Treaty 4 News is excited to present the Top 10 Most Influential Economic Developers feature that profiles business leaders, job creators and entrepreneurs who have made a valuable contribution to improving the lives of Indigenous people through business and have helped keep Saskatchewan’s economy vibrant and strong. 

In the past few years, more and more Indigenous people have forged business careers working at the First Nation community level, building Tribal Council economic development projects, climbing the corporate ladder at government Crown Corporations and in the last few years guiding the private sector as they engage with First Nations.

Now a new generation of entrepreneurs are building successful brands like Neechie Gear, Shop Indigenous, SheNative as they develop products for an ever growing Indigenous market.

Over 10 weeks, Treaty 4 News will release one profile a week of an economic developer we believe is influential in building a better future for Indigenous people through business.

This week we introduce Leanne Bellegarde.

Leanne Bellegarde – Top 10 economic developer

By Chelsea Laskowski

Leanne Bellegarde 2

Leanne Bellegarde. Photo credit: Treaty 4 News.

For years, Leanne Bellegarde has given a voice to Aboriginal people in an industry that’s at the centre of many hot button topics for Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal population.

First Nations advocacy groups have long lobbied to get a share of the resource wealth of companies like PotashCorp, while some grassroots Aboriginal groups have taken a stand against the environmental impact of resource extraction.

When Bellegarde took on the role of developing PotashCorp’s Aboriginal strategy in 2010, she didn’t avoid the challenges that come along with the job.

“The practical reality is that we are a resource company and for many First Nations there remains the prevailing view of unresolved and outstanding treaty issues with effect to resources. As a resource company, we can’t resolve that but we can understand and advance that and do our part for Aboriginal inclusion in our operation in other ways,” she said.

Meadow Lake-born Bellegarde came into her role at PotashCorp after a successful career as a lawyer in Saskatoon. She worked with corporations and ran her own practice for a number of years on the urban reserve in Saskatoon. Also, Bellegarde was Senior Vice-President of Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority before working with Edwards School of Business.

Bellegarde has held a number of high-profile positions like being on the Saskatoon Board of Police Commission and the board of File Hills Qu’Appelle Developments.

Bellegarde said these experiences have broadened her understanding of First Nations people.

“I understand the need and the desire of our people to be self sufficient through our own means. And that’s been really beneficial to what we’re trying to accomplish here (at PotashCorp),” she said.

One of PotashCorp’s Aboriginal Strategy’s goals is to get more Aboriginal people in its workforce. Bellegarde made that point in a PotashCorp video from two years ago during a high point in the resource boom.

“We have to look at who’s here already that’s under-utilized in our workforce and how we can maximize their engagement now and into the future,” she said.

“The biggest opportunity is First Nations and Metis people. By 2045, we’re expected to be 30 per cent or more of the labour force-ready population in the province. If this is a group that continues to be overrepresented in all the negatives – of under-education, negative health stats, negative crime stats – then it’s going to be a pretty grim future for all of us.”

As PotashCorp’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Bellegarde has spent the past six years aiming to be a part of positive change within the company. The job was initially meant to last a few months, Bellegarde said, to “help them with some recommendations and a review of what an Aboriginal strategy could look like for PotashCorp.”

For more than five years, Bellegarde kept busy implementing the recommendations she came up with, which “related to employment, community, investment, supply chain, and workplace preparedness.”

Bellegarde has left her mark on a long list of PotashCorp’s Aboriginal-focused projects.

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In January, she signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Saskatchewan’s engineering department and PotashCorp, for a program that has now seen two Aboriginal students interning with the company over the summer.

That’s just one example of how Bellegarde’s drive to succeed, said PotashCorp’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Administration, Lee Knafelc.

“A lot of days it’s not a job for Leanne, it’s a mission,” he said.

“She sees that what she’s doing is contributing to the furtherance of the interests of all Aboriginal people in the province and education is a foundational piece of that.”

Additionally, Bellegarde highlighted PotashCorp’s sponsorship of the Atoske program in the spring edition of Explore, a magazine about PotashCorp’s aboriginal partnerships. The program holds three sessions per year, with 41 First Nations high school students participating in activities that touch “all four components of the medicine wheel – engaging the students emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.”

 

Last fall, Bellegarde helped Saskatoon Tribal Council (STC) hand out more than 500 backpacks filled with school supplies at STC’s White Buffalo Youth Lodge Back-to-School Carnival. The experience of seeing excitement on children’s faces was one of the most rewarding she’s had.

“There have been lots of wonderful moments but they’re often the moments that have to do with the impact we have on people through our efforts,” she said.

PotashCorp also supports STC’s Super Saturday group, which includes science camps, trips to the Synchrotron, and career preparation activities. Those are a few of the programs PotashCorp supports for younger Aboriginal people.

“It’s important to work with and inspire the youngest generation to get their Grade 12 so that they can at least consider job opportunities at PotashCorp” which has a minimum requirement of a high school graduation to work with them, said Bellegarde.

Knafelc credits Bellegarde with forming extensive partnerships between PotashCorp and First Nations groups like the STC when it comes to education.

“She’s a great bridge between PotashCorp and the Aboriginal community in talking about what the educational needs are and where there are gaps and how we need to talk to each other about that,” Knafelc said.

Face to face meetings were a big part of Bellegarde’s aim over the past five years.

“On an annual basis we set out to achieve about 10,000 individual contacts during career fairs, community presentations, and events to share our career information and job opportunities with Aboriginal people,” she said.

Bellegarde said she believes this contributed to PotashCorp’s success in having 9.5 per cent of new employees in the past five years self-identifying as Metis and First Nations people.

Overall, she’s most proud of how PotashCorp has made Aboriginal feel comfortable in the workplace.

These days, her role has expanded to a global mandate. In the past year, Bellegarde has started a strategy and approach for PotashCorp to promote global diversity and inclusion at all operations in Canada, US and Trinidad.

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