A New Way of Doing Business with First Nations: Interview with Jeffrey Copenace

Pacific Future Energy’s commitment to build and operate the world’s greenest refinery on British Columbia’s north coast is motivated by their belief that it is in Canada’s national strategic interest to gain access to international markets for Alberta’s oil, especially the fast growing Asian markets. They are firm in their beliefs it shouldn’t be done at the sacrifice of BC’s coast or broader environment, and that it must be done in full partnership with First Nations. In regards to building those partnerships with First Nations, their beliefs attracted Jeffrey Copenace to join their team as the Senior Vice-President of Indigenous Partnership.

Jeffrey Copenance has had a career promoting and serving the needs of Aboriginal peoples throughout Canada as public servant, including a job as the lead negotiator and advisor to Prime Minister Paul Martin, during the 18 months that it took to negotiate the over $5 Billion Kelowna Accord. He later joined former AFN Grand Chief Shawn Atleo as his lead advisor. So, when Copenace joined the private sector with Pacific Future Energy, First Nations Drum took notice. I had the opportunity to sit with him for a one on one interview.

The first thing I noticed was that he was very tall and had a very friendly demeanor. He has a very nice charm to him that is very engaging, yet somewhat relaxing at the same time. I could tell that he has an understanding of those who sit on the other side of the negotiating table. He is genuinely a good man and he is clearly motivated to advance Aboriginal peoples and their rights.


Copenace, who is 36 years old, is an Ojibway born on the Onigaming First Nation (Treaty 3) in Northern Ontario. He and his family moved not too far away to Kenora just after he was born. Although racial tensions in Kenora were high, his father, who he views as a trail blazer and a role model, took on a job at the local pulp and paper mill. “My mother told me repeatedly that the education system on the reserve was failing the students, and she wanted us to have a better opportunity,” he said. “They made the sacrifice to move away from their family to a town that had a difficult history in terms of race relations. I am really proud of that.”

Copenace grew up with an older brother, Darren, and a younger sister, Jennifer. They would spend their weekdays in Kenora going to school and their weekends and summers playing with cousins on their Northern Ontario First Nation, which he calls “beautiful”. There is nothing he loves more than visiting and being with his family, including his six year old niece, Leah. His mother, who he says has a big and warm heart, worked as an emergency crisis and social worker. He grew up with “dozens and dozens and dozens” of foster children in his home. “It gives you an appreciation for our young people and what they go through,” said Copenace. “To be able to achieve through struggles…People take for granted in Canada how difficult it is for First Nations children, particularly those who bounce from house to house. I have seen some great outcomes from it, but, at the same time I have also seen some difficult circumstances that they go through. I have been really blessed to have so many other children in my life.”

We moved on to talk about how he got started and involved in politics. While in Grade 7, his school principal, Mr. Toner, encouraged him to apply for the Legislative Paige Program at the Ontario Legislature. He spent two months at Queen’s Park as one of the first Aboriginal people to become a Legislative Paige. “I hated it,” Copenace stated. “I absolutely hated it. I found it really phony. There was a headline in the newspaper (The Kenora Daily Miner). I don’t know if it was the headline or the sub-headline, but, the interviewer came to meet me after I got back from my experience. The headline read ‘No Political Future for Copenace!’ “While at Carlton University, Copenace flunked out of Accounting and was told that he had to change his major. He decided to go with his best grade, which was Political Sciences. His room-mate was a vice-president of the Carlton University Young Liberals, and invited him to events and meetings. At his very first event he met John Manley, Allan Rock and Sheila Copps and was a little star stuck. “Because, I saw them on TV all the time-it was like Canadian Hollywood.” In 2000, he was acclaimed to the Liberal Party of Canada’s National Executive. That night he had dinner with Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his hero, Elijah Harper. “All I could think was that I was 20 years old-what I am doing here?”, he said while reminiscing of that night. “I was really passionate on behalf of my nation, my peoples.”

“Out of the blue, a year later, I get a call from (then Finance Minister) Paul Martin, asking if I would be interested in joining his office after meeting some of his staff,” said Copenace about his job offer with the former Prime Minister. “We met about a week later. I was honoured to serve him for five years, including his two years as Prime Minister. Sometimes, the harder you work the luckier you get. I think that this an example of it.”

At age 21, Copenace traveled with Paul Martin across Canada. In 2003, he was part of the Prime Minister’s national campaign team. When asked about his two years working for Paul Martin the Prime Minister he said, “I was really really fortunate to lead the team in negotiations; eighteen months of negotiations that lead to the Kelowna Accord. And I still view it as the model for negotiations. A respectful approach that Indigenous communities, (First Nations, Metis and Inuit), define their own priorities. We work with them, (the Government doesn’t define their priorities for them), in an open and transparent manner.”

Copenace continued on to explain the process. “We set goals and we set milestones. In the end, after eighteen months, we came to a $5.1 Billion agreement that had a consensus of every Province and Territory, and five national Aboriginal organizations that included leaders from First Nations, the Metis Nation and Inuit communities. It was really a unique moment in Canadian History, and still might be one of my proudest achievements. To this day Mr. Martin and I stay in touch. He has been an incredible mentor to me. I am appreciative that a young First Nations person would get that opportunity at the highest level. I’ll never forget it.”

When I asked him about anything interesting that he would like to share about the Prime Minister, he said “he’s not a bad golfer,” sharing a good laugh knowing what I was after.

Jeffrey Copenace spent four and half years as Deputy Chief of Staff to former National Grand Chief Shawn Atleo. As a new resident, Copenace states that he doesn’t have many friends in BC and he feels that it is nice to have Mr. Atleo nearby, who he views as a close friend. “I am very proud of those years. He (Atleo) is an incredible leader, maybe the best public speaker I have ever seen. He is a guy with the biggest heart. I don’t necessarily think that it is conveyed in the media, but for anyone who’s had the chance to spend any amount of time with him would agree with me. I’ll say, hopefully all of our leaders, not just First Nations and Indigenous, but all Canadian leaders will be like Shawn Atleo, who is incredible in terms of his integrity.”

“We spent four and a half years visiting nearly 200 First Nations across the country, coast to coast to coast, everywhere,” he continued. “When I was 16 years old I told my religion teacher that my dream job was to travel across Canada to see all the different Nations, meet all the different elders and learn the different teachings. For four and a half years I got to do that. There’s nothing prouder than working on the ground with your own communities. I learned so much, it was an incredibly valuable experience. I worked for government, both Federal and Provincial, and it gives you a new perspective to work with a First Nations organization. You learn all perspectives. It was a fantastic experience. That is something I will never forget as well.”

When asked about his new career at Pacific Future Energy, why he chose this position as his first in the private sector, he said, “I really believe from the bottom of my heart that Indigenous peoples have been fighting to have their rights recognised for decades; for centuries. They have been fighting on the land and they have been fighting in the courts. They have been asserting their title. We all know the tragedies of Oka and Ipperwash where Indigenous rights and title were overridden, their constitutionally protected rights. They stood and they fought for them so that future generations would have a better life. We all recognise the atrocities of the residential schools, and there are so many reasons for mistrust in this country. But, I really believe that in this day and age, in 2014, we have the opportunity to really revolutionize and reconcile Indigenous peoples with Canada. It’s amazing to consider that during those residential school years there was a lot of hurt and a lot of pain our people suffered, and our people still want to reconcile. It’s inspiring. Part of the reason why I joined Pacific Future Energy is because I believe industry has a role in that and I think they can become leaders.”

“I am excited at Pacific Future Energy because our management team, our board of directors, and our advisors all share the same vision that those days of running rough-shot over First Nations’ title, over their rights and over their land is over, and there’s a new way of doing business. I am really excited about that. Letting communities define their own priorities and not going to them with pre-conceived or pre-determined notions of what an agreement should be.”

“I am really lucky to be invited by major academic institutions and major industry players to come and speak to their leadership and their students on how to engage with First Nations. It’s kind of surprising to me because they are all lessons you teach your children in terms of respect, in terms of fairness and in terms of sharing. Being able to apply that to industry in a major way, hopefully, at the end of the day will provide a better future for a community we partner with. Again, taking the approach that we are only going to build our project wherever we are welcomed, and that’s unique.”