“Education is everything. You can’t develop capacity without education. It’s the means to make a good living….Education is the path that takes you out of poverty.”
Chief Jim Boucher of Fort McKay is known for his visionary, consensus-based leadership as the Chief of Fort McKay First Nation. Under his direction, the First Nation became one of the most enterprising Indigenous communities in the world.
Jim Leonard Boucher was born on February 29, 1956, in Fort McKay, Alberta, a community of about 800 Dene, Cree and Métis on the bank of the Athabasca River. The middle child of seven, he is a direct descendant of Headman Adam Boucher who signed Treaty 8 on August 4, 1899.
Raised by his grandparents, Jim’s first languages were Cree and Dene. The family lived off the land with Jim helping on the trap line as a young boy. “It was a very good life. I grew up with people helping each other. Everybody had a responsibility, a function. Everyone contributed, even children. Living off the land was a beautiful experience,” remembers Jim.
When he was 13, Jim and his younger siblings were placed in Blue Quills Indian Residential School in St. Paul, his three older sisters having already been sent several years before. “We were deprived of our family and community. For all that was lost as a result of the residential school system – our language, traditional way of life – the greatest loss of all to me was the loss of my mother. She lost her life of a broken heart, we were taken from her, and she was taken from us,” remembers Jim.
“The child in me was gone, I had to learn to survive a different way. For me, education and the pursuit to learn allowed me to focus on moving forward and pave my own path in life.”
When the school was shut down a year later, Jim chose to create an opportunity for himself and went alone to Edmonton to attend high school. A voracious reader from the age of five, Jim spent all of his free time in the library, foretelling a lifelong love of learning and supporting learning opportunities for others.
Fort McKay First Nation (FMFN) is in the heart of the Athabasca oil sands, the second largest oil reserve in the world. Commercial development of the oil sands began in 1967 and as production shifted into high gear, Indigenous Peoples’ traditional way of life became increasingly threatened.
“At the end of the day, we had to take a hard look at the economic prospects for our people. The Elders recognized that we needed to change how we work with oil companies,” explains Jim.
Jim had a history of serving his community long before he became Chief. After working as an apprentice millwright, he was appointed by the community as FMFN’s first band manager. He served one term as a band councillor before being elected by the Elders to run for Chief in 1986. As Chief, he began helping the community navigate the decline of the fur trade and the growth of the oil sands industry, facilitating proper consultation and advancing the rights of his community.
“We decided that to generate revenue as a First Nation, we had to form a corporation and get into the business of providing services to the oil sands industry.” And so the Fort McKay Group of Companies LP came into being. The companies’ successes are due to Jim’s progressive leadership as he fosters relationships among industry, government and Indigenous Peoples alike.
From the very beginning, Jim focused on three goals: creating employment, building educational opportunities, and turning a profit to provide a higher standard of living for the community. He achieved each of these goals in short order, then improved on them year after year.
“I remember the first year, with the tree planting and other services, we made about $120,000,” says Jim. Fast forward to today and Fort McKay Group of Companies LP has grown into one of the most successful Indigenous-owned business ventures in Canada with revenues of approximately $500 million per year. FMFN uses its revenues to provide an enhanced standard of living for members. Benefits include housing, education, medical care, community facilities, and annual cash distributions to members.
Jim’s personal love of learning found expression as the community committed substantial resources to a range of educational opportunities for all. A partnership with Shell established Fort McKay E-Learning, a highly successful program that guides students to be more self-sufficient by developing their sense of self-esteem and providing a learning environment where they can be successful. Once their secondary studies are complete, anyone who wants to pursue post-secondary education in any field is 100% supported by FMFN.
Under his leadership, FMFN has grown into a successful, healthy community with next to zero unemployment, a per capita average household income higher than the Alberta average, a $65 million (and counting) trust fund, and control of companies that have generated $2.36 billion in revenue from 2013-2018. That makes FMFN a net contributor to Alberta’s and Canada’s economies.
No matter how many successful joint ventures Jim has established over the years, his first motivation is always the well-being and cultural values of his community, and preserving their traditions and relationship with nature. Members of the community are consulted extensively on every project to identify their concerns.
“Our consensus government is critically important. We try to find agreement, not just majority rules. Everyone’s opinion is important,” he says.
In 2017, Jim’s collaborative leadership led to a $545 million deal with Suncor Energy, which turned over 49% of its East Tank Farm to Indigenous ownership. The deal represents the largest business investment to date by an Indigenous company in Canada, and it is the first time the energy industry has given a majority stake to an outside party.
This resounding success led the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business to name FMFN and its group of companies as the Aboriginal Economic Development Corporation of the Year in 2018. That same year, the Canadian Energy Council of Canada honoured Jim as the Canadian Energy Person of the Year for his significant role as a national leader in both business and governance.
One of Jim’s greatest accomplishments was his successful negotiation of the Fort McKay Treaty Land Entitlement Settlement Agreement. His strategic and conciliatory approach to this important matter reduced the amount of time it took to negotiate and finalize the settlement.
A man of the people and for the people, Jim’s advocacy has extended beyond the borders of FMFN. He has served as Grand Chief of Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta and Chair of the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board.
As Vice-Chair of the Board of Governors of Fort McMurray’s Keyano College, Jim advocated for programs that address education issues facing Indigenous students. Always looking for ways to help others succeed, he sponsors the Chief Jim Boucher Distinguished Alumnus Award, granted to a full-time student entering the first year of Business Administration of a Bachelor of Commerce Program. He also established the Chief Jim Boucher Ministerial Award of Excellence at Keyano College. Jim also strengthened the partnership between the college and his community by working to establish the Keyano College Learning Centre in Fort McKay.
Jim’s inclusive leadership was especially evident during the peak of the 2016 Wood Buffalo wildfire as 5,000 residents of Fort McMurray evacuated to the north of the city. FMFN opened their doors to the evacuees, providing food and shelter until the First Nation, too, was forced to evacuate. In recognition for the “extraordinary efforts made in the face of devastating wildfires,” the Right Honourable David Johnston, then Governor General, personally presented Jim and the community with the Governor General’s Commendation for Outstanding Service. Jim also received an Award for Achievement in Public Service from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo for his direct “hands on” humanitarian outreach during the wildfire.
Jim’s visionary leadership and gift for building collaborative relationships have been celebrated through a variety of awards. He has received Lifetime Achievement awards from the Indspire Awards (2008) and the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (2009). In 2017, he was named one of the 50 Most Influential Canadian Business Leaders by the Globe and Mail. That same year, he also received the Builder of Wood Buffalo Award.
Although he left politics in 2019 after more than 30 years of service, Jim is far from retired and is enthusiastic about this new phase of his life as he continues to create opportunities for Indigenous economic participation. As President and Founder of the Saa Dene Group of Companies, Jim works with a variety of partners to pursue opportunities in education, health, tech and innovation, and service sectors. Some of those ventures include Maple Maskawâhtik (which is expanding access to virtual care nationwide); Sagekeeper (which is developing educational resources to help Canadians learn more about their history with Indigenous Peoples); and Acceleware | Kisâstwêw (which is improving the environmental and economic performance of the heavy oil and oil sands sector by ensuring that the technology supports ideals important to Indigenous Peoples, including respect for land, water and clean air).
Jim is the proud parent of son Jonathan and daughter Jenica, and has five grandchildren.
Executive Director, The Alberta Order of Excellence