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Transportation troubles for Tsuu T'ina Nation

CALGARY, Alberta - About the only thing all the concerned parties around here can agree on is that Canada's fastest growing city has a huge transportation problem in its rapidly expanding southwestern area.

Right where it would be most expedient to build a major highway is across the traditional Tsuu T'ina Nation reserve.

But years of negotiations have produced next to nothing and the frustration level is building as the First Nation, City of Calgary and Province of Alberta all move into election cycles within the next year.

"We continue to dialogue on language and what the phrase 'transfer of reserve lands to the province for a highway' means," said Alec Waters, an Alberta transportation official involved in the negotiations. Waters said that no money has been discussed yet.

Mac Logan, Calgary's transportation manager, said, "This is an issue that is a lot more than just dollars for Tsuu T'ina. There are many legacy issues involved."

The Tsuu T'ina's lead negotiator, Peter Many Moons, said recently that he was too busy to discuss what those issues are and did not return later phone calls seeking comment.

"Our system of consensus governance or direct democracy will be exercised when the proper time comes," wrote former Tsuu T'ina Chief Roy Whitney in an editorial for the Calgary Herald. "While we will listen and consider what Albertans and particularly Calgarians have to say, we will expect Albertans and Calgarians to grant us the same courtesy. We are prepared to consider all reasonable options put forward except one - we will not consider any deal that contemplates giving up our lands and our heritage."

Years ago, Canadian transportation officials laid out a plan to build a loop highway on the fringes of Calgary to provide motorists relief from the slow-moving arterials within the city. Calgary has grown from a population of 675,000 when it hosted the Winter Olympics in 1988 to the current 925,000, Logan said.

Most of that construction has gone as planned except for the about four miles of parkway which would traverse the First Nation.

The alternative isn't exactly appealing.

"We'd have to make the highway a mile longer and go around the reserve and then go into the expropriation mode and take out 100 homes," Logan said.

Tsuu T'ina also has economic reasons to want a highway.

For much of the last century, the nation leased out a large chunk of its reserve to the Canadian armed forces as a munitions testing ground. But, the Department of Defense eventually decided to move its operations to the Edmonton area.

The tribe wants to use part of the area abandoned by the military for a casino, for which Alberta approved a license in mid-2002. And, the Tsuu T'inas would like to have good access to that casino rather than posting more of the menacing signs at the reserve edge warning visitors to not trespass.

The anticipated roadway could eventually be eight lanes wide and "we also need sufficient right of way for noise barriers and underground utilities," Waters said.

Negotiations with the Tsuu T'inas aren't the only problem for the city and province. The proposed roadway also is being closely analyzed by environmental groups since it would be built very close to the Weaselhead natural area, a sensitive grasslands spot home to numerous bird species and foxes.

Meanwhile, the slow pace of the negotiations continues to be an object of scorn. A memorandum of understanding between the First Nation and city to build the roadway expired in early 2003. Calgary city aldermen had indicated that they will continue negotiating until at least July 2004.

One Calgary Herald editorial in May noted that talks on the roadway were proceeding at their usual pace, "which is to say a glacier could rumble past the negotiators and melt before anything gets done."

Private developers also have attempted to force the issue, much to the chagrin of Tsuu T'ina leaders. One developer last June offered to pay each member of the First Nation $80,000 for rights of highway passage.

"I think it's in all of our interests to get this done. But getting there has been a long and difficult road," Logan said.