Canoe Lake Cree Nation seeks improved highway conditions

Canoe Lake Cree Nation Chief Robert Opikokew (left) and band councillor Leonard Opikokew voice their concerns about the conditions of Highways 903 and 965 during a special meeting held at the band hall July 11.

by Phil Ambroziak

Members of Canoe Lake Cree Nation could soon be heading down the highway for a meeting with government decision-makers in Regina, but the trip isn’t expected to be a smooth one.

In the meantime, however, a special meeting was held at the reserve July 11 to allow members an opportunity to present their concerns about area highway conditions to various stakeholders, including executives from NorSask Forest Products and Mistik Management Ltd., as well as the department of highways, the Ministry of Environment and more.

“We’ve been having this battle with regard to our roads for the longest time,” said Canoe Lake Cree Nation Chief Robert Opikokew, referencing the current condition of provincial Highways 903 and 965.

In a recent letter to the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure, Opikokew expressed his people’s concerns in greater detail, describing the highways as being “hazardous and atrocious.” He also said members feel there is a lack of concern on the government’s behalf when it comes to addressing the situation.

“It’s becoming very frustrating,” he said.

The chief went on to say adverse road conditions impede medical taxis, detract from tourism and delay vendors and service suppliers.

He also explained how much damage the road conditions have caused to vehicles, stressing how dangerous it can also be when motorists encounter logging and other large trucks.

Members are also worried about the possibility of trucks hauling dangerous goods losing their loads near their community.

“It’s time for us to start taking action,” Opikokew said during last week’s meeting. “I’m frustrated because I feel we’re being neglected.

These resources (forest products) are being taken out of our own backyard, but what are we getting in return? I think it’s time we became serious about this.”

Tony Maurice, mayor of the nearby community of Jans Bay, agreed there needs to be a better road to service that part of the province. Canoe Lake Cree Nation band manager Leonard Iron, meanwhile, reiterated the financial impact the highways have on residents.

“We need to look at the personal cost to people,” he said. “At some time, residents are going to have to budget for new shocks and new tires. The fact there are no decent roads here is also a big drawback for tourism and for any kind of development.”

Opikokew said it’s the band’s desire to work with the government and with industry to come to a solution, but did not refrain from expressing his belief communities in the southern part of the province take precedence over those in the North.

“Maybe it’s the colour of our skin,” he said. “I hate to say that, but too many times has the government focused on the South. What about us in the North?”

Trevor Reid, president of NorSask Forest Products, informed those in attendance roads are essential to his company’s business.

“We share similar concerns when it comes to safety,” Reid said. “It’s definitely problematic. I agree we need to find a solution.”

Conrad Read, district operations manager with the  Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure, was also on hand. He shared with the band council a letter from Ted Stobbs, assistant deputy-minister of operations, which indicated the government recognizes the concerns as presented by the band, but Highways 903 and 965 are not currently included in the province’s five-year infrastructure plan. Stobbs’ letter also said it would cost close to $100 million to pave both highways.

“What do we need to do to become a part of that five-year plan?” questioned Canoe Lake economic development officer Larry Iron. “We’re prepared to say let’s have a plan, let’s be with that system somewhere. We’ve been sitting like this for the last 20 years, and the road is now worse than ever.”

Leonard Iron suggested preventing trucks carrying dangerous goods from driving through the reserve.

“It is still a provincial highway,” Read reminded the councillor.

“But, it is still our reserve,” replied Larry Iron. “If we decide to say we don’t want you coming through our reserve, we mean it – highway or no highway. This is our reserve, and if there is an issue that needs to be dealt with, we will address it.”

Opikokew said he just wants to see the North considered when it comes to dolling out provincial money for various projects, and to be consulted when it comes to carrying certain products through the community.

“We’re humans too,” he said. “When you look at these (dangerous goods) trucks, we don’t know what they haul. If there was an accident, who would be liable for that?”

Al Lindsay of the ministry’s Area Transportation Planning Committee, explained there are certain priorities with some criteria by which the government ranks its roads throughout the province. He also suggested a better idea than blockading the highway would be for the band to continue to write articulate letters to the ministry expressing their concerns and their desire to meet with those with enough authority to help.

“I’m not going to say anything that will satisfy you today, but I do encourage everyone to sit at the table and come to a solution,” he said.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Lindsay said he would pass along the band’s desire to meet with government officials in Regina some time in September. He also suggested the council write another letter of their own with a similar request. Opikokew agreed, but also said he would act in the best interests of Canoe Lake members.

“We need to find a better system – not just a Band-Aid solution,” he said “In terms of a blockade, I was put here as a leader and I will listen to members’ concerns. It (possibility of a blockade) is not a threat, I can guarantee you that.”

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