'We were treated like little kids': First Nations want better relationship with government on East Road

Several Manitoba First Nation leaders say they hope to forge a better relationship with the Progressive Conservative government when it comes to building the East Side Road.
Berens River councillor Steve Berens and Elder George Kemp (centre left to right) are among First Nation leaders who met with the Manitoba government on Thursday and look forward to new relationship on road building. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Several Manitoba First Nation leaders say they hope to forge a better relationship with the Progressive Conservative government when it comes to building the East Side Road.

The group of chiefs, elders and band councillors from Berens River, Bloodvein, Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi and Poplar River First Nations met with the government on Thursday to discuss the future of the project, which has been in question since the Manitoba East Side Road Authority was dismantled earlier this year.

Responsibility for the East Side Road has been transferred to the provincial department of infrastructure. 

A report released this week by provincial Auditor General Norm Ricard identified problems related to management and accounting at the agency, which was created by the previous NDP government in 2009 to administer millions of dollars in contracts to build all-weather roads to 13 remote communities on the east side of Lake Winnipeg that only had winter roads.

The ESRA was designed to ensure the construction work benefited residents in the remote, primarily First Nations communities, by providing job training, mentoring and pre-construction work contracts. The project included an Aboriginal engagement strategy with community benefits agreements.

However, the First Nation leaders at Thursday's meeting said they received no respect and few training and mentoring opportunities from the East Side Road Authority while it existed.

"We were treated like little kids. Right from Day 1, there was no trust there. They had total control of everything, which was very demeaning," said George Kemp, an elder and a former chief of the Berens River First Nation.

Until this year, the East Side Road Authority was responsible for building an all-season road on east side of Lake Winnipeg. The provincial government is dissolving the authority, with the work to be transferred to the Infrastructure Department. (East Side Road Authority handout)

For example, they accused the authority of not offering meaningful skills training beyond first aid courses and certification on how to operate a chainsaw.

"All that people were given were shovels to dig holes. We know how to dig holes; we've been doing it for all our lives," said Steve Berens, a band councillor with the Berens River First Nation.

"Dollars were never really … given to First Nations to provide proper training."

Infrastructure Minister Blaine Pedersen said he is listening, and looks forward to working with the First Nations on planning and building the road project.

"This is about building a new relationship with them and it's about building trust with them because we want to work with them. We realize the potential that we have there, and so we'll continue to work," he said.

Pedersen added that he is willing to consider a request from the leaders to review and possibly change the road's planned route so it can be built in locations farther north.

Leaders invite northern MLA but Tories close door

Kewatinook Liberal MLA Judy Klassen was barred from attending the meeting with Pederson, despite being invited by the leaders. 

"I'm the elected representative of these chiefs. I wanted to make sure that our First Nations aren't portrayed as getting away with millions of dollars of work when they never actually saw any of these kinds of monies," Klassen said.

Klassen says she also wants to press the PC government to speed up the timetable on the 30-year east side road project.

"We need those roads now. Our people are dying now. We need medical patients to come and go as they please," Klassen said.

A more aggressive schedule for completing the all-weather road would go a long way to increased food security for northern communities, she said.