BIRDTAIL SIOUX FIRST NATION -- It was a deal, as one person on this reserve phrased it, that virtually any rural community in Manitoba "would have starved for."
Ken Chalmers, chief at the time, had struck an agreement to lease land to CN Rail and Strive Energy in Calgary along the CN track that runs through Birdtail to build an oil-distribution centre for moving oil by tanker car. Birdtail is on the periphery of Manitoba's oilpatch, 135 kilometres west of Brandon.
CN would build an eight-kilometre track spur and Strive would build a $10-million oil-loading facility on it. The advantage to the companies is they would enjoy the reserve's tax-free status, a saving of 12 per cent on materials and operations. Chalmers had also lined up lumber and grain interests that wanted to use the loading facilities and reap the 12 per cent tax savings, too.
The benefit to Birdtail Sioux, a reserve profiled by The Canadian Press for its suicides and substance-abuse problems in the late 1990s, was 30 jobs immediately, plus temporary construction jobs, with potential for many more. It would have also put $4 million into band coffers per year -- virtually doubling what it receives from Ottawa -- with potential for more.
It took three years to work out the deal, then band council had to go through a process similar to rezoning for an industrial park. Under the Indian Act, it is required to hold a referendum before it can lease land.
Band members said no. In the March 26 referendum, 121 people voted No and just 62 Yes.
"Dakotas don't give away their land," said one man on the reserve, when asked why people defeated the project. Of course, that wasn't the case. The band would have maintained 51 per cent control of the land, a corridor along the existing CN Rail track. Another argument was that Birdtail should have got more money and the band should have made a payment directly to residents -- sort of like buying the vote -- as has been done on some First Nations.
Idle No More leader Nina Wilson visited the community before the vote and warned against allowing the oil industry onto the land. She spoke of environmental dangers such as oil spills and alcoholism in the boom towns in North Dakota. When this reporter responded to one reserve resident that over 80 per cent unemployment on Birdtail causes social problems, too, the man replied: "Then there is no difference."
But the main argument people voiced against the project is that they didn't understand it and claimed the chief and council didn't explain it well enough. Carson Benn said he didn't understand it and he's a councillor. Former chief Chalmers responded that he held six public-information meetings on the project this year and Benn didn't attend a single one.
People also complained Chalmers should have kept the community better informed throughout the process. Chalmers said people didn't start attending public meetings until the last two in March before the referendum.
People questioned why the referendum was the day before the election. Chalmers said he wanted to get the project passed before the election in case he lost, which he did after a 10-year run as chief.
Two young men were disappointed, one saying he was looking forward to "swinging a sledgehammer for $25 an hour" to build the railway track. There would have been temporary construction jobs, then 30 well-paying jobs just to staff the oil-distribution centre and additional jobs for things such as a haz-mat unit and partnerships with lumber and grain industries, said Chalmers. He claimed he could have got 80 per cent of the reserve employed within five years.
The federal government fawned all over this project, even though it seems to exploit a tax loophole, and Ottawa promised $3 million to help with transition costs. CN Rail and Strive Energy also poured money into school lunch programs, construction of a convenience store and other projects on Birdtail in recent years.
The new Birdtail chief is actually the old chief during the 1980s and SSRq90s, savvy political veteran Nelson Bunn. In an interview, Bunn said the problem is people didn't understand the project. That could give him a political avenue to try to get the project -- pardon the pun -- back on the rails. If not, there are RMs up and down the CN Rail line that will welcome it with open arms.