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Conklin residents and leaders struggle with community issues

Housing and basic essentials continue to be issues for residents and leaders in northeastern Alberta community

Some residents of a northeastern Alberta Métis community say the layers of administration that govern their lives are providing more frustration than support. Senior administrators in those administration levels, however, say they continue to act on the best interests of the residents. 

On Feb. 26, Bob Galbraith and a group of about 15 Conklin residents gathered in the new multiplex facility in the community about 150 kilometres north of Lac La Biche. The residents were there to voice concerns about an alleged lack of accountability and transparency in the way the remote Métis community is managed. 

Conklin is governed mainly by three local boards — the Métis Local 193, the Conklin Community Association (CCA), and the Conklin Resource Development Advisory Committee (CRDAC). The community of just 225 people is also part of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and is also part of District 19 in the newly formed Opitisimik Métis Government.  

Even with those over-arching layers to oversee and influence the community, many residents feel forgotten, says Galbraith. 

The way he explains it, Conklin residents feel it has become a “top-down” atmosphere of governing and planning, instead of a representative democracy. He says many residents are upset that the leadership of these boards are making important decisions without consulting or involving them in decision-making.   

“We’re the members of this community…we give direction to them,” he told Lakeland This Week. “They don’t ask us direction … they’ve been in there so long they figure that they’re doing the right thing even though it’s wrong.” 

Galbraith who is not Métis, but is married to a Métis woman, said the community is fractured. He hoped the meeting would bring people together in opposition to what has been happening.   

“Our community is split in half. I want to get people back on the right track…back together…to stick together…so we can put our community in the right direction.” 

Making things more challenging, he says, is that many of the same people sit on multiple boards, making it a closed circle, with little input coming from outside. Even if the right decisions are made, the optics are poor, he said admitting that he has tried unsuccessfully to be elected to local boards in recent years. 

Marcel Shephard is another Conklin resident who helped to organize the recent meeting. He says it’s frustrating to have so many groups involved, but to have so little input.  

“It’s like an authoritarian regime. There’s members there that sit on all the boards,” he stated.  

When asked about the smaller-than-expected turnout at the meeting, Shephard said it’s a challenge to get more community members to raise concerns. Many residents must apply to the boards for funding or employment, he said, so they don’t voice concerns. 

Agnes Novak was at the meeting to have her voice heard. She said it is important for all members of the community to voice their concerns about the leadership of the CCA, CRDAC, and Métis Local 193 — if it truly is about the people. 

“The leaders are not telling their membership what they’re doing … they just going ahead and do it,” she said. 

 Sherry Tremblay, another Conklin resident who came to meeting, said that representatives are not helping the community. Tremblay says she has housing issues that have not been addressed by the leaders of her home community.  Last summer, Tremblay, who was born and raised in Conklin but doesn’t have land or her own home, said she applied for a small, pre-fabricated cabin to live in. Her application, she says, was denied by the CRDAC.  

“I live here in the summer, all summer…I don’t have a place to live in the winter, so I go to town and live with my aunt for the winter,” she said. “Seven or eight of us applied for a shed last summer and we were all denied.”  

Tremblay, like others who attended the meeting, was hopeful it would accomplish change. She feels the community is split between the “haves” and “have-nots”.  

 “We just need a change in our community…somebody that’ll look at people that need the help, not the ones that already have the help,” she stated. 

Seeing it differently 

Although he wasn’t at the meeting, Scott Duguid, the CEO of the Conklin Resource Development Advisory Committee says the CRDAC, along with the Métis Local 193 and the Conklin Community Association (CCA) are very much engaged with residents of Conklin. Despite claims that leaders don’t provide avenues for consultation, he said community meetings are hosted by the advisory committee during the year.  

“We engage the community very regularly,” Duguid told Lakeland This Week, explaining that the CRDAC was created by the residents more than a decade ago to help with the community’s expanding economic growth. The association was created in 2008, he said, by the Metis Local 193 and the CCA in response to industrial development ramping up in the region. He says the CRDAC board includes members from Metis Local and the CCA, and the three groups each have their own mandates regarding how they engage with the community.  

Duguid said there are many safeguards and policies in place to alleviate potential cases of conflict of interest. He said the boards have an open tender process for projects, anti-bribery and anti-corruption policies, a code of ethics, and a code of confidentiality. 

Coffee and conversations 

The CRDAC, he said, holds four ‘café workshops’ each year, along with two community betterment sessions.  

“Both of those types of events are open to the community…and we encourage community members to attend,” he said. 

Additionally, he said, the Métis Local 193 holds public meetings or other events, and the CCA holds monthly meetings, with the most recent taking place a few weeks ago. 

Furthermore, Duguid said, because Conklin is a small community, there are daily interactions between residents, the leadership, board members, and others involved with the boards.  

In addition to hosting meetings, Duguid said, the boards also continually community with local residents through social media, websites, and daily texts.   

“As far as engaging leadership, it couldn’t be any easier,” he said.  

The Lac La Biche POST newsroom did contact Opitisimik Metis Government Citizen Representative for District 19 Valerie Quintal for her comments, but she didn’t respond. Jane Stroud, the Regional Municipal of Wood Buffalo councillor representing the community was also contacted for comments. She didn’t provide a response of her own, and instead directing Lakeland This Week to contact the municipality’s public relations office. 

Following the meeting, Galbraith and Shephard said they hope the leadership responds to the concerns. Galbraith said if nothing changes, he would like to see the governing boards disbanded. Shephard said he would consider legal action. 

Resident concerns are not new in the Conklin community. In recent months the area has made headlines across the province due to ongoing delays in bringing affordable housing to residents. A 2019 study by the Rural Development Network highlighted a significant lack of available housing and unsafe housing conditions in the community. A study in 2023 noted the same issues were still not addressed. Members of Conklin's governing boards have said they too are frustrated since the holdup is due to municipal red tape in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.  

In recent weeks, however, some headway has been made to bring  several pre-fabricated homes into the community. According to the CRDAC website, 15 new housing units in Conklin will be ready for occupancy by “the summer of 2024.” The posted notice says residents for a home must have their completed application forms into the CRDAC office by April 1. 

New money, new help 

While some of the housing concerns are being addressed. There is still more that needs to be done, says CRDAC officials. Much of that assistance will come from government and industry partnerships with the community, they say. In 2022, the federal government committed $4.4 million in funding towards the housing issues in Conklin. Two years before, $50 million over five years was pledged by Cenovus Energy to help half a dozen northern Alberta communities struggling with housing issues.   

Lise Warawa, a former community and Indigenous affairs advisor with Cenovus Energy is now the Project and Business Development Officer with the CRDAC. Three days after the residents’ meeting at the end of February, Warawa posted a message to community members on the advisory committee’s social media page, telling them that more economic partnerships in the area will bring needed changes for all residents. She also assured residents they continue to be part of the process. 

“Our goal is simple — raise funds towards community betterment,” she says in the short video update on recent business partnerships  

While many of the funds go into a fund called the “Conklin Community Trust,” Warawa, who began her CRDAC role last October,  says the current funds will only go so far towards outstanding issues. 

“While the trust fund is crucial, there are still pressing issues in the community that cannot be addressed with limited funding,” she said, listing insufficient housing, a lack of employment, a lack of essential services, the absence of a high school and no local grocery store as issues on the advisory committee’s radar. “As we know, there is still a long ways to go, and much work to be done.” 

That work, she said, offering a formal invite, will include all community residents.  

“We look forward to hearing your ideas and opinions in a positive and constructive way. Working together we can positively impact the community and we invite you to join us on this exciting journey.” 




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