June is National Indigenous History Month – Interview with Charles Davis

National Indigenous Peoples Month is celebrated yearly during June, and June 21 marks National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada – a time to recognize and celebrate the rich history, heritage, and diverse cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples across Canada.

As we continue to build and maintain Canada’s infrastructure, we acknowledge that the work we do takes place in the traditional lands of many Indigenous communities across Canada. In the spirit of Reconciliation, we honour the title and rights of Indigenous people and their traditional, Treaty, or unceded territories.  As part of our commitment to Truth and Reconciliation, Modern Niagara established a Reconciliation Action Group tasked with creating and championing our first Reconciliation Action Plan to meaningfully respond to Call to Action #92 from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

For our latest blog interview, we are thrilled to spotlight Charles Davis P.Eng, our Director of Data & Analytics at Modern Niagara, as we delve into his unique perspectives and experiences throughout his career and learn valuable insights into his Indigenous heritage.

Can you share with us your background and indigenous heritage? 

I am from Labrador. My maternal side of my family is from Newfoundland (Gros Morne National Park area) and is non-indigenous. My paternal side of my family is from Sandwich Bay, Labrador, and are NunatuKavut (Inuit of Southern Labrador). The documented settler side of this part of my family has been in the southern coastal area of Labrador since the early 1800’s, and married Inuit women as they settled in the area. My grandparents lived a traditional lifestyle (hunting, fishing, trapping and trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company) until the 1950’s. At that point, the US Air Force established a radar site in Cartwright, and people started working for the USAF and spent less time on traditional activities as a means of subsistence. The radar site closed in 1968 so all of my father’s immediate family moved to Goose Bay, Labrador, and resumed working for the USAF there. My family retained their homestead at North River on the coast of Labrador and fished and smoked salmon, trout and char and picked berries, maintaining traditional activities that still are practiced by my family members today.

How did your career in construction begin? 

My father was a craftsman (carpenter, cabinet maker, boat builder) so I grew up in a construction environment. I became a civil engineer, and started my career in the construction space in the early 90’s. Due to poor economic conditions in Atlantic Canada at the time, I ended up working in manufacturing and technology for the next 20 years, prior to joining Modern Niagara in 2017, bringing me back to the construction space.

What is your current role at Modern Niagara and what does your role involve? 

My current role at Modern is Director, Data & Analytics. This involves managing the data and digital business solutions for the company. My team is responsible for the integrations between all our systems, the data infrastructure supporting the integrations, all reporting assets developed to support the business, and application management for our business facing applications.

What has been your experience navigating the construction industry as an indigenous person? 

This is a tough question to answer. I often get asked about my ethnic background (have been asked if I am Italian, Lebanese, Greek, etc), and have navigated my career (and personal life) as “white-passing, so any challenges related to Indigenous Peoples has been in how people treat or talk about other Indigenous Peoples. When people are “forced” to deal with Indigenous Peoples, that still brings out prejudices or paternalistic behaviour that people may not realize they are projecting.  Compared to areas I worked in Labrador, Northern Canada, and British Columbia, there is so little direct exposure to Indigenous communities in southern and eastern Ontario. I spent time in the forestry sector, which has lots of interaction with indigenous communities (land usage, duty to consult, etc), many of which were regarded as obligatory, and treated as roadblocks. For agreements regarding providing employment, this was usually addressed by providing menial, low skill jobs for people in the affected community, and no interest in building skills or capacity for the future. I have not directly experienced any issues related to Indigenous Peoples in construction, but that could largely be due to the areas where I have worked.

What does Truth and Reconciliation mean to you and why is it important? 

The Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) shed a spotlight on the reality and impact of the residential school system. My father was a residential school survivor, and unfortunately died 3 years before the release of the Truth & Reconciliation Report. Through my personal connection to the impact of the residential school system, I know directly how the disregard of the damage done by this system impacted people and communities. TRC brought this out into the daylight, and the report formalized this in the 94 calls to action, directed not only at government, but also at private industry. This report defined a responsibility and roadmap for a way forward for all Canadians.

Looking ahead, what is your hope for the future of the industry?

I am very optimistic about the construction industry. There are several macroeconomic factors that are leading industry to development plans for engaging in a meaningful way with Indigenous communities, and those communities are getting more sophisticated in their expectations from the industry. The Indigenous community is the most rapidly growing demographic in Canada, with a population average 10 years younger than that of the rest of Canada. I believe companies will figure out a way to participate with this segment of Canada to the advantage of all parties.

Considering your experience, what advice would you offer to young professionals looking to make their mark in the industry? 

  • Embrace your cultural heritage and view it as a strength. There is a uniqueness in your perspectives and traditional knowledge that can bring valuable insights to projects.
  • Seek out mentors who can guide and support you throughout your career in construction. Mentors who have experience in the industry can provide valuable advice, share knowledge, and help navigate potential challenges.
  • Pursue relevant education and training: I can’t understate the value of obtaining a solid education and relevant training in construction. Low levels of education have been a major limiting factor in indigenous communities. Seek out and leverage programs and courses that provide technical skills and certifications in areas such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, or project management. There are programs that can support you in your education, and good peer support networks for indigenous students while at school.
  • Build a strong network: Actively network and connect with professionals in the construction industry. Attending industry events, join professional associations, and engage in online communities to expand your network and create valuable connections for future opportunities.
  • Be proactive, adaptable, curious and willing to learn. The construction industry is constantly evolving, and embracing new technologies, methods, and best practices will enhance your professional growth and marketability.
  • Emphasize teamwork and collaboration: develop strong communication and interpersonal skills, as you will be working with diverse teams and stakeholders.  Most importantly, learn to listen to others and gain insights from their experiences.  Everyone has a story they want to tell, and taking the time to really listen will make you an appreciated and invaluable teammate.