Wood Buffalo reverses Conklin multiplex decision after protest at meeting

After Metis, First Nations and rural communities voiced opposition Tuesday to Wood Buffalo’s “dictatorship" approach to local government, council voted to put the Conklin Multiplex back on its capital project list.

Communities had called delayed Conklin Multiplex a 'last straw'

Members of a coalition of Metis, First Nations and rural communities packed a council meeting in Fort McMurray on Tuesday to show their opposition to the regional government's decision-making. (David Thurton/CBC)

Métis, First Nations and rural communities claimed victory Tuesday after Wood Buffalo's regional council reversed a controversial decision to delay construction of a $46.8-million multiplex in Conklin, south of Fort McMurray.

Late in the heated meeting, Coun. Jane Stroud moved that the Conklin Multiplex be removed from the regional municipality's deferred capital project list. Council approved the motion, meaning the project will now be resumed.

Prior to that vote, a coalition of groups had packed the council chambers to voice opposition to what they called Wood Buffalo's "dictatorship" approach to local government, saying it sucks money away from rural communities and doesn't give them much in return.

"We don't make any decisions in the community in terms of how the municipality works in the community," Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Steve Courtoreille told the meeting. "It seems to be a dictatorship style of approach to government."

Courtoreille, a chief in the community of Fort Chipewyan, and 10 other Aboriginal and rural groups formed their coalition earlier this year. Members packed Tuesday's meeting to voice disappointment they said hit a boiling point when the regional council voted in July to delay construction of the multiplex for Conklin, 155 km south of Fort McMurray.

They said their communities haven't received their fair share of municipal funding since the municipality amalgamated its rural and urban communities in 1995.

Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis Community Association and one of the leaders of the rural coalition, said his group wanted to place "an exclamation mark" on council's decision.

He said rural communities are home to most of the municipality's oilsands operations and contribute the majority of money to the municipality's tax base.

According to Quintal, rural communities contributed more than $680 million to Wood Buffalo for 2016, about 95 per cent of the municipality's total tax revenue.

Quintal described rural communities such as Conklin and Chard, a community 100 km south of Fort McMurray, as living in the "Third World" since they don't have piped water or sewer facilities.

"When community members have to depend on outhouses to go to the washroom, I think you have to scratch your head," Quintal said.

"I'm not sure anyone on council has used an outhouse at 40 below."

Before Stroud made her motion to get the Conklin project going again, Coun. Sheldon Germain said he supports the construction of a recreation complex there but not at the project's current size and cost.

"I know I have been painted as public enemy No. 1. It's not about the centre, it's about the scope," he said.

In the aftermath of May's wildfire, Germain said, Wood Buffalo was in a tough position financially.

Council will vote to schedule a meeting between rural groups and its rural development and sustainable development committee.