First Nation pushes for Wollaston Lake road

Matt Gardner
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Northern community representatives are moving forward in their efforts to spur construction of a road into the Wollaston Lake area.

Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation Chief Bart Tsannie (centre) speaks on the need for a road to Wollaston Lake off of Highway 905 as Prince Albert Grand Council Vice Chief Joseph Tsannie (left) and consultant Alex Maurice listen during a Friday press conference, which coincided with a new report outlining challenges that attended a fire evacuation of the area in 2011.

Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation Chief Bart Tsannie, Prince Albert Grand Council Vice Chief Joseph Tsannie and consultant Alex Maurice said on Friday that they are planning meetings with government and industry representatives to discuss financing of the long-sought-after project.

“The funds will be sought after by the general contractor, and yes, we want to ensure that the province comes to the table and revisits prioritizing the road into Wollaston Lake off of (Highway) 905,” Maurice said.

The latest push for the Wollaston Lake road coincides with the release of a University of Saskatchewan report outlining numerous problems that plagued evacuations of northern residents in the face of a raging 2011 wildfire.

The lack of a road into Wollaston Lake was only one of several factors that complicated evacuation efforts.

At the time, the community was in the middle of an election and had no sitting chief or council. An adjacent ice road had begun to melt, but not sufficiently to allow boats to pass through.

Maurice also described the pernicious effects of Saskatchewan’s “let it burn” policy, in which the province only targets wildfires that come within 25 kilometres of a community.

“They need to revisit the let it burn policy,” Maurice said. “Especially in northern Saskatchewan where there are no roads, the let it burn policy simply doesn’t work.

“It affects lives, and in fact it threatens lives because with the radius of where they’ll start fighting the fire, if there are no roads then they can’t get the firefighters in.”

Smoke from the fire prevented chartered airlines from reaching the community. Eventually 1,300 people were flown out on small planes.

Many families were separated during the chaotic evacuation.

“At the end of the day, when a four-year-old child gets separated from their family, I don’t care who you are -- that’ll affect the child and the family,” Maurice said. “There was a lot of … undue stress.

“If that road had been in, a lot of the members would have travelled into the other Dene-speaking communities in northern Saskatchewan.”

The fire evacuation experience was only one of many arguments made on Friday for the necessity of a road into Wollaston Lake.

Chief Tsannie noted that the growing population of area communities -- which include Hatchet Lake, Black Lake and Fond-du-Lac -- has put a strain on the ferry service that transports people in.

Meanwhile, the ice road that many use to drive into Wollaston Lake during certain times of the year has already led to numerous deaths.

“They’re in the process of measuring the ice to see how thick the ice is so they can start building the ice road -- but that’s only open maybe two, three months out of a year,” Vice Chief Tsannie said.

“Then you start risking lives again. We already lost a teacher going through that ice before, just trying to cross that lake -- and other deaths, people trying to boat across the lake. Some people we still haven’t found yet.”

Yet it is the economic cost of not having a road that may have the strongest impact on residents.

The resulting isolation is felt in a myriad of ways. Maurice pointed out that the high cost of flying goods into the area means that a bag of groceries that costs $10 or $12 in Prince Albert could cost as much as $60 in Wollaston Lake.

We want to ensure that the province comes to the table and revisits prioritizing the road into Wollaston Lake off of (Highway) 905. Alex Maurice

By the same token, problems affecting basic utilities can last much longer. A power outage in northern communities may last three or four days.

Vice Chief Tsannie pointed out that existing roads in the area tend to benefit mining companies more than local communities.

“The province talks about ‘We invest billions of dollars into the north,’ but they all lead to industry and to the mining companies’ front door,” he said.

“When we talk about roads in the communities, they all lead to the mining companies, and still the most impacted community in the north doesn’t have a decent road.”

“We’re not in a Third World country here,” he added. “We need to be up-to-date with the times.”

Maurice also noted the economic benefits that could accrue to southern regions of Saskatchewan were northern residents able to more easily travel there for shopping or job-hunting.

The provincial government previously made commitments to building a road into Wollaston Lake that have yet to see completion.

“As leadership, it’s really frustrating when they start this road in 2008 and they only did 14 km out of … 110 km total on the road,” Chief Tsannie said.

“We definitely need the road, so this is … why we wanted to send a message out to the people that are out there making decisions.”

A committee in charge of advancing the road project is beginning to make inroads with government and industry representatives.

Maurice described the approach as a “reverse P3” (public-private partnership) concept.

Through Chief Tsannie, Hatchet Lake has already selected a general contractor, who is expected to receive approval from a band council resolution within the next two weeks.

Following the creation of a memorandum of understanding, the contractor will be tasked with accessing funds of up to $110 million -- in line with a Ministry of Highways quote that estimated the cost of an all-weather, two-lane gravel road into Wollaston Lake as $1 million per kilometre.

The committee plans to approach industry, the provincial and federal governments, Aboriginal Affairs and Western Economic Diversification Canada to seek help financing the construction of the road.

“To get the funding in place from the general contractor, the general contractor will get the assurance with legal agreements over 25 to 30 years amortization,” Maurice said.

“The loan that the general contractor is going to access will be paid back … The road gets built and it creates less of a financial … burden to the tax dollars in Saskatchewan. It’s less requirement for provincial funding.”

Momentum has increased for the project, with SaskBuilds having informed road proponents that it will have a meeting scheduled by Dec. 19.

Maurice said the SaskBuilds meeting is likely to take place in early January.

“At the end of the day, this road needs to get built,” Vice Chief Tsannie said.

“In terms of partnerships, the province needs to step up to the plate and get this road built -- because the prosperity that the province keeps talking about, we don’t see that prosperity in the north there. Everything just gets taken elsewhere.”

Organizations: Prince Albert Grand Council, University of Saskatchewan, Prince Albert Ministry of Highways Western Economic Diversification Canada

Geographic location: Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan, Northern Saskatchewan Hatchet Lake Black Lake Fond-du-Lac

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