The Salt River First Nation says the federal government is being discriminatory in not listening to a request for infrastructure funding to help the nation expand.
Salt River has spent the past 10 years trying obtain cash for what it says is a shovel-ready infrastructure project that would develop the nation’s reserve under its treaty settlement agreement.
However, the First Nation says Ottawa has neither provided funding nor an opportunity to negotiate.
Chief David Poitras said while discussions have taken place, there have been no negotiations and no concrete actions taken by the federal government to fulfill its obligations under the treaty settlement agreement.
The Dene Nation raise the issue in a call with reporters last week.
“We figured it’s time to get this thing moving,” Poitras told Cabin Radio, explaining why the First Nation and the Dene Nation decided now is the time to bring the issue into the spotlight.
Poitras said neighbouring reserves across the border in Alberta have received similar money from the federal government. In the 18 years since a treaty settlement agreement was signed, Salt River has depended on the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) to fund the cost of a couple of buildings each year.
“We think we’re being discriminated against because we’re north of 60,” said Poitras. “We’re starting to believe the feds are trying to dump us onto the GNWT and that’s why we’ve been stuck for so long.”
Poitras said once two houses on Salt River reserve land are completed this summer, the First Nation won’t have any more land with the right infrastructure in place for development.
The First Nation is asking the federal government for $16.8 million to develop water, power, and sewer infrastructure on remaining reserve land within the municipal boundaries of the Town of Fort Smith.
If completed, this would give Salt River the capacity to build 39 new homes over the next decade, the First Nation says. The price tag does not include the cost of the homes themselves.
“As far as we know it is shovel-ready and that’s what the feds have asked for – a shovel-ready project that could stimulate and kickstart the economy,” said Poitras.
“The government doesn’t really have to put out the whole amount because the First Nations Financial Authority is willing to amortize the whole project, so that the feds can pay it over several years rather than one big lump sum.”
‘Bureaucratic process gets in the way’
At a press conference on July 3, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said Covid-19 has created an opportunity to shift how business is done between the federal government and First Nations.
“The federal government is at a very, very pivotal point of making this change, along with the territorial government, and getting the money into the communities so the communities then can start developing their own economic well-being,” he said.
Yakeleya said giving communities more funding and autonomy on how to spend it would not only create economic wealth in communities, but would give people purpose and reduce rates of depression. The project is expected to create 70 jobs within Fort Smith.
“The whole bureaucratic process gets in the way for the people’s aspirations and the development of their well-being and it’s just too long,” he said. “It’s been an ongoing issue in many of our communities.
“Salt River has contributed, they have put money in, and now it’s a shovel-ready project. And now it’s just on the shelf and there’s no real uptake in the federal government or the territorial government in regards to moving this to a development phase, and that’s causing a lot of frustrations.”
The proposal is currently sitting with the federal government for review.
Poitras said being able to build more homes on the reserve would help Salt River rebuild its nation.
“In 1968 we had a major landslide here where many of our members lived. After that, we got scattered all over Fort Smith from one end to the other, and it really created a lot of chaos in terms of our relationships, our culture, language, etcetera,” he said.
“So we believe that getting back into our community … would really help us get back to where we were before the landslide.”