WHEN infrastructure at Little Saskatchewan First Nation was badly damaged after the 2011 flood, it was an aboriginal engineering firm that won the contract to start rebuilding the community.
Winnipeg-based BearPaw Engineering & Project Management, a certified professional engineering firm, is the lead company on the contract. The Winnipeg office of the global engineering firm WSP is acting as a subcontractor, albeit providing some of the heavy civil-engineering expertise.
And despite the bureaucratic challenges Little Saskatchewan is having in securing all the funding required for the project, from BearPaw's perspective, the contract is a classic role reversal and a significant coming of age for aboriginal-owned professional-services firms.
Headed by 32-year-old Brock Campbell, BearPaw has come a long way in a few short years.
The firm was started by Campbell's father in 1998 as a project-management firm.
Campbell, who was adopted by his Cree father and non-aboriginal mother, was in school getting his civil engineering degree at the University of Manitoba when he first started working at the firm.
He said he and his father joked about becoming an engineering firm, but when Brock took it over in 2005, he had to do whatever he could to get work for the firm.
"I'm supposed to get out of the habit of saying we do everything," Campbell said. "We're trying to narrow down our focus and it's really opened up the door for us."
Even though he has not yet had the time to get his own professional engineer's designation, in 2009, BearPaw became certified as a professional engineering firm.
Since then, annual revenue has increased almost tenfold to more than $1 million, but Campbell said he has no desire to be in competition with the WSPs and Stantecs and SNC Lavalins of the world.
"My goal is not to grow so big," he said. "We don't need to compete with them. I'm comfortable walking around as an intermediate-level company and from time to time becoming the prime when it makes sense."
BearPaw is satisfying a growing niche for aboriginal components required in many public-sector procurement contracts. It is one of only a small handful of aboriginal-owned engineering firms.
Almost all of its work to date is with First Nations clients, and while Campbell is frustrated at his firm's lack of success in bidding on work outside that market, he's also got plenty to do just managing what's on his plate.
In a restructuring exercise last year, Campbell cut his staff to four people from 13, but it's back up to 16 now, 12 of whom are aboriginal, many drawn from the communities in which BearPaw is working.
"Many First Nations communities have the political voice but no technical capacity to move things forward," he said. "There is a huge divide between the funders and the communities. We help bridge that gap."
Tim Nykoluk, manager of the northern infrastructure unit with WSP Canada Inc. in Winnipeg said recent partnerships with BearPaw have proven to be a good match for both parties.
"There's good synergy," Nykoluk said. "When a firm tries to go it alone, sometimes there is not the same success. This is a unique partnership. We have the heavy civil-design expertise and they are providing their strengths in the field and very good communications with the client and the band."
Campbell's firm gets the benefits of beefing up its own technical expertise from such close association with WSP engineers.
As well, he has been fortunate enough to develop a very strong relationship with a mentor who has also become a significant investor and business-development adviser.
BearPaw leases space in a building owned by Tom Kleysen, the former president of Kleysen Transport.
Kleysen liked what he saw from Campbell and he said he empathized with the challenges of a young company -- especially an aboriginal-owned one -- trying to secure financing to let it grow.
"To the extent I could see someone trying to make a difference for his people and society I felt good about trying to support him any way I could," said Kleysen.
Among other things, Campbell said Kleysen's input has helped BearPaw get its administrative and financial-management systems in place in a way he was never able to before.
"We look at cash-flow projection on a daily basis now," he said. "We know where we should be in one month, in six months."