Slow, steady path forward for highly visible First Nations project
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If you want to know why a consortium of 34 First Nations behind the reimagining of the former Hudson’s Bay Co. historic downtown Winnipeg store have waited a year to start construction, you need only look at the Ojibwa name given to the project.
Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, or “it is visible.”
Manitoba First Nations initially explained “it is visible” acknowledges Indigenous people were so often overlooked for the role they played in the creation of the country. They also proudly noted taking ownership of a building from HBC — and its central role in the history of the fur trade — was a high-profile act of “reclamation.”
“It is visible” could also acknowledge fact, as they attempt to transform this monument to European colonization into an ambitious urban reserve, the eyes of the city, province and country will be on everyone involved.
Urban reserves are hardly a new concept; with 14 in Manitoba, there is least one located in or adjacent to every major urban centre. However, while some are so small or mundane they aren’t even noticed by detractors, Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn is simply too big, too complex and — ultimately — too symbolically important to ignore.
It is for those reasons the First Nations behind this project are giving every indication they will take their time to ensure it gets done right.
Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which represents the 34 sponsoring First Nations, explained they only officially and legally obtained title to the building this month. Without title, the project could not obtain financing — including more than $100 million in public monies pledged to the project — or insurance.
That’s not the only reason behind the 11-month delay. Daniels said the SCO is committed to a rigorous screening process before awarding any contracts or sub-contracts to ensure certainty on costs.
Why take such a leisurely approach to a project that was announced one year ago with so much fanfare?
When pressed, Daniels noted it was simply not going to suffer from chronic delays and cost overruns that have plagued other big, publicly funded capital projects. “We’re trying to be fast about it, but we have to make sure that it’s done properly, too,” he told the Free Press.
Daniels is not wrong to be preaching a slow and steady approach. A quick review of other expensive, unique, publicly funded capital projects undertaken in Winnipeg shows they have been overdue and over-budget more often than not.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (two years delayed and $190 million more than initial budget), IG Field (home to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, years delayed and $80 million more than initial budget) and the grand-daddy of all screwed-up public buildings, the Winnipeg Police Service downtown headquarters (at least one year delayed and $80 million over budget).
At first blush, the Bay reimagining and these other high-profile, taxpayer-supported projects have little in common. But what they share is the fact they all represented, in their own rights, very unique challenges.
The CMHR, for example, suffered in large part from the decision to release total project costs long before a final design had been approved. As well, costs soared after the general contractor suffered setbacks in driving piles so close to the banks of the Red River and from the challenge of trying to build architect Antoine Predock’s grandiose design.
With IG Field, years of delays in approving a stadium plan, an unwillingness to strip the project of some of its more costly features (like the wavy awnings), and construction deficiencies drove costs through the roof.
Then there is the WPS headquarters. Although there is little doubt some of the work on retrofitting the old Canada Post building was deficient, there are also allegations the main contractor deliberately inflated prices and then paid off city officials to look the other way.
SCO has been careful not to over-promise on the Bay project. The updated timeline, now that title has been acquired, is for work to start in June, with a completion date sometime in 2025.
Daniels’s comments about taking a meticulous approach to awarding contracts speaks to a higher degree of financial discipline. However, external forces will make it really difficult for the SCO to stick to that schedule, and to its original price tag.
In April 2022, when the project was formally unveiled, the SCO said project costs would be in the neighbourhood of $130 million. Daniels told the Free Press that budget is still in place, despite the combined impacts of inflation, supply chain shortages and higher interest rates.
The SCO appears dedicated to complete this project on time and on budget.
That is a good thing, because — as its name partly suggests — this is a project that will be highly visible to a great many people, not all of whom want it to succeed.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.