Shawanaga First Nation 'prepared to deal' with Ontario government on Highway 69 widening
Negotiations ongoing between province, Henvey Inlet, Magnetawan and Shawanaga First Nations
The provincial government has yet to ink deals with Shawanaga, Magnetawan and Henvey Inlet First Nations to widen the highway on traditional territories.
Shawanaga First Nation Chief Wayne Pamajewon said he is prepared to enter into an agreement, but he has not received a formal offer from the government.
"I don't think that it's the leadership in my community that's holding up the process," Pamajewon said.
"I think the people at Queen's Park are the ones who are sitting there holding this ball, and not letting it roll the way it should. We're prepared to deal with them, but we can't deal with something that we don't know anything about."
Four-laning under First Nation terms
Once a consensus has been reached with all communities, construction will take place to finish four-laning Highway 69 between Parry Sound and Greater Sudbury.
Pamajewon said he sees the project as an opportunity to boost Shawanaga's economy and bring down the reserve's unemployment rate, which he estimates is around 70 per cent for just over 200 people.
Shawanaga is one of a few First Nations in Canada to have control over its land, which means it can make deals with business partners without the federal government and govern its own property.
Pamajewon said this distinction should make negotiations with the provincial government easier, but the process has been slow so far.
"We're trying to work with the government to get this highway through, Pamajewon said.
"We're not against development. The only thing is that it will be done under our terms."
Why are negotiations taking so long?
Glenn Thibeault, Ontario's Energy Minister and Sudbury MPP, stresses that talks will take time to get done right.
"You can always look at hindsight and say you should having started those negotiations first when you started," Thibeault said.
"But there have been conversations with many First Nations since that time and now the formal negotiations — getting to the nitty gritty — are underway right now."
The two parties still need to address environmental concerns.
In Pamajewon's community, he said there is fear that the construction of new bridges over the Shawanaga River may negatively impact the ecosystem, and the expanded highway could interfere with deer crossings.
Thibeault said his government is aware of the unease among communities, and is working towards a solution.
'Prepared to continue to negotiate'
It is hard to say when the entire four-laning project will be finished, but Thibeault said he believes it will change the perception of the northeast.
"We're going to be part of the 400 series of highways," Thibeault said. "This is good for our economy and it makes our highway safer."
Pamajewon said Shawanaga has been in discussions with the provincial government about twinning the highway since the late '90s, and he wants to see progress come soon.
"I'm trying to get them to the table as quickly as I can," Pamajewon said.
"I don't know what more that Shawanaga can do to help out here because we're prepared to continue to negotiate until we get a settlement."