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Northern leaders to study possible road through Wood Buffalo National Park

Some Indigenous organizations in northern Alberta want to build a road through Wood Buffalo National Park, and they’re creating a working group to see if that's possible.

There's only one road out of Fort Smith, N.W.T., and proposal would offer a second option in case of emergency

People stand near the starting point of the winter road to Fort Chipewyan. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Some Indigenous organizations in northern Alberta want to form a working group to look into the possibility of building a northern road through Wood Buffalo National Park.  

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the town of Fort Smith and several Indigenous organizations — including the Mikisew Cree First Nation, the Fort Smith Métis Council and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation — met last week to discuss the project. 

Some groups opted to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would see the creation of a working group to look into the project.

The proposed road would stretch from Fort Chipewyan to High Level. 

Mikisew Cree First Nation councillor Calvin Waquan said the road would be an important piece of infrastructure. 

"It would mean more travel for our people, access to essentials for daily living," Waquan said. 

He said he's thinking about the benefit of the road for the future of the community. 

"I think it's our fiduciary responsibility as leaders to think about what's best for the future of our people," he said. "For my children and grandchildren."

The proposed road would be all-season between Peace Point and Garden River. From Peace Point to Fort Chipewyan it would be a winter road. 

Peace Point and Garden Creek are roughly 100 kilometres apart, but right now there's no road between them. (Google Maps)

He said the road would make it easier to get to Fort Smith as well. 

Elder and Fort Smith council board member Earl Evans said residents in Fort Smith have also been hoping for a road because of safety concerns.

"They had a lot of concerns when they had the fires," Evans said. "We only have one road out."

He said a new road would give people a second exit out of the community if there were ever an emergency evacuation. 

Road raises concerns

This is not the first time someone has tried to build a road through the park.

More than a decade ago, the federal government wanted to build a road through the park, but the Mikisew Cree First Nation argued it hadn't been properly consulted. 

In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the First Nation's favour, and the project was quashed.

Waquan said the way they are going about the road is much better this time around. 

Adam Allan says he won't support the road until the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation receives an official apology from the federal government. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

"It's not enacted or not pushed on us by Parks [Canada] or an outside agency that's going to tell us what to do with our land," Waquan said. 

He said by working with Indigenous communities with a stake in the road, they'll find a way to accommodate concerns. 

Chief Allan Adam said his Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation refused to sign the MOU because the road would be built on land that his ancestors were forced to leave 100 years ago. 

"My granny was one of them," he said. 

He said the First Nation doesn't oppose the road, but won't support it right now. 

His people also want an apology from the federal government, Adam said. 

"We haven't been officially let back in. We haven't been formally given an apology. No damages were ever given whatsoever. And all of a sudden they want to build an all-weather road and let everybody else in through the park," he said. 

Waquan said it's because of issues like these that an MOU and working group is important, as it will help address as many of the issues as possible to make everyone comfortable.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo didn't sign the MOU, but said in an email statement the municipality has had "initial conversations about exploring this possibility as a transportation option in the region."

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