the mining companies that it services. As such, NRT requires drivers to have a minimum of two years or 150,000 km of safe driving experience before they apply. A safe driving record means they must not have more than two driving infractions in one year, and no more than three in three years, including in their personal vehicles, and have no criminal record. This goes for drivers that NRT’s owner-operators put behind the wheel, too.

In 2006, when NRT celebrated its 20th anniversary, the company achieved another major milestone. NRT launched its own SGI-accredited driver training program in order to address the need they saw for access to adequate driver training in the north. While the NRT Training Centre provides basic driver training for a Class 5 endorsement, what truly sets it apart from other training programs in the province is its Class 1a certification. Drivers who graduate from NRT’s program have over 450 hours of experience in the classroom, yard, and behind the wheel! While students spend much of their time in the classroom, the focus of the training program is hands-on experience. Students practice on both loaded and empty 5-axel and 8-axel trailers, they get experience with load securement, roadside truck and trailer maintenance, and they drive on both paved and gravel roads. Where other training programs offer one, two, and three week courses, NRT’s training program is twelve weeks long! This depth and breadth of training is unique not only in Saskatchewan, but across Canada.

“We take about six students per group and do four sessions a year,” Randy Mihilewicz, Manager of NRT’s Training Division, says. This ensures students get a lot of one-on-one time with their instructors. Mihiliwicz started working for the company as a driver instructor when the school first opened before being promoted to Manager in 2008.

“We’ve had hundreds of successful students, and have a hire-rate of over 85% for graduates,” he boasts. “Frankly, that number could be a lot higher if drivers were willing to move farther from their home communities.”

Graduates have gone on to do local work for their bands or at the mines, delivery work in Prince Albert and Saskatoon, oil field work in Alberta, and even highway work across country or through the States into Mexico. What started as a way for NRT to train its own drivers has become a successful business attracting applicants from all over the country.

NRT’s focus on safety has paid off. In the transportation industry, the standard for comparison of company safety records are calculated as the number of incidents per 1,000,000 miles. The general target is to achieve less than 2 per million miles. NRT’s frequency last year was 0.55; often it is even lower.

Helen Burgess Retires after 22 years with First Nations Insurance Services

While Helen Burgess is looking forward to spending more time with all her grandchildren, she will sorely miss her clients and the staff at First Nations Insurance Services (FNIS). Burgess recently retired after spending 22 years as the manager of FNIS.

“I was an emotional wreck for the first week (after retiring) because of the parties held on my behalf,” Burgess said. “I have felt this brokerage deep in my heart for the past 22 years.”

Burgess began her career with FNIS after working at Saskatchewan Legal Aid for 19 years. Burgess said she really didn’t know much about the insurance industry, but it was a chance to work in her community. “To begin with it would take me to a place that I always wanted to be, and that was to work with my First Nations people,” she said.

Burgess said historically First Nations people hadn’t brought a lot of insurance coverage into their lives, never mind the retirement portion of it, and this was a way to bring a great product into their lives.
Back then FNIS was a small enterprise. In fact, the year before she started the business had a net income of $252. But over time Burgess and her staff helped grow the business. She said three employees in particular, Cindy Johnson and Beatrice Arcand, who are still with FNIS, and Stuart McLellan who left a few years ago, were important to growing the business.

“They were absolutely key to my learning and to the success of the brokerage, and continue to be to this day,” Burgess said. “They were really my saviours, my anchors. They just shared the knowledge they had because they had been there for a couple of years already.”

FNIS started out exclusively offering services to Indian bands and their institutions, said Burgess, who is a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation. And it differed from anything else on the market because their plans enhanced and protected Treaty health rights, she said. As the years passed FNIS opened their services to more First Nations people in the province and expanded over the border into the North West Territories and northern Alberta, specifically Fort Chipewyan. “We brought the services to the Mikisew Cree Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation,” she said. “And we still have those clients to this day.”

Burgess remembers her first flight into Fort Chipewyan in a small, eight-seat airplane from Fort McMurray.
“I do battle claustrophobia somewhat, but I turned it over to some of my traditional beliefs and I just knew the Creator put me where I needed to be at the time and it was all in the Creator’s hands. “However, I will not say I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “It was quite the experience.”

Burgess was a hands-on administrator who travelled to meet her clients wherever they lived in Saskatchewan.
“There isn’t a community I have not been to,” she said. In the past year Burgess stepped aside as manager to work as a licensed agent and to help the new manager, Tammy McKay, get established. She said the best part of the job was building relationships with the staff and clients.

“I didn’t think of them as clients first, but more as friends and family,” she said. “And knowing you were bringing such a positive life change to them.” She said it was so rewarding to explain the importance of having benefits in place and having a plan for retirement. And then to help someone who had a death in the family or who had been stricken with a disability.

Burgess has spent her life helping other people, including her own ever-growing family. She and her husband Larry have three sons, a daughter, 12 grand children and one great grandchild. She had thought about retirement, but when a young friend developed a terminal illness it brought home the fact that life is too short. “Not everyone has the privilege of retiring and it is something we really need to embrace and give a lot of thought to,” she said.
Besides seeing more of their grandkids, Helen and Larry plan on exploring the Yukon and to continue to spend more time near the water at Sandy Lake, not too far from their farm north of Prince Albert. But she won’t forget what an honour it was to manage FNIS.

“Kitsaki gave her the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “I’ve absolutely loved what I’ve done. That is what I’m really going to miss. The relationships with our client base and the people I worked with at the community and Kitsaki management level.”

McKenzie, a Key Figure with LLRIB and Kitsaki

Tom McKenzie has had a long and storied career with Kitsaki Management that dates back to its beginning in 1981. McKenzie, Kitsaki’s lands claims co-ordinator, has been a key figure with the Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLRIB) in Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE) and its Loss of Use claim that is nearing completion.

McKenzie was one of the first band members to graduate from the LLRIB teacher training program and then get his Bachelor of Education degree in 1981. “It was quite an adventure and worthwhile,” he said.

McKenzie, who is from Stanley Mission. began the teacher training program and was in the first graduating class of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (now First Nations University of Canada) in 1981.
“Many of my classmates went on to get their degrees and teach in the band schools,” he said.

1981 was a momentous year for McKenzie. After graduating he spent the summer of 1981 fighting fires and then was elected to council for the first time. At that time council was not a full-time job. During the 1970s the LLRIB had taken local control of their schools so he worked as a curriculum developer working with Cree language and culture development.

Kitsaki Development Corporation was incorporated that year and McKenzie began his association by being on the board of directors. At that time Kitsaki began to start developing an economy for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.
Constitutional talks were ongoing in the early 1980s and McKenzie attended a number of conferences in Ottawa dealing with self government and constitutional rights. During that time former LLRIB chief Myles Venne and council and Senator Angus Mirasty worked hard to get treaty and Aboriginal rights enshrined in the constitution.

In 1983 McKenzie was elected chief and held that position until 1985. He continued to attend constitutional conferences, but he said, “progress was very slow.” McKenzie was chief in 1985 when a study was begun on LLRIB’s TLE. From that time on McKenzie has continued working on TLE.

In 1986 a lands claim committee was established, and McKenzie was appointed to sit on it.

He also became Kitsaki’s operations manager in 1987. It was around this time that two of Kitsaki entities began, Northern Resource Trucking and First Nations Insurance Services, which brought in operational funds.
McKenzie went back to teaching and also was heavily involved investigating self government.

In the mid 1980s the federal government had a self government proposal that McKenzie was asked to investigate. He recommended not going into it because it did not meet the recommendations of the 1983 report on self government. “But It was a learning experience and it provided us with a deeper understanding of self government,” he said.

He was part of the team that went to trial in 1997-98 for Treaty Land Entitlement, Ammunition and Twine, and Candle Lake and La Ronge school lands. They spent 47 days in court and LLRIB won an Ammunition and Twine settlement.

They also won a TLE settlement that unfortunately was overturned on appeal. But the appeal court did say there might be a claim for loss of use. The Saskatchewan court of appeal determined that since the band didn’t receive all their land until 1968, they were entitled to loss of use compensation. McKenzie has spent many years working on the claim.

The ammunition and twine settlement resulted in a mix of land and cash. The land was the new reserve for the whole band membership called Kiskinwuhumatowin in downtown La Ronge.

“The loss of use claim took a while to be negotiated and to be accepted,” he said. “In the end we did come to an agreement in principal. The agreement still has to be ratified by the band membership. “I’ve had lots of support and teamwork throughout,” he said. McKenzie said the land claim required continuity through several councils and Kitsaki was instrumental in that continuity.

He said these types of agreements, having to do with treaty rights, take a lot of time and patience to be done properly. “It is for future generations that you work on Treaty rights,” he said because the treaties are to last as long as the sun shines, the river flows, and the grass grows.

McKenzie has also kept upgrading his education in many ways. He took courses at the University of British Columbia for principal training and at Banff School of Advanced Management where he learned about finance, law, organizations, micro and macro economics. Other seminars included environmental conflict resolution, negotiation and self government.

“It is necessary to keep up to date and improve your skills and knowledge,” he said, adding, “It prepared me for my work at Kitsaki and with LLRIB.”

McKenzie was an early proponent of self government and he has worked in a number of capacities on the self government file. He has represented the LLRIB in negotiations on self government. In 2003 there was a tri-partite agreement in principle regarding a self government agreement, but it has never been ratified to this day. “Eventually self government has to come about,” he said. “It is moving in that direction across Canada. We are moving toward self government even though it is slow.”

Besides his work, McKenzie has a keen knowledge of petroglyphs and red ochre, Cree syllabics, and burbot fishing. He said you can learn a lot from the rock painting and the stories our ancestors tell.

He and his wife Betsy have been blessed with six children, four boys and two girls and 10 grandchildren. Their support has been a true blessing.

McKenzie still does a lot of fishing and some hunting at the north end of Lac La Ronge toward the Churchill River where he grew up.

They also spend time at Deception Lake — his wife’s trap line for a summer retreat. “We’ve spent many summers and some winters out there fishing and hunting,” he said.
He has also been an avid badminton player for decades, both coaching and playing.

He helped start a club in Stanley Mission and coached badminton at the Saskatchewan Games three times. He has also competed at a number of North American Indigenous Games winning a number of medals over the years, including a silver in doubles competition with his son John.

“That was the best medal I ever got,” he said.

Tree Trimming Training for LLRIB Members

Considered one of Saskatchewan’s leading Vegetation Management companies, KVSLP supplies aerial tree trimming, right-of-way, brush clearing, danger tree removal, hand slashing, herbicide application, and consenting services to the utility industry. But our growth has been hampered by a shortage of Utility Tree Trimmers (UTT’s) in Saskatchewan. So Kitsaki Vegetation is training band members to fulfil that need.

Three Lac La Ronge Indian Band members with Kitsaki Vegetation have completed the academic portion of the UTT program at Olds College in Alberta.

Dexter Halkett, Jeff Ratt and Alex Mckenzie spent two weeks at the college earlier this spring and are now out putting in the hours trimming trees around power lines across the province.

Alex Mckenzie, who has been with Kitsaki for about three years now, said the first week was spent learning about working safely around power lines, trimming trees while in a bucket, climbing the trees, and about all the equipment needed to do the job. They also were taught how to recognize the different trees and pruning methods.

“Like how to cut a tree so it won’t die,” Mckenzie said. The second week was all about climbing trees. “We learned how to climb the tree, and how to rescue a guy if they get stuck,” he said.

To even get in to the course you have to put in 1,200 hours on the job. And now they need to complete 1,200 more hours on the job to become fully certified.

“This utility tree trimmer designation is like a journeyman’s ticket,” said Kitsaki Vegetation Service’s general manager Terry Helary. “It is a very specialized trade. It is one of the most dangerous trades in the world and safety is No. 1.”
It’s about a two-year process to become certified.

Dexter Halkett, who is from La Ronge, said they now know how to trim the trees properly while staying safe.

“(For example) you notch and then back cut, but then there are a couple of extra cuts you have to make up there to make sure the tree doesn’t peel and rip you down off the tree with the top you are taking off.”

For the past 10 years Halkett was cutting and clearing around power lines, but he wasn’t climbing up the poles. “It took me a while to get used to that,” he said. “I was kind of shaky getting used to heights.”
“I never wanted to climb trees,” he laughed. “But I like the climbing now.” Mckenzie said it also took him a little while to get used to climbing.

“The first time is pretty scary. You get a lot of shaking in your bones.”
So far he hasn’t had to climb too many trees because most of the time they are doing the trimming from a bucket. One of the things he likes about the job is the people. “I like working with the guys,” said Mckenzie, who is from Stanley Mission. “They are all good guys to work with.”

Jeff Ratt, who is from Sucker River, had a leg up on the others because he already had experience climbing power poles with Kitsaki. And he had taken a climbing course at Northlands College before taking this course.

“Switching over to this side was kind of the same deal,” Ratt said. “We are still working around the power lines.” They usually work in two- or three-man crews.

Ratt said on his three-man crew there is a couple on the ground hauling the brush to the chipper.
“Then we have the bucket guy who is trimming.” Ratt said he enjoys the work and the travel that takes him all over the province. “We are pretty much in a new community every week.”

Besides doing regular maintenance they are also called out to emergencies. “Especially storm damage and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

All three are comfortable working in remote locations. In fact, Mckenzie grew up on a trap line “My first memory was probably in a dog sled with my dad.” “It is really peaceful out there,” Mckenzie said, adding he was spending his week off in July back on the trap line. Ratt said they take safety very seriously. “If you are not sure about something, don’t be afraid to ask.”

Helary said that safety is a priority and one of the company’s core values. “Our guys are always working beside a power line and they always have to be aware of their surroundings and any other employees that are working with them as well.”

One other band member took the course last year and Helary said the goal is to put two members through the course each year.

“We are all about providing long-term employment opportunities for our Lac La Ronge band members.”