The last week of September was highlighted by an unexpected invitation to tour some Northern Saskatchewan communities, as the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce (MCC) continue to look for ways to grow and develop Manitoba’s Northern region. The trip, planned by the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, was their third up north as part of their Northern Task Force. Business leaders, task force members, government representation, the Chamber network, and media were part of this unique trip. The whirlwind two-day trip included pickups in Regina, Saskatoon, and Prince Albert before the group of 14 made the trek to Buffalo Narrows, Stony Rapids, Black Lake First Nation, Wollaston Lake, and La Ronge.
Day one included a stop in Buffalo Narrows, a community of 1,153 people located at the Narrows between Little and Big Buffalo Lake and Churchill Lake. We quickly learned that the community does not like to refer to the lake as it listed (Peter Pond Lake) due to claims of Pond’s dubious reputation. Resource extraction remains Buffalo Narrow’s main economic activities. A proud community, they are eager to show off the beautiful surroundings, stunning beachfront, and tout the recent opening of a Tim Hortons restaurant in the Northern Store. The tour of Buffalo Narrows continued to the K-12 school where we were introduced to two people who take community growth seriously. School principal and deputy mayor Jackie Durocher, along with Vice-Principal and town councilor Isadore Desjarlais spoke passionately about the future of the area and what is needed to prepare their students for what comes next after school, and in some cases how to keep their significant First Nations population interested in staying in school. For Durocher, born and raised in Buffalo Narrows, it will include a better and deeper connection to community elders who can instill a sense of pride in youth. It will also include growing options to learn valuable skills in the community, instead of having to leave and travel to southern communities, where the culture shock can sometimes be detrimental to residents. Culture shock was a constant theme in several of stops we made and a big fear for many families who see their kids travel south, unaccustomed to larger centers, more choices, and little familiarity with their homes.
An area of pride for the school is the fact that half of their full-time teachers were born and raised in Buffalo Narrows. However, the remote location of the community and access to things that we take for granted made for an almost horrifying story for the school; portions of the school were built in three different decades and with an aging school come repairs. During replacement of the school’s HVAC system, critical for a school of 400 plus, it was discovered the school roof in the older sections were not built properly, and many parts of the roof lacked full structural support. The school was told that a real snowfall could have sent the roof crashing in on the young students below. In fact, the worst of the roof covered the kindergarten class. It is a miracle the roof had not collapsed years before. The roof is now being fixed, and the HVAC replacement is almost complete. It caused numerous disruptions to classes, and in the case of one class of 23 students, it meant using the staff room as a makeshift classroom for three weeks. Despite the potentially horrifying news, and to the credit of Durocher, you would not have known of any the construction issues. Her goal was to keep the school running as usual and to provide the students with as normal an experience as possible. The term resilient came to mind as we saw the amount of work done and the work being done to keep the school year on track.
Before leaving Buffalo Narrows, we also had the chance to hear some of the ways the community is looking to make the most of what they have to work with. During the meeting, we were told their provincial remand center was recently closed and was impacting ten workers. While this is a blow to Buffalo, their economic development officer, and town council are aggressively working to determine what can be done and how the facility can be used. One suggestion is to convert the center into senior living. Another idea gaining traction is using the remand center as a possible home to a corrections training facility. What stood out during our time in Buffalo Narrows is that the area has some dedicated people working to enhance the quality of life for their residents and mobilizing to turn a negative into a positive can have a tremendous effect.
The first day concluded with a short plane ride to Stony Rapids, a northern hamlet that is located 82 kilometers south of the border to the Northwest Territories. With a population of around 240 people, Stony Rapids is surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery and fishing in all of Canada. It is also located close to the Fond du Lac First Nation. The two communities work closely with each other and share several similar goals, the biggest of which is to have stable access to each other. Currently, a short plane ride or winter roads are the only way the two stay connected. Plans on how to stabilize their connection were part of an aggressive business plan shared with the group by Fond du Lac’s Chief and economic development staff. While much of the details of the plans can not be shared in this forum, we can say the plan includes future fisheries development and land assets that could include over a billion dollars of investment if completed. While Buffalo Narrows, Stony Rapids, Fond du Lac First Nation are considered remote, their aggressive plans for growth could soon put them on the map for all to see.
Our second day began with a first for some on the trip, a tour of on-reserve life for a growing segment of the First Nations community. Black Lake is a Dene First Nations located on the northwest shore of Black Lake where the Fond du Lac River leaves the lake to flow to Lake Athabasca. The first stop was to the local school where a student population of 400 shrinks to 17 by grade 12. The principal at the school, someone who married into the community and called home for 27 years, tells stories of the struggles of keeping students in the system and how the current 17 potential graduates could dwindle to ten before November. They are hoping a new block system, a type of scheduling in which each student has fewer classes per day for a longer period than normal (e.g. 90 minutes instead of 50), will keep the students more engaged and interested in sticking out the school year. The school also focuses on maintaining the Dene culture and language. It is not uncommon to see three languages (English, Dene English, and traditional Dene) on doors and material around the school.
After the tour of Black Lake’s school, we were welcomed to the band office to meet with their council. A frank discussion was had where the group heard of numerous challenges of living on-reserve in Black Lake. With stories of six families living in a two-bedroom house, sleeping in shifts, and other issues, it was no surprise that addressing housing shortages on the First Nation are critical for their community. Another challenge with so many people in one spot is power consumption. One councilor told the group of a recent power bill totaling more than $7,000. One of the concerns from residents is, according to their accounts, the provincial hydro provider not sending staff up to the community to read meters. The band council continues to inform all residents to read and submit their meter readings. In the case of the $7,000 bill, once the meter was read, the resident’s next bill included a credit. To help ease the glut of hydro issues and increase the fortunes of the First Nations community, they are working with several companies and surrounding communities to start a hydroelectric project.
Over the two-day trip, MCC was fortunate to engage in numerous conversations with Northern leaders interested in what is happening in Northern Manitoba and what the communities are doing to take advantage of potential opportunities. We also were lucky to talk to several First Nations leaders on how they work with their communities and the government to identify opportunities. It was an eye-opening trip with several ideas and directions that could help address and positively impact Manitoba’s Northern region.
Whether it is Northern Manitoba or Saskatchewan, there is potential for growth. It will require strong leadership, a strong plan, and more influential voices to move the conversation forward. It is this conversation that MCC will continue to drive. As we have said previously, the North is too important to Manitoba and the country to ignore. We all must be working together.