How two Indigenous former heavy equipment operators built a thriving oil sands maintenance company
'We have been able to prove ourselves in a very competitive industry'
by Will Gibson
Suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer at 48, Melanie Antoine approached her treatment options with the same unruffled determination that helped her turn Antoine’s Pump and Equipment (A.P.E.) Maintenance into a thriving oil sands maintenance company.
“It was a little hiccup on the journey. It’s no different than dealing with any other setback in business or life. You deal with it and move on,” says Antoine, A.P.E.’s co-founder and CEO.
After receiving a positive final checkup at the end of August, Antoine returned to the helm of the company she and husband Lloyd started in 2008 after spending 12 years operating massive pieces of oil sands equipment and machinery, including bucketwheel reclaimers, haul trucks and the crushers on the mine trains.
“Both Lloyd and I had saved our money working at Syncrude. We used these savings to invest in ourselves,” says Antoine, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
“Since the company started up, we’ve experienced a lot of trials in this region and the oil sands industry in recent years, from the wildfire [in 2016] to floods to downturns to the pandemic, but we’ve stayed positive and focused on what’s ahead,” she says.
“It also helps to have a husband like Lloyd, who stepped in to run the company when I was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. We are a partnership in the truest sense of that word. We complement each other at home and work.”
Growing up in the small northern community of Fort Chipewyan, Antoine says she never expected to operate a heavy haul truck, but after receiving the right training it became part of what she did for a job.
“And being Indigenous in the oil sands industry was never an obstacle. If you work hard, you can accomplish anything. The sky is the limit, whether you are working as an employee or as a business.”
During her second pregnancy, Antoine completed the Aboriginal Entrepreneurship program offered at Keyano College. After giving birth to daughter Sadie, she started applying lessons learned on the course in starting A.P.E. And she had role models who also shaped her.
“While I was growing up in Fort Chip, I was really inspired by Dave Tuccaro. He was from the same small community and built a very successful business empire working in the oil sands industry,” she says of the CEO of Canada’s largest private group of Indigenous companies
Her prior experience in the industry also helped.
“Those sites can be very intimidating places if you have never been on them. We were steeped in the safety culture and what the mine operators needed from contractors to be successful. And industry is very encouraging in helping develop local Indigenous businesses. They want to work with local communities. They did help by providing a lot of mentoring and giving us an opportunity.”
And A.P.E. has grasped that opportunity with both hands. Fifteen years after starting operations, the company employs more than 100 millwrights, welders, heavy equipment technicians, apprentices, electricians and labourers who maintain and repair heavy equipment and machinery for clients in the oil sands.
In 2020, the company opened a 20,000-square-foot maintenance shop, one of the largest of its kind in the region, near the Fort McMurray International Airport.
“We have been able to prove ourselves in a very competitive industry,” says Antoine, who received the 2019 Resource Leadership Award from the Alberta Chamber of Resources.
Antoine and her husband Lloyd, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, have made a point of giving back to their adopted community of Fort McMurray.
“Fort McMurray is our home and we want to build a better community as well as a company. We want our children to be proud of where they come from, just as we were,” says Antoine, who was named Citizen of the Year by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in 2020 for her contributions to the region.
“My parents were always involved in community events in Fort Chipewyan and that was instilled in me as a value. This region has been very good to us. We want to share our good fortune by giving back.”
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