First Nation cut off from half its land for 50 years hopes to get access again
Band members will have their say on the multi-million dollar highway project July 13
A "pivotal vote" next month will determine whether a small First Nation near Antigonish, N.S., gains access to reserve land that's sat unused for decades.
The construction of the Trans-Canada Highway in the mid-60s split the Paqtnkek Mi'kmaw Nation in half, isolating about 200 hectares on the south side. Despite attempts by band councils over the years, a direct route to the separated land was never built.
It's meant the growing community is running out of space.
But a recent agreement between Paqtnkek and the federal and provincial governments could change that. The three parties have agreed to an estimated $15.3 million interchange project that band council hopes paves the way for a new era of economic growth.
Not 'a pit stop'
"Hopefully [Paqtnkek] will be part of a destination. I always like to hear that, a destination rather than a pit stop because right now it's the gateway to Cape Breton and out," said Rose Paul, director of economic development with Paqtnkek Mi'kmaw Nation.
She's been working for a decade to make the project a reality. Paul envisions green space, more homes and commercial properties all located just off the busy Highway 104, which she hopes will draw people into the community.
"I'm really excited for the community," she said. "It's definitely a real goal, a milestone for myself, and it's something that I wouldn't think was going to happen. We were challenged in so many ways."
Double majority needed
The highway interchange isn't a done deal though. Band members will vote on July 13 to determine whether the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure of Renewal can begin work this fall.
The vote requires a "double majority," which means 207 of the band's 413 registered members must cast a ballot, and 105 must vote yes for the project to proceed. A double majority is needed under the Indian Act because the deal technically requires the "surrender" of 27 hectares for the province to build on.
Paul said it's not an "absolute surrender," meaning if any land isn't used, it returns to the band.
The band will also receive $2.3 million in compensation, according to Chief Paul Prosper, for the land and the relocation of several houses.
He's "extremely hopeful" the community will see the benefit of increased development.
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Sets stage for twinning
Negotiations with the province over the interchange project began in 2004.
Dwayne Cross, access management engineer with the Transportation Department, said the movement forward reflects an "evolution of humanity and us as individuals, a recognition of rights and needs."
Cross said the project is a "win-win" and fits into the province's broader plans for Highway 104.
"For us, it will form a piece of an overall plan for the ultimate twinning of Highway 104 from Taylor Road down to Monastery," he said.
'The bigger picture'
If a double majority is reached next month, Transportation will issue a tender for the construction work, which could begin as early as this fall. It's expected to take 30 months to build the overpass, connector roads, off-ramps and bridges.
Even before the agreement was finalized, council was laying the groundwork. It approached homeowners who were too close to the project site and asked them to relocate.
Four families agreed to move into new homes, including Kimberly Julian, along with her six children and three grandchildren. Last August, the family moved just down the road into a newly built house.
"I enjoyed living there. I loved the location, but with the project coming through, there had to be changes and I was OK with that," said Julian, who works for the band as the administrative assistant.
She's voting yes on July 13 because, "I see the bigger picture. It's going to be growth for the community economically."
'Hate to see it delayed'
If the vote doesn't get a double majority, Paul said it could be a year before it comes through council again.
"We're hoping the first vote will be a successful one. We would hate to see it delayed," she said, and not only because access to the south-side area would practically double the community's land base.
For Paul, the project goes beyond the potential for jobs and increased revenue — it signals a new direction for Paqtnkek.
"I'm excited. It's definitely an era, a time, for our community to excel," said Paul.
With files from CBC's Information Morning