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.
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 30 kilometres downstream, 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 revised 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.
“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 before the move can happen. And 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.
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.
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This story originally appeared on CBC