Fort Garry Fire Trucks does a lot of business with First Nation communities throughout Canada and it also has a strong track record of hiring First Nations people.
But as the largest manufacturer of fire trucks in the country, the employment of aboriginal people is not meant to leverage sales into what is effectively a rather small sector of the market.
The company is now looking at ways to leverage its strong First Nations staff and the unique opportunities North American First Nations people have when it comes to freely crossing back and forth across the border for the company's business-development activities.
Ron Lavallee, who's worked at Fort Garry Fire Trucks for more than 20 years, is head of its service department. He's from the Pine Creek First Nation north of Dauphin.
'If they have a cadre of employees who can move back and forth across the border, that is a big strength' -- Jamie Wilson, treaty commissioner with Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba
"It is potentially a wonderful opportunity for us," said Lavallee.
In particular, Fort Garry is looking at the intense oil and gas development activity taking place in the Bakken Basin in western North Dakota and Montana.
The company recently sold some equipment to the town of North Portal, Sask., a border town southeast of Estevan.
Lavallee said there is a lot of business activity in that region and Fort Garry has a number of potential equipment sales it is working on.
But Lavallee is particularly interested in figuring out how he might be able to send some of his Winnipeg service department team -- 90 per cent of whom are First Nation people -- south of the border on service calls. The company currently uses third-party service providers for the aftermarket servicing of its trucks in the U.S.
Lavallee was one of about 150 people who attended an information session on First Nations' cross-border opportunities in Winnipeg this week.
Jamie Wilson, treaty commissioner with the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, believes the opportunities -- provided for in a U.S. trade document dating back 200 years called the Jay Treaty -- could be like a secret weapon for local businesses who may not have thought of it before.
Wilson and his sister -- both from Opaskwayak Cree Nation in The Pas -- used the provisions to attend university in the U.S. Wilson also used it for a stint in the U.S. Army Rangers.
"For corporations in Manitoba who invest in executives and training people, if they can invest in this (First Nations) person who can seamlessly move back and forth between Canada and the U.S., that can give a competitive advantage to the individual and to the company," said Wilson. "If they have a cadre of employees who can move back and forth across the border, that is a big strength."
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials at a presentation on Tuesday organized by World Trade Centre Winnipeg admitted the provisions were not used very often.
But that's not because it is particularly onerous. All that is required is standard government-issued ID, a status card or evidence of membership of a First Nation and proof that at least 50 per cent of the individual's blood line is North American Indian. (Wilson said a letter from the band attesting to the individual's heritage is usually sufficient.)
Once a First Nations person satisfies that documentary evidence, they are entitled to take part in just about all the privileges accorded U.S. citizens, such as employment, education, retirement, joining the military and just about every other civic liberty except voting.
Timothy Cipullo, the U.S. Consul based in Winnipeg, said he's been asked about the scenario several times in his travels throughout Manitoba.
"There are some misconceptions, like people who show up at the U. S. border and say, 'I'm Ojibway,' and expect that is all that's required," said Cipullo.
It's also not a magic bullet to circumvent other regulations.
Terry Shaw, the executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association, said this week's presentation confirmed the trucking industry's understanding that while a First Nation person may have free access to move back and forth across the border, if they were driving a commercial truck hauling freight, the truck and its cargo would be subject to the same regulations as any other piece of rolling stock.