Pushing through the brush and stepping over fallen trees, Stephane Friday looks around and smiles.
“It’s my first time here,” says the 25-year-old from Kashechewan First Nation, about 30 km north of this stand of bush on the side of the Albany River.
“I’m just embracing it. Just looking at the trees.”
Friday might have never been here, but he knows this spot well.
It’s known as Site 5.
It was identified as the future home of Kashechewan back in the early 2000s when an earlier Liberal government had committed to moving the flood-prone Cree community and is now the preferred location as the current federal government has promised to relocate the First Nation in the next decade.
Friday is a band councillor for the First Nation and he’s also the comprehensive community planner in charge of figuring out what the new Kashechewan will look like.
“You know, this is our home. We’re here. I can see the vision and we just need to turn it into reality,” says Friday.
He’s joined on this visit by Kashechewan’s deputy chief Hosea Wesley. He has been to this spot on the river during fishing trips in the past, but today he’s busy harvesting wild plants to make tea.
“I feel great to be here,” says Wesley.
“I’m very excited too for the younger generation. To have a safe home.”
About 2,300 people live in Kashechewan, but the First Nation is conducting a census to determine how many houses it needs to build in the new community, a chance to solve the chronic housing shortage that cripples many First Nations in Ontario’s far north.
Only about 10 per cent of the existing buildings in Kashechewan are expected to be solid enough to make the move to Site 5, including a street full of new duplexes built a few years ago and the new church which just opened a few months ago.
They will be carried by trucks on a road that the First Nation has started building between the current community and Site 5, but right now is little more than a muddy track through the bush.
Indigenous Services Canada has also hired a project manager to oversee the road, which is expected to cost about $3 million per kilometre, or around $90 million.
A cost estimate for building a new community in such a remote location hasn’t been released, but in the past the figure circled around half a billion dollars.
There is also the bureaucratic challenge of officially expanding Kashechewan’s reserve territory to include the new site.
It’s currently Crown land owned by the Ontario government and the negotiations would also include the neighbouring Fort Albany First Nation, which 60 years after the community split in two still shares the reserve land with Kashechewan.
It’s a daunting job and after years of waiting, plus the rescinding of a promise to be relocated back in 2006, many in Kashechewan doubt the community will ever be rebuilt.
“I don’t think in my lifetime, no,” says James Wesley, director of Kashechewan’s education authority.
“Fifteen, 20 years if they look at it, yeah. I’ll probably be in my resting place by then.”
Friday says he too has doubts, considering how many times his First Nation has been “played” by the federal government.
“Right now, I do get some young people saying ‘It’s not going to happen. It’s never going to happen. We’re going to live like this for the rest of our lives,'” he says.
“I think the Canadian government needs to feel that pressure. Needs to feel what we feel.”
That’s the pressure that comes at the end of a long winter, when the flood waters rise on the river.
Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday is pushing the federal government to speed up the process to avoid as many future evacuations as possible.
“Yeah, it’s going to be sad if it’s going to take another 10 years. Look how much we lost already,” he says.
Friday, who was also chief when the federal government cancelled the relocation back in 2006, says he’s wondering if private financing might move things along and save Canadian taxpayers in the long run.
“He’ll be happy. He’ll be saving a lot of money. If he can build it faster. It’s costing them about $6-8 million a year for the evacuation,” he says.
Indigenous Services Canada provided a statement that reads in part:
“The relocation of Kashechewan is a complex project that requires detailed planning. ISC continues to estimate that a total of 8 to 10 years will be required to complete relocation.”
“The planning process will include design of the new community and a detailed cost estimate to support the approval process for funding.”