While good fences may make good neighbours for individual households, the same can’t be said for communities. Connecting with neighbours creates important opportunities for exchange, understanding and development. Which is why collaborations between First Nations and neighbouring municipalities in Alberta are so exciting.

Over the last 10 years, First Nations and municipalities across the province have begun building respectful, durable relationships based on mutual exchange and shared understanding. Economic development is a long game, but some of these new connections are already beginning to bear fruit.

In southern Alberta, the Tsuut’ina Nation, which abuts the City of Calgary on its southwest border, is hosting a development of striking ambition and scope.

Taza is a 1,200-acre development split into three unique “villages” — Taza Park, Taza Crossing and Taza Exchange. The villages will be connected by the Tsuut’ina Trail, which is part of Calgary’s southwest ring road.

“The construction of the ring road physically opens up that area for investment,” says Court Ellingson, vice-president of research and strategy for Calgary Economic Development. “The city was at the table in talking about the ring road and what developments along the ring road could be like, being open to that connected infrastructure.”

In August 2020, Taza’s first anchor tenant opened for business: Costco Wholesale. The 151,000 sq ft location is in the Taza Exchange village and is the international retailers first location on First Nation land in North America.

The anchor tenant will eventually be joined in the three villages by a host of mixed-use development, including space for retail, offices, residential, entertainment and recreation. Ellingson expects Taza, which is one of the largest First Nation development projects in North America, to have a positive impact well beyond the borders of the development.

“At the end of the day, economic development is a regional game,” he says. “For us, we know that Taza is an active player out there, drawing investment to the community. It behooves us to be aligned so we can both be bigger and stronger. We’ve had conversations about strategy, about the sectors we’re going after.”

The Tsuut’ina Nation and Calgary are far from the only First Nation and municipality in Alberta strengthening their relationship. In Alberta’s capital region, Enoch Cree Nation and Edmonton are working on a number of projects that cross their respective borders.

“Edmonton and Enoch have always had a relationship,” says Ron Minks, chief operating officer of the Enoch Cree Nation, which shares a border with Alberta’s capital city. “It just wasn’t formal.”

To address this shortcoming, the two communities signed a formal memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2017. The document, signed by Enoch Chief Billy Morin and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, commits the two communities to working together as partners. Elected officials and staff from both governments meet regularly in a working group to discuss opportunities and challenges, advance joint projects and share information.

“A relationship like this, it’s very beneficial for both communities. I’d hope a number of different Nations and municipalities would see the value of it.”—Jordan Asels, economic development officer with Dene Tha’ First Nation

Since the MOU was signed, the group has made significant progress on discussions related to transit, housing, land-use planning, procurement and more. For example, in 2018 the group sent a request to create a new provincial park along the North Saskatchewan River in southwest Edmonton. The proposed park is nearby Enoch’s original reserve lands. In 2020, Enoch and Edmonton began formally working with the province to explore the creation of this park.

Post-MOU, Edmonton has also taken steps to more deliberately involve Enoch with city projects like the Community Energy Transition Strategy and the nascent Indigenous Procurement Framework.

And while projects like the park have yet to enter active development, representatives from both Edmonton and Enoch say the relationship feels tangibly different.

“This has created a foundation for continuing work and assigned it to individuals who make it part of their day-to-day work,” says Minks. “That’s what really makes the difference.”

“It’s not a nice-to-have, this relationship. It has meaning and purpose,” he says. “People make it part of the work that they do.”

The three Taza villages will have a host of mixed-use development, including space for retail, offices, residential, entertainment and recreation. Photo courtesy of Canderel Management.

“As a result of this work, we have shifted the way we work together as neighbours for the long term,” says Morgan Bamford, who participates in the working group as an Indigenous relations consultant for the City of Edmonton. “Enoch Cree Nation and the City of Edmonton have been neighbouring communities for generations, but 2016 was the first time our leaders made an official commitment to establish a new, formalized relationship as neighbours based on mutual respect.”

“The benefits are a stronger, more united voice for business and government, with better access to funding and more opportunities at a local level, along with less duplication of services.” —Marissa Lawrence, senior program officer with CEDI

Encouraging new partnerships between First Nations and municipalities in Alberta isn’t restricted to the province’s two biggest cities. The Dene Tha’ First Nation is spread across three communities in northwest Alberta. One community, Bushe River, borders the Town of High Level, which has a population of more than 3,900 people and is approximately 740 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. Since 2018, leaders and officials from Dene Tha’ and High Level have met bi-annually for day-long workshops to learn from and with one another, as well as to discuss coordinating and cooperating on joint community economic development initiatives.

“They’re our neighbours,” says Jordan Asels, economic development officer with Dene Tha’. “We do a lot of business with them and we wanted to take that relationship to another level.”

Asels began working at Dene Tha’ just when the meetings were beginning, and he’s seen the partnership grow and strengthen firsthand.

“I remember our very first meeting. It was very divided — people sat with people who they knew, from their communities,” he says. “Then you go in there today, everyone is mixed, laughing, having a good time.”

Getting to know their neighbours and working with them is paying dividends for both Dene Tha’ and High Level. The two communities are cooperating on a wide range of projects, including a joint emergency response plan, a new recreation centre and wastewater distribution. The water project, which includes a water pipeline to the Dene Tha’ community of Bushe River, is scheduled to finish in the spring of 2021, while the recreation centre is in the design phase.

“For myself, I’ve made a great number of contacts within the town,” says Asels. “A relationship like this, it’s very beneficial for both communities. I’d hope a number of different Nations and municipalities would see the value of it.”

The partnerships described above are all as unique as the parties involved in each one. But they do share a conspicuous common feature: they are relatively recent developments. In the case of the Enoch-Edmonton and Dene Tha’- High Level relationships, there is also a common origin point: the First Nations-Municipal Community Economic Development Initiative, commonly known as CEDI.

CEDI was jointly created by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) – an advocacy group representing over 2,000 Canadian municipalities – and the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers (Cando) – a national Indigenous-led organization supporting economic development officers working in Indigenous communities and organizations – in response to growing interest from FCM members in collaborating with their First Nations neighbours.

After a pilot phase from 2013 to 2016, CEDI began accepting applications from municipalities and First Nations in 2016.

The program’s aim is as simple as it is powerful: increase capacity to enable long-term, sustainable and equitable economic development partnerships between First Nations and their municipal neighbours.

“The interesting thing is that these partnerships are not mandated by any level of government,” says Marissa Lawrence, senior program officer with CEDI. “They’re partnerships of choice.”

“This has created a foundation for continuing work and assigned it to individuals who make it part of their day-to-day work.”—Ron Minks, chief operating officer of the Enoch Cree Nation

In 2017, Enoch Cree Nation Chief Billy Morin and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that commits the two communities to working together as partners. Photo courtesy of CEDI.

“The benefits are a stronger, more united voice for business and government, with better access to funding and more opportunities at a local level, along with less duplication of services,” she adds.

The power of CEDI’s goals is illustrated by the strong interest it has attracted from both First Nations and municipalities across Canada. Lawrence says that to date the program has received 385 applications. It has had the capacity to accept a total of 15 partnerships since 2013.

“We’ve really done our best to select partnerships that are representative,” says Lawrence. “We know that with limited funding, the fact we can engage 15 formal partnerships over these seven years is only a drop in the bucket of need across Canada. We are overwhelmed with applications and expressions of interest.”

“We really tried to pick partnerships that other municipalities and First Nations could see themselves in,” she notes. “We feel that this is really important; building the field and knowledge of First Nations and municipalities.”

And with 45 First Nations within Alberta’s borders and approximately 300 municipalities, there’s ample opportunity to keep building that knowledge and create further mutually beneficial development projects.

Resourceful Partnerships

Relationships between the resource industry and First Nations are older than Canada as a nation and, as with municipalities, recent developments give cause for optimism. One development is the creation of the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation (AIOC), which is a provincial Crown Corporation created by the Government of Alberta in late-2019.

The AIOC was formed with up to $1 billion in loan guarantees available to work with Indigenous communities across Alberta to invest in natural resource projects. Alicia Dubois, CEO of AIOC, has worked in Indigenous economic development for a number of years and attests to the power of partnerships.

“We are at the start of a new era of meaningful partnerships involving Indigenous communities – and is long overdue,” says Dubois.

In September 2020, the AIOC announced its first loan guarantee to a consortium of six Alberta First Nations for their participation in the Cascade Power Project, which is a 900-megawatt combined cycle power generation facility about 220 kilometres west of Edmonton. For context, the power project will have the capacity to power the equivalent of approximately 900,000 homes when construction is complete.

“It’s very promising, because ultimately everyone benefits from these partnerships. Not just from an economic standpoint, though that’s important. These partnerships also reflect a promising relational shift in Canada between Indigenous and non-Indigenous parties,” Dubois adds. “Identifying shared objectives that are based on economics and shared value helps shift the narrative and break down the ‘different than’ context that we’ve been living in for so many reasons.”