SUDBURY -- Business leaders from across northern Ontario have gathered in Sudbury for an important session of networking and dialogue as part of the 3rd annual Procurement, Employment and Partnerships Conference and Tradeshow.

Organizers this year have put together a variety of panel discussions that they hope will spark partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

“The indigenous population is very much a part of the environment, the business community, industry and they are a northern population that has a lot to offer,” said Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Debbi Nicholson. “They are very much part of our economy, an important part and growing part of economy so I think it’s very important that we work with them.”

Nicholson says the indigenous community is entrepreneurial and the chamber can learn a lot from them.

“The number one issue that our members have identified is access to labour and with indigenous communities they have a labour pool there that is talented and that can help,” she added.

Attendance at the Tuesday morning session was jam-packed. Business leaders from across the region and Cambrian College had descended to take in the panel discussions on energy, land development and supply chain management.

“I think it’s important from the perspective of talking about the resource economy and northern Ontario is really important to businesses as well as First Nations and indigenous communities so I think it’s really important that we find ways and mechanisms to create new partnerships and explore new opportunities that events like this offer,” said Dan Hollingsworth, Sault Ste. Marie’s Director of Economic Development.

Hollingsworth says the resource economy in recent years has become a big chunk of the city’s GDP. He and others from the city are looking at ways on how to move forward with some of those opportunities, particularly with employers like Algoma Steel.

“The talent pool is the biggest challenge that we have, how do we take and build opportunities for indigenous youth to find meaningful occupations with some of these sectors that we work with,” he added.

One of those companies that has been having success in working with indigenous is Plato Testing.

The software development and testing company, which has an office in Sault Ste. Marie, has been addressing Canada’s labour shortage by training and employing indigenous software testers.

Vice-President Jennifer Rushton says the idea of bringing together stakeholders, businesses and interested parties under one roof was appealing to them.

“The approach that we take with training and employing indigenous people is first and foremost connecting with indigenous communities, understanding what their needs are,” she said. “The indigenous workforce is not one that necessarily thinks of I.T. as a viable career path. I would challenge any of the participants at the conference today to go back to their executive team, sit around the board table and figure out a way to bridge the gap.”

Rushton says from a talent standpoint, this company position has raised their brand awareness and corporate recognition across northern Ontario.

“I think we’re in this incredible time. This is not a one generational  commitment, this is not a one-term government commitment or a two-term government commitment. This is multi-generational and the more relationships that we can build in conferences like this, the quicker that we’re going to be able to heal our country that’s been in this dark place for a really long time,” said Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business’ J.P. Gladu.

The conference continues Tuesday night with an awards ceremony and additional panel discussions Wednesday.

Guest speakers will include Dave Smith, Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines and MPP for Peterborough-Kawartha.