Fond du Lac Chief says airport runway should've been funding priority for province

The chief of Fond du Lac Dene Nation wants the provincial government to reconsider its decision not to pay for renovations to the airport in the remote community.

Federal gov't announced it would provide $12M to upgrade the Fond du Lac airport in February

A charter plane on the airstrip at Fond-du-Lac, Sask., airport. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

The chief of Fond du Lac Dene Nation wants the provincial government to reconsider its decision not to pay for renovations to the airport in the remote community.

Chief Louie Mercredi said he was surprised other projects were picked instead. 

Mercredi said the Fond du Lac air strip is too short and he thinks it is partly to blame for a plane crash that killed one person in December 2017.

"We're not a priority. They are prioritizing wastewater, landfills, swimming pools," said Mercredi. "And what is more important than human lives."

Deputy Premier Gord Wyant said Fond du Lac expressed interest in securing federal funding allocated through the province, but never submitted a formal application to the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) by the June 20 deadline.

Fond du Lac Dene Nation Chief Louie Mercredi says the community's airstrip is not long enough and partly to blame for a 2017 crash. (Germain Wilson/CBC)

Wyant said the airport project would've been a strong contender, but the application needed to be forwarded to the federal government, which is contributing $896 million through the ICIP over the next 10 years.

"When we submitted our list to the federal government, in terms of the projects we wanted to move forward on, this additional intake, Fond du Lac wasn't on that list because we didn't have an application," said Wyant. "And in fact, we still haven't received a formal application from the band for that project." 

Mercredi said an application was submitted but was returned for some changes to be made. 

"Now that I found out [the] Moose Jaw airport application was also late and that was accepted by the province, what is going on here? Are they just supporting their ridings?" Mercredi said. "What I'm seeing is racism here."

In response, Wyant said Moose Jaw's application was submitted correctly and on time. He refutes the allegation of racism, and said projects put forward by other First Nations were approved. 

Mercredi said the runway's size means only small planes can fly in and out of Fond du Lac. That rule came in after an investigation into the crash, although the cause of the crash has been blamed on inadequate de-icing.

The chief said the fly-in community is running low on food and other supplies because of the airport's pitfalls. 

"The rest of Canada doesn't live like this. Why do we have to live like this?" said Mercredi.

Airstrip renovations 'critical': NDP

The Saskatchewan NDP said the province is considering an airport project in Moose Jaw over Fond du Lac as a bargaining tool for the next provincial election. It argues that the renovations to the Fond du Lac airstrip are critical. 

"This airport is the only access point for many northern communities and the fact that needed improvements still haven't been made is ridiculous," said Buckley Belanger, the NDP's highways and infrastructure critic.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron said details about applications shouldn't be in question when human lives could be in danger. 

He also had a message for the federal government. 

"Stop giving the provincial government funding on the First Nations' behalf because this is a clear example of the provincial government not allocating those funds where they specifically need to go," said Cameron. 

The federal government announced it would provide $12 million for the community to upgrade the Fond du Lac airport back in February.

Mercredi said the First Nation needs $30-35 million on top of that to complete the project. 

He said if the runway was standard, food would be more accessible and prices would drop. 

"If I need to declare a state of emergency, I will," he said. 

Wyant said the province would welcome an application from Fond du Lac for consideration along with next year's pool of applicants.

About the Author

Alex Soloducha is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan.