Big infrastructure projects like new hospitals, stadiums, bypasses, highways, bridges and schools are announced with much fanfare when the economy is good, and governments feel optimistic. These large projects support investment in local businesses and supply chains, create employment opportunities and foster growth in communities. Unfortunately, when times are tight, investment in infrastructure declines and problems get pushed down the road for future consideration. This has a significant impact on First Nations communities that rely on funding from various levels of government to support their infrastructure projects.
According to the Government of Canada, the current infrastructure deficit on Canada’s First Nations is estimated at $25-30 billion in investments required to support housing, safe drinking water and wastewater treatment centres, roads, schools, health care and technology. This creates a huge challenge for communities in Saskatchewan which need hundreds of millions of dollars in investments to renew aging infrastructure. On many Saskatchewan First Nations, many infrastructure projects have been left for years with little to no investment due to the lack of funding and competing priorities.
And while many of Saskatchewan’s rural communities are losing population to urban centres, the opposite is true on Saskatchewan’s First Nations, which have the fastest growing population of any communities in Saskatchewan. According to Statistics Canada, the average age on a Saskatchewan First Nations is 17; the provincial average age is 37. This growth is expected to continue as First Nations people choose to raise their children in traditional communities close to family and friends if there is enough housing and reliable work for them to do so. This growth puts more pressure on already burgeoning First Nations communities and their failing infrastructure systems. A major issue is competing priorities for limited funding when it becomes available.
For example, the cost of energy to heat a home is high during Saskatchewan’s cold winters, especially if it is old and not energy efficient. Many on-reserve homes in Saskatchewan do not have access to natural gas. They rely on electric heat or diesel, which can be expensive and unreliable. Some First Nations are looking at innovative ways to provide energy and reduce heating costs such as renewable energy.
In northern Saskatchewan, the Meadow Lake Tribal Council is building an 8-megawatt biomass project using waste wood from NorSask Forest Products in Meadow Lake with help from Federal Infrastructure’s Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program, SaskBuilds and SaskPower.
“This innovative project will provide a consistent and reliable source of renewable energy for years to come,” says Guy Lonechild, CEO at First Nations Power Authority. “Together, we have to look for ways to support northern First Nations with limited resources like wind and solar and lack natural gas infrastructure through investments in renewable energy such as biomass technology. Government and the private sector should be investing in partnerships with First Nations to use renewable resources and waste heat to support food production and projects such as greenhouses, aquaculture that support their energy self-sufficiency goals. They could use the projects to address thermal and electrical demand through local district heating use because they often lack the basic infrastructure we take for granted in southern parts of Canada. These partnerships would also support economic prosperity for First Nations and compliment other community infrastructure projects.”
Most large infrastructure projects are a joint responsibility between federal and provincial governments and local communities, and only proceed if the local community can afford the matching dollars required for the project to proceed. For many First Nations in Saskatchewan, this is an ongoing issue. The challenge is choosing between competing priorities such as new housing, clean water, waste-water treatment plants, affordable heating fuels, new roads, community centres or internet connectivity providing access to technology.
After years of insufficient funding, many communities have fallen behind, through a combination of limited long-term planning, lack of response to the significant growth in population and constrained economic development to support cost-sharing on projects. The result is that the poor infrastructure on First Nations holds back economic development and affects the quality of living, health care and education for residents.
Another growing issue is that most First Nations in Saskatchewan do not have the infrastructure to support additional growth in access to technology. Some reserves without access to fibre use satellites to ensure there is broadband internet connectivity to health centres, schools and band offices but this access is expensive and not a viable option to provide to housing.
Thomas Benjoe, President and CEO of FHQ Developments points out that this lack of access to internet connectivity is a big issue on First Nations. “When the only internet connections in the community are in the public buildings – the school, the band office and the health centre, and the connectivity is so poor that you can’t reliable download documents or use the internet, it makes learning difficult. Students can’t work on homework online because there is limited internet in their homes. This is an ongoing problem and has been particularly challenging this year with COVID-19 restrictions requiring children to learn from home.”
Some First Nations in Saskatchewan have had to build their own infrastructure which required them to break down doors with banks and various levels of government to make it happen. “Funding for infrastructure development is slow and communities need to push hard to ensure outside investment to support their priorities. Communities that have strong business and economic development corporations have the flexibility to make more impactful investments in their needs regarding infrastructure. Economic development corporations create economic stimulus on reserve, create jobs, support business growth and generate revenue for reserves to cost share when necessary,” adds Benjoe.
One example of a First Nations community creating their own opportunities through economic development is the Pasqua First Nation which just recently celebrated a sod-turning for an elders’ care home. The new care home will provide 12 long-term care rooms with space for healthcare providers, cultural ceremonies, recreational activities, and a commercial kitchen.
Funding for the elder care home is provided by the Pasqua First Nation using interest returns from settlement money. Their focus on economic development has allowed them the freedom to prioritize what they need in their community without always relying on federal or provincial governments for cost sharing. The community impacts are not hard to measure for the Pasqua First Nation. The community benefits from keeping construction work and jobs in their area and the elders benefit by being able to stay in their home community.
Ultimately, in addition to accessing additional funding from government programs, the goal for Saskatchewan’s First Nations is to increase their own economic development so that they run sustainable businesses both on and off reserve to provide employment opportunities for their people and investments in their communities. This development allows them to redistribute wealth to where it is most required, whether it is housing, water treatment systems, health care or technology. When First Nations manage their own economic development, they are better able to address their infrastructure needs and priorities and subsequently build healthier communities for their people.
In August 2020, Catherine McKenna, federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities announced $31 million dollars for the Canada Healthy Communities Initiative to fund small infrastructure projects across Canada. Saskatchewan’s First Nations leaders are waiting for details to see how this funding can help them move forward on some of the many infrastructure projects currently in the queue.”