Manitoba plans to transfer ownership of northern airports to First Nations

WINNIPEG — Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government has signed a preliminary agreement to transfer ownership of northern airports and ferries to a First Nations authority — a move that Premier Brian Pallister called a concrete example of reconciliation.

"The path to genuine reconciliation must include genuine economic opportunities, and we are walking that path," Pallister said Thursday just before signing the memorandum of understanding with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

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Details of the deal are still to be worked out, however, such as how much money either side might pay. The assembly's grand chief, Arlen Dumas, said the federal government will have to provide some type of resources as well.

Despite the lack of detail, the two sides were confident some of the province's 23 northern airports and four ferries, along with a ferry compound, will start to be transferred as early as this summer to a new First Nations airport authority.

The deal will ensure First Nations communities, some of which are not connected to the south by road, have control over a vital lifeline for food, medicine and other goods.

Pallister and Dumas have not always seen eye to eye. Dumas criticized Pallister's announcement in 2018 that the province was going to ban nighttime hunting with spotlights.

The two men also have very different takes on the current blockades in support of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia. Dumas has praised the blockades as an important show of solidarity. Pallister has called for the blockades to be removed, and has said his own government may seek a court injunction against future protests in the province.

But Dumas said there is a feeling of trust between he and Pallister, and the Tory government has been willing to work on deals to expand First Nations forestry opportunities and more.

"I must say that working with a Conservative provincial government that had come in (in 2016) as I'd become grand chief has been quite a unique opportunity to do things in innovative ways," Dumas said.

"We've made successes in regards to the forestry company in my area ... (and) we've done things with (treaty land entitlement) land transfers."

Dumas and Pallister have also clashed over the province's $540-million plan to build outlets to prevent flooding on Lake St. Martin.

Dumas has said in the past that the province did not adequately consult First Nations communities on the project, while Pallister has insisted the government has fulfilled its duties.

"I can tell you that we are having conversations on a multitude of these issues, but this (memorandum) is an example," Dumas said.

"How can we replicate this example in that (Lake St. Martin) case that's going to look out for everybody's interest?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Feb. 20, 2020

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