Tsuu T'ina casino opens amid smoking, traffic concerns

Hundreds of people lined up for Wednesday's opening of the Grey Eagle Casino, southwest of Calgary, the first casino on a southern Alberta reserve.

Hundreds of people lined up for Wednesday's opening of the Grey Eagle Casino southwest of Calgary, the first casino on a southern Alberta reserve.

Thousands of people visited the Grey Eagle Casino within the first few hours of its opening Wednesday. ((CBC))

"It's a result of a vision by our people and the start of a new beginning for our people," said Sandford Bigplume, chief of the Tsuu T'ina First Nation.

"Years ago, we understood that in order to create opportunity and hope for our young people, we needed to create opportunities here by us and for us."

Bigplume hopes revenue from the casino, which boasts 600 slot machines, will help fund social programs and housing on the reserve.

Seventy per cent of the profits from Grey Eagle will be split three ways between the province, Tsuu T'ina community projects and other Alberta First Nations. The remaining 30 per cent goes to the band, as owners of the casino, to spend or reinvest as it chooses.

"We can now create programs to get kids out going to school, to institutions where a lot can't go now," Bigplume said. The casino has also created 400 jobs.

Casino trying to circumvent smoking bylaw

The province's new smoking ban, which comes into effect Jan. 1, does not apply to the First Nation's casino. Bigplume said the band is waiting for approval on allowing smoking in the complex through a federal loophole.

"It is a jurisdiction issue. When you look at that, you look at the federal laws, our laws prevail and supercede the provincial laws and we are very clear on that from day one," he said.

Even though the smoking issue needs final approval from band council, the casino has already installed a $2-million air-filtration system that pumps in fresh air.

Fearstraffic will cut through residential areas

Many people who live near the casino are worried about increased traffic from the new attraction causing major tie-ups. The only route to the casino is from 37th Street Southwest.

"Anyone that has driven Glenmore knows that 37th here is a bottleneck at the best of times," said Liz Bergeron, who lives nearby.

Casino officials have put up signs to prevent right turns and encourage drivers to take Glenmore Trail rather than cutting through the community of Lakeview.

Tsuu T'ina Chief Sandford Bigplume hopes casino revenue will fund social programs for the reserve. ((CBC))

"What it's going to mean is that thousands of vehicles are going to be dumped onto roads that are already overcrowded," said Liberal MLA Craig Cheffins who represents Calgary-Elbow.

The casino sits on land long coveted by the city and the province for a proposed ring road, and critics can't understand why the province granted the First Nation a casino licence without negotiating a right-of-way for the road.

"My concern is that an important bargaining opportunity has been lost," Cheffins said, pointing out the province is years behind schedule on building a southwest ring road which would handle casino traffic.

Two more aboriginal casinos are expected to open in the next few months at the Stoney Nation reserve west of Calgary and at the Alexis reserve near Whitecourt.