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Jason Thompson, a member of the Red Rock Indian Band, in his office on April 7. Thompson owns Superior Strategies Supply and Service, a Thunder Bay company that recently started manufacturing disposable isolation gowns for health care workers.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

The robots are coming – or at least that’s the plan. And Jason Thompson couldn’t be happier about it.

Mr. Thompson, a member of the Red Rock Indian Band, owns Superior Strategies Supply and Service, a Thunder Bay company that recently started manufacturing disposable isolation gowns for health care workers, using four ultrasonic sewing machines from Harbour Technologies. The Windsor, Ont.-based custom manufacturer pivoted to making personal protective equipment in the early days of the pandemic and is working with Mr. Thompson’s firm as a subcontractor.

If all goes as planned in the coming months, Superior Strategies will be equipped with robotic machines similar to equipment Harbour Technologies installed last year at a fully automated plant in Chatham, Ont.

The subcontracting arrangement is a new wrinkle in economic partnerships with Indigenous peoples. Over the past few decades, that’s often meant contracting or joint venture opportunities on major resource projects such as mines or pipelines. Increasingly, it means ownership or equity stakes.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on Canada’s corporate sector to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples through measures that include ensuring Indigenous people have equitable access to jobs and training opportunities. In Thunder Bay, those principles are playing out on a manufacturing line.

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Mr. Thompson started his supply business in 2018 in the hopes of landing supply contracts with major industrial projects in the region. But for the most part, those contracts didn’t materialize – he says there were limited opportunities to bid – and his company was struggling. The pandemic brought a surge of demand for supplies such as gloves and hand sanitizer. The subcontracting arrangement with Harbour Technologies provided another boost. Superior Strategies now has 40 employees, up from eight before the pandemic.

“There was a point in time where I had to reach out to suppliers to see if they wanted to work with me. Now I’ve got people calling me, that want us to represent them,” Mr. Thompson said.

Superior Strategies now has 40 employees, up from eight before the COVID-19 pandemic.David Jackson

“So now there’s access to capital to grow our business, and we’re actually manufacturing isolation gowns in Thunder Bay – which if you’d told me that three years ago, I would have said you were crazy.”

Harbour Technologies co-owner Andrew Glover hopes the arrangement will be long-term.

“It’s great to talk about initiatives like the reconciliation, but business has got to step up and actually support Indigenous businesses along to get them into manufacturing,” Mr. Glover said. “So that’s kind of where we got in with Jason.”

If Canada wants to bolster its domestic PPE supply chain, it makes sense to do so with economic reconciliation in mind, says Darryl Spector, the president of Promation Nuclear Ltd., an Oakville, Ont., custom manufacturing firm and friendly competitor of Harbour Technologies.

Mr. Spector, whose company also pivoted to PPE during the pandemic by manufacturing respirators, is part of the Indigenous Relations Supplier Network, a Bruce Power program set up in 2017 to help Indigenous communities gain access to contracting and procurement opportunities on the Bruce Nuclear Generation Plant site.

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Through that network, Mr. Spector helped connect Harbour Technologies and Superior Strategies. He’d like to see similar mentoring relationships replicated across the country, saying such a model could help build a domestic PPE supply network; further reconciliation; and tap into demographic groups who are underrepresented in the skilled trades, including women and Indigenous people.

The pandemic caught Canada flat-footed on the PPE front. A May, 2021, report by the federal Auditor-General found the Public Health Agency of Canada had failed to address long-standing concerns about a national emergency stockpile, including internal audits dating back to at least 2010, and was ill-prepared to deal with PPE demand from provinces and territories when the pandemic struck.

Companies across the country stepped up to meet demand by retooling or launching new production lines.

Mr. Glover hopes provincial and federal governments will take advantage of that momentum by encouraging – or requiring – health-sector purchasers to negotiate long-term contracts with Canadian suppliers, noting that the United States has included such provisions in a recent infrastructure bill.

Targeted procurement policies can be a relatively straightforward way to support Indigenous companies and entrepreneurs, said Tabatha Bull, president of the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business.

In August, 2021, the federal government announced a requirement that all federal departments and agencies direct at least 5 per cent of the total value of contracts to Indigenous businesses.

There is also a push in the private sector to seek out procurement and partnership opportunities with Indigenous companies, Ms. Bull said.

“There’s a lot of momentum right now … the private sector is looking to understand how they can do better from an economic reconciliation point of view and working with Indigenous people – but I think they’re also realizing that there is a real opportunity.”

If all goes as planned in the coming months, Superior Strategies will be equipped with robotic machines similar to equipment Harbour Technologies installed last year at a fully automated plant in Chatham, Ont.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

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