From Teen to Titan: Derrick Big Eagle’'s
Journey through the Saskatchewan Oilfields

Today Derrick Big Eagle is President and General Manager of Saskatchewan’s first Aboriginal-owned oil well drilling rig. Eagle Drilling Services Ltd. assets include four completed rigs, with a fifth expected within days and a sixth already on the table. Big Eagle designed the rigs himself to accommodate the province’s unique geology. With such phenomenal results already, it is difficult to believe that a mere three years ago Big Eagle despaired of fulfilling this dream.

Seeking to limit the number of shareholders for their new business venture, Big Eagle and partner Rob MacCuish headed off to access the government grants they had heard so much about. Their detailed business plan drew high praise from financial institutions. Unfortunately, praise does not guarantee loans. Even Big Eagle’s qualifications and reputation could not sway the moneylenders.

With 20 years experience in the field, First Nations status, and a list of industry “firsts,” Big Eagle should have been a shoo-in for funding. He had been the youngest driller to have his own crew, the youngest toolpush to run his own rig, the youngest drilling consultant in Saskatchewan to work with oil companies, and the youngest owner of a drilling contracting company in Canada.

“If a guy like me cannot access that money, who is experienced enough?” queried a frustrated Big Eagle. “Those grants are fictional. That money is available for the band – but for the individual: nothing. My partner is a Métis; he has always been led to believe that all this money was available also.”

When Big Eagle revealed his plan to invest $250,000 of his own funds and his hope the bank would match his contribution, the response stunned him. “They told me if I was able to put $250,000 in, I didn’t need their money. Can you believe that?” he asked in disgust. “What am I supposed to do, sit on the reserve and eat Kentucky Fried Chicken for 20 years and then go find some money?”

So the partners turned to family and friends, who were glad to invest more than $7 million in the promising partnership. “They were on side right away because they knew how driven I was. I was one of those types of guys that was on the phone the night before looking for work for my week off,” said Big Eagle, whose partner MacCuish also enjoys a sterling work reputation.

Derrick Big Eagle Builds Rigs Suited for Saskatchewan's Unique Geology
Photo courtesy of Eagle Drilling Services Ltd.

Big Eagle’s renown had begun in childhood. As a youngster in hometown Manor, Saskatchewan, he was eager for work but the village of 300 had little to offer. “You mowed grass or you did odd jobs or you filled the pop cooler at the restaurant – any little thing to do to make a buck,” he said.

At an age when most boys are dreaming about girls and baseball diamonds, the determined 15-year-old set his sites on earning serious money. He approached his father – a well-respected toolpush, about a summer job in the oilfields.

“No way,” came the firm reply. “You go mow some grass or something. You don’t need to be worrying about going to work on the rigs.”

Soon afterward Big Eagle received a fateful telephone call while shingling his friend’s farmhouse. The call invited him to join the graveyard shift in the oilfields. Big Eagle had to turn it down. “Oh geez yea, I want to go but that’s dad’s rig,” he said. “He won’t let me go out there.”

The would-be employer, also a good friend of Big Eagle’s father, reassured the boy, “Aw don’t worry about your dad. I will worry about him when you get out there.”

“So I phoned home and told mom I was going to work on the rigs that night,” said Big Eagle. “She built me a lunch that would feed an army of 12. Off I went with one of my dad’s old tin hard hats and a pair of his old cowboy boots and some old work clothes.”

On site, his friend met Big Eagle’s father at shift change, “Who’d you bring up tonight Brook?” asked the toolpush.

“Oh you’ll see,” said Brook, grinning as he sped off.

“My dad was coming out of the doghouse door and I was coming up the stairs and he met me,” said Big Eagle. “’What the hell are you doing here?’”

“I’m going to work and mom said it was okay,” replied the youngster, ducking out the door – no doubt expecting to be sent to that metaphorical doghouse.

The hardworking teenager soon parlayed that summer stint a career. “I would go to work on the rigs on graveyard then sometimes the guys would drop me off right at school,” said Big Eagle. “Then after classes, come home, go do my ball or hockey, come home, sleep for a couple of hours and head back to the rig.”

Big Eagle was motivated by money – but he also sought the prestige his father enjoyed. “A toolpush is the manager of the drilling rig and there are about 15 people that work underneath him,” he said. “Just to see how everybody looked up to my dad – I thought that was something good to follow through with. Money is worth a lot but respect is worth a lot too.”

Today Big Eagle has that respect – throughout the industry and from his employees who “feel comfortable working for the small, local company – they are part of the family, not an employee number,” he said. Calling himself a “human maximizer,” Big Eagle works employees hard but he also takes good care of his people. “We pay about the same as everybody else but our benefits plan is second to none. We are family orientated. We made it work for the people,” he said.

With eleven and eight-year-old sons of his own, Big Eagle understands the needs of children. When the time comes, he plans to let the boys decide their own futures. “I would probably have some input for them but you shouldn’t spoon feed your kids or anybody,” he said.

For others thinking of entering the rig building business, Big Eagle advises, “The oilfield is a very risky business; it’s a very high dollar business. Make sure that you have all your ducks in a row and it’s something that you really want to do because the dollar value just to get started would be enough to set a normal individual back 20 years if it never flew.”

Reflecting on his own career choice, Big Eagle has no regrets. “It turned out well. All my buddies and close friends work in the oil industry and started the same as me. I don’t see it as a bad thing, especially in southeast Saskatchewan because you can have a family and a home. You drive home every night after work crawl into your own bed. I have a great family, a great life.”

Published in the Native Journal, July 2008