O’Chiese First Nation disappointed federal budget didn’t come with cash for roads

‘This should be about economic reconciliation’ says councillor Bernadine Coleman

O'Chiese First Nation road

Bernadine Coleman from O'Chiese First Nation and Alberta Minister Devin Dreeshan/ Photo: Supplied

Bernadine Coleman travelled from her home in O’Chiese First Nation to Ottawa last week, a trip that is about 3,500 km if you were to drive, to ask the federal government for $8 million to build up an updated access road for their community.

Currently a small gravel road is the only way in and out of O’Chiese. The total cost of the road is estimated at $24 million.

“I have to travel through that road to get in and out of my community. It is one access in and out and it really is not great that we have to travel through such horrible conditions,” said Coleman who is a band councillor in the community.

“I do want to state that it is the federal government’s responsibility—they hold that fiduciary responsibility to First Nations.”

Coleman said that her community feels like building the road is an important step of economic reconciliation to the First Nation.

O’Chiese is a Saulteaux community 150 km southwest of Edmonton. According to Crown-Indigenous relations, there are 949 registered men and women who live in the community.

Infrastructure gap

The Assembly of First Nations released a report in April that said an infrastructure gap of $209 billion in infrastructure spending is needed for “economic reconciliation while aligning with federal commitments on climate change adaptation, and net zero goals.”

APTN previously reported that there is $350 billion needed to close the gap on infrastructure for First Nations projects.

Coleman travelled to Ottawa as a proxy-chief standing in for Chief Douglas Beaverbones. She was also accompanied by Devin Dreeshen, the Alberta minister of transportation and economic corridors and representatives from the local Clearwater County who have set aside funds to help build and pave the road.

Coleman, Dreeshen and the other delegates traveled to Ottawa before the budget with the hope of meeting with Sean Fraser, minister of infrastructure. He wasn’t available. He offered his parliamentary secretary in his place – who then cancelled the meeting and sent staff instead.

At the same time there was a meeting planned with Patty Hadju the minister for Indigenous services who also did not attend and sent her parliamentary secretary instead. APTN reached out to ISC but did not hear back by publication of this story.

APTN News reached out to Fraser’s office about the cancelled meeting and whether there were future plans to fund the road project but didn’t hear back.

In a letter to Clearwater County Council dated November 2023, Fraser responded to requests from the local government to build the road by saying that the Canadian budget for infrastructure was over $33 billion. The letter did not directly address the funding request.

Although not the case with O’Chiese, 67 First Nations across Canada rely on ice roads for affordable transportation. The federal budget did pledge 20 million in 2024 towards winter roads for remote First Nations communities.

This is something that Coleman said was “devastating” to hear especially due to a projected busy wildfire season that did affect O’Chiese First Nation last year.

The one road to and from the community was full of heavy trucks fighting the fires.

“We had things like heavy equipment and water trucks going in and out of those roads into our community and it had a really huge impact on both our roads and our bridges,” said Coleman.

A joint letter from Clearwater County and O’Chiese First Nation to Fraser dated January 2024 also said that road conditions were a significant hazard to emergency vehicles.

“Ambulance teams have notified the community that they are often limited to a speek of 50 km/hour when responding to a call,” reads the joint letter.

Dreeshen told APTN News in an interview that the province of Alberta has offered $8 million for the road as well as another $8 million from Clearwater County.

“It couldn’t have been easier for the federal government to say ‘yes’ with everything we did and all the support behind it,” said Dreeshen.

“We want this road built for the safety egress of people in that community.”

Dreeshen told APTN that the provincial government is considering ways to pay for the road if the federal government will not pay.

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