Calgary

Cenovus pledges $50M for new homes in Indigenous communities near Alberta oilsands operations

Cenovus, one of Canada's largest oil and gas companies, has two producing oilsands operations but neighbouring First Nations have been dealing with a housing crisis for years. The Calgary-based company has pledged $50 million to build homes in six Indigenous communities.

Calgary company says funding is part of commitment to reconciliation

Cold Lake Chief Roger Marten says his nation is facing an ongoing housing crisis. (Radio-Canada)

Cenovus Energy Inc. has pledged $50 million to build homes in six Indigenous communities near its oilsands projects in northern Alberta.

The investment, the company says, is a way to "contribute to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples."

The funding will be broken down into a $10-million yearly contribution for five years to build about 200 homes in the communities of Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Chard Métis Local 218, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation, Cold Lake First Nations, Conklin Métis Local 193 and Heart Lake First Nation.

"We can't solve the Indigenous housing crisis by ourselves, but through this initiative, we have the opportunity to significantly improve the lives of many families currently living in overcrowded and unsafe conditions," CEO Alex Pourbaix said in a press release.

Cenovus, one of Canada's largest oil and gas companies, has two producing oilsands operations in northeastern Alberta: Christina Lake and Foster Creek. Neighbouring First Nations have been dealing with a housing crisis for years. A recent United Nations report has called the situation across Canada "abhorrent."

Pourbaix said he's seen the substandard conditions himself.

"Everybody has to pick what their priorities are," Pourbaix told reporters after the announcement. "You can't solve every problem in the world."

"In our case … we made a very conscious decision that we were going to be focused on the environment, in particular, GHG intensity, First Nation communities, land, water," he said.

Calgary-based Cenovus Energy will be announcing what it's calling the largest community investment in its history. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Pourbaix described the funding Thursday as the largest community investment in the company's history.

The company has planned a news conference at the Odd Fellows Hall in Calgary.

Skills training

The homes will be built with guidance from community leadership, Pourbaix said, and involve training programs to pass on skills that can be used to maintain the homes in the future. Should the program be successful, Cenovus says, the company will consider extending the commitment to $100 million over 10 years.

"We don't want to helicopter in prefab homes built in Edmonton or Calgary," Pourbaix said.

Six community leaders attended the announcement, including:

  • Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation Chief Vern Janvier.
  • Cold Lake First Nations Chief Roger Marten.
  • Heart Lake First Nation Chief Curtis Monias.
  • Beaver Lake Cree Nation Coun. Shirley Paradis.
  • Conklin Resource Development Advisory Committee board member Val Quintal, to represent Conklin Métis Local 193.
  • Chard Métis Local 218 president Raoul Montgrand.

A lack of affordable housing has been a concern in a number of communities in northeast Alberta, the epicentre of the province's massive oilsands industry.

The situation has led to calls for permanent housing and the development of Indigenous-driven housing strategies.

"With the funding we receive from the federal government, we're capped," Beaver Lake Cree Nation Coun. Shirley Paradis said. "This is where we're at. However, with that being said, our families grow every day, which forces some of our members to leave the community."

She said better housing will help bring people back home.

Calgary-based Cenovus Energy announces what it's calling the largest community investment in its history. (Cenovus/Contributed)

More than two years ago, a report about the housing situation in Conklin, 150 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, indicated it needed emergency housing.

Oil production sites encircle the community of fewer than 200 people, yet some residents had to leave for bigger communities to seek housing, the report found. Some families who remained made their homes in trailers without electricity, water or sewer.

Cold Lake First Nations members have gone to the media to call for housing support in their community 275 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. Families were living in band-provided housing without running water, power or heat.

In 2018, Gary Grandbois put a sign at the bottom of his driveway in Cold Lake First Nation asking for help. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Cold Lake Chief Roger Marten said his nation is facing an ongoing crisis with only 300 homes for about 3,000 band members. With a shortage of funding, he said, they've had to focus on renovations to meet their housing needs.

"With Cenovus coming aboard with the initiative, it's actually a light at the end of the tunnel for us, so to speak," Marten said.

Cenovus's housing pledge follows the company's commitment this month to target a minimum of $1.5 billion of additional spending with Indigenous businesses over the next 10 years.

The company says it has already spent $3 billion over the past decade with Indigenous businesses.

With files from Radio-Canada

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