Kashechewan chief signs deal to move flood-prone community - but fears governments won't follow through
Ottawa, Ontario commit to relocation - but the community has heard that promise before
A flood-prone northern Ontario First Nation has reached an agreement with the federal and provincial governments to move the entire community within eight to ten years — but its chief says he fears Ottawa and the province won't follow through.
"It's something that I signed two times already and this is the third time. And that's why I'm scared," said Leo Friday, chief of Kashechewan First Nation. "I'm in terrible confusion right now."
Kashechewan sits on the western shores of James Bay on a flood plain right beside the Albany River. More than 2,500 people are forced to fly out of the community every spring to escape rising flood waters caused by the break-up of river ice.
In 2016, most members of the community voted in a referendum in favour of relocating to higher, drier ground upstream, an area known as Site 5.
In 2017, the First Nation came to an agreement with the federal and provincial governments to work towards relocation, but the community grew frustrated with a lack of progress and staged rallies in April at Queen's Park and on Parliament Hill.
After ten days of intense negotiations, Friday signed a revised version of the 2017 agreement today in front of 300 community members in Toronto. The agreement now includes a work plan that clarifies how the move will happen and the responsibilities of each level of government.
Funding to come
"It's a great day for your children and your grandchildren because it's their future," Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon told the crowd today.
"Together, there is a vision. A vision as a community, as people to live without fear and as a family, without being displaced year after year."
No dollar figure has been set for the big move, but estimates suggest the cost will be between $500 million and $1 billion dollars.
"A lot of that is based on community planning," federal Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan said.
"Our commitment to the relocation of Kashechewan is confirmed."
Money for relocation was not included in the 2019 federal and provincial budgets. O'Regan said the new commitment to relocation is as firm as anyone can make it, although the funding level is still to be determined.
"It will be significant," provincial Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said. "Ontario will be there and that's what matters."
The parties are working on an eight-to-ten-year timeframe, but Rickford said he believes the move can happen in as little as five years.
Relocation will put an end to annual evacuations that cost federal taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
Crown land still has to be transferred from the provincial government and designated as reserve land before the move can happen. Ontario is accelerating the process so a road can be built to move materials for the new community, according to O'Regan.
But while all three levels of government say they have entered the new agreement in good faith, the document does not impose legally binding obligations on the parties.
Today's signing event had an air of déjà vu for Kashechewan residents. The community had a relocation commitment in 2005 under Paul Martin's Liberal government. That deal was scrapped when Stephen Harper's Conservatives were elected.
"If we were held hostage to the four-year election cycle, we wouldn't get anything done. So you work," said federal Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan.
"More often than not, those agreements are held and I have to trust that the next government will hold that as well. This is a very clear and meaningful commitment to a community that has asked for action for a long time."
Friday admitted he fears another government might push the relocation plans aside. Other community leaders don't share his concern.
"I'm very optimistic," Solomon said. "It would be crazy for, if another government comes in, to scrap it."
The three levels of government will work on a plan to address short, medium and long-term challenges, such as skills development, on-reserve housing, socioeconomic sustainability, health programs and facilities, public safety, infrastructure development, remediation, operation, maintenance, schools and community facilities.
They also will establish a communications strategy to make sure all community members and interested parties are kept informed on progress.
In a written statement, two provincial NDP MPPs commended the community for their work in pressuring the governments to make relocation a priority.
"These governments have a long overdue responsibility to move forward on the relocation of the community to higher ground," wrote NDP MPP Guy Bourgouin of Mushkegowuk-James Bay and Sol Mamakwa, NDP Indigenous relations and reconciliation critic.
"Despite having signed a tripartite agreement in the past, the community has been left to wait as flood waters rose around their homes, once again. Ontario's New Democrats, the Official Opposition, call on the Ford government to stop further delays and begin working on the relocation now. The people of Kashechewan have waited long enough."
The three levels of government already had a relocation steering committee in place, which will now be required to provide an annual progress report.
The federal government and Kashechewan will each name two representatives to the committee; Ontario's Ministry of Indigenous Affairs will name one representative.
The committee will recommend a budget for its work to the federal and provincial governments on an annual basis.
Story tip? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
With files from Philippe de Montigny/Radio-Canada