Although the community of Kasabonika Lake First Nation recently celebrated the grand opening of a new Northern Store, it finds itself struggling to identify economic opportunities due to a lack of electricity.
“There’s no room for growth,” said Ken Albany, a band councillor with the First Nation. “It goes back to the capacity of the power plant. It’s basically holding us back.”
The power station in the community reached its maximum capacity in 2007. Kasabonika secured funding from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development of Canada (AANDC) to upgrade the generators to 2 MW, but then the federal government pulled the funding and told the community not to expect funds until 2015.
“The federal government has failed us,” said Mitchell Diabo, manager of special projects for the First Nation. “They say we’re on their top priority list but we have no idea when that is.”
The lack of power capacity has severely limited construction of any houses or projects, including a business centre the First Nation had hoped to build in the community. The proposed business centre would have housed the Northern Store and offered space for any potential entrepreneur to start up a business such as a coffee shop or deli.
“Those plans are on hold,” Diabo said.
So as Kasabonika Lake waits for the power station upgrade, it is trying to find ways to generate revenue and create job opportunities for its 1,000 community members.
Since it cannot build the business centre, Diabo said the First Nation “has no choice” but to renovate the community centre, which previously housed the Northern Store before the grand opening of the new store.
“It would remain a community centre and the other half would be small business centre,” Diabo said. The business centre will offer dedicated space for its development corporation as well as a restaurant, since the community does not have any food services.
The First Nation is also bringing in modular units to attach to the centre, which will serve as a hotel.
Kasabonika also brings in revenue through the Northern Store. The First Nation owns the building and has a 10-year lease with the Northwest Company.
Diabo said the leadership is contemplating plans for creating its own grocery store once the lease is up.
“Why do we have to have a Northern Store. Do we have to renew with them?” Diabo said. “We need a plan. We have a good window of 10 years.”
The First Nation previously had its own grocery store 15 years ago, but it “went under” and the Northern Store was brought in.
“We examined why it went under, and so next time we launch a community store, we’ll be ready for that,” Diabo said.
The First Nation also owns a camp that it would rent to hunters and anglers from down south. But the camp stopped generating business when a wildlife association it was partnered with went bankrupt about three years ago. Since then, mineral exploration companies have been the sole clients in renting the camp.
But Diabo said Wasaya has created its own wildlife association and is working with Kasabonika to re-establish the camp as a go-to location for southern tourists.
Kasabonika is also pondering its involvement in the Ring of Fire, which is estimated to contain between $30 billion and $50 billion worth of mineral potential and generate over 23,000 jobs.
Diabo said Kasabonika has “a number of” agreements with mineral exploration companies, but the community is “unsure where it wants to go.”
“The community is doing some soul searching right now, as to where they want to go,” Diabo said.
“Do we really need mineral exploration industry in our area when it’s right next door in our sister community, Webequie, and feed off that and leave our traditional territory intact?” Diabo said. “That’s the kind of questions we’re asking.”
Albany said many community members have expressed their concern about any mining projects within their territory.
“I got people saying, we have to preserve our lands,” he said. “And we have the young people – we need to create opportunities for them. The pressure is coming up from the south. It’s up to us, how we handle that and adapt.”
As of now, Diabo said there is no large-scale opportunities for the community within the Ring of Fire, but “we feel there’s enough impacts that we should benefit as well. Until that realizes, we have to look at the opportunities.”
Kasabonika recently received cell phone service, and since the community does not have cable service, the First Nation is considering establishing a telecommunications company.
“We need to be innovative with what we have right now, see how we can develop for the future and enhance those for the community, despite the constraints,” Diabo said. “We’re not going to just sit around and do nothing.”