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Attawapiskat firm seeks $1.5-million from Ontario

Makeshift homes in Attawapiskat. The lack of proper housing forces families to use sheds, without water and proper heating, to house themselves and protect from the cold.

Johan Hallberg-Campbell/Johan Hallberg-Campbell

An aboriginal catering company from Attawapiskat First Nation is seeking more than $1.5-million from Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources after a three-month-long shipping dispute slowed the environmental cleanup of a Cold-War radar site near the western juncture of James Bay and Hudson Bay.

In a notice of claim filed with the province's Attorney-General and obtained by The Globe and Mail, Attawapiskat Catering Limited Partnership alleges that the ministry and its subsidiary, Ontario Parks, delayed the delivery of 13 equipment trailers to the work site after insisting on using a barge landing that on-site experts deemed dangerous, running up continuing costs.

The incident illustrates the difficulties of working in Canada's north and the strained relationships that can result between First Nations enterprises and governments. The dispute and delays threaten the financial well-being of the First Nations owned and operated company, sauys its chief executive, Bob Dickson.

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The caterer had entered into an agreement with the Ontario ministry to provide catering, housekeeping and security for the environmental cleanup of a long-defunct radar site at Cape Henrietta Maria in Polar Bear Provincial Park on James Bay. The site was part of the "Mid-Canada Line," a radar chain built roughly along the 55th parallel in the 1950s to provide early warning of a Soviet attack, but went out of service in the 1960s.

Ontario has regularly stated its support for aboriginal businesses and economic development, particularly in the north. Calling the situation "heartbreaking," Mr. Dickson says leaving the costs of delays in the company's hands runs exactly counter to that.

"It is difficult enough in Attawapiskat to create real jobs and income, and we are doing that with our security operations and the catering business," said Mr. Dickson, a long-time proponent of aboriginal business initiatives in Canada. "However, it is impossible for us to absorb an additional cost like we are facing."

The caterer's lawyers served the notice of claim to the ministry in late April; the ministry has 60 days to issue a formal response before ACLP can file a claim in court.

Natural Resources spokeswoman Jolanta Kowalski said that while the ministry understands the reasons for ACLP's claim, "it does not agree with them and intends to defend the Crown's position in a manner that is fair but also accountable to the Ontario taxpayers."

The parties have met to discuss the dispute, but ACLP has not yet received a formal response.

According to the notice of claim, one of ACLP's subcontracted transport companies surveyed the waters near the radar site last July to find a safe approach for landing ships and picked a spot that appeared to have been used in the past. Later, a ministry representative said ACLP's contractors were unloading at the wrong site, and directed the ships to a beach four kilometres to the south. An experienced ship captain contracted by ACLP indicated the southern beach was not as safe or secure to unload cargo. From here, according to the notice of claim, a series of disagreements took place over whether to move cargo over land or water, and which beach was best for unloading the rest of the material, for reasons including environmental damage as well as safety.

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Three months of delays ensued, the claim says, costing the caterer and its contractors more than $1.5-million.

After three months of delays, and multiple attempts to get approvals, the claim says, ACLP finally got authorization from the Ontario ministry to transport the remainder of the trailers from the north to the south beach by land, but the majority of the equipment did not make it to the radar site, the roads to which were deteriorated. These months of delays, according to ACLP's claims, will cost the caterer and its contractors more than $1.5-million.

"We have been doing everything possible over the last few months to resolve this matter and we continue to be hopeful this can be sorted out soon," Mr. Dickson said.

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin, who sits on the Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Leadership Fund investment committee with Mr. Dickson, told The Globe and Mail by e-mail that "well-run First Nations enterprises should be supported, and Attawapiskat Resources is well run."

Ms. Kowalski said the ministry hopes for a speedy resolution to the dispute, and that the province is committed to creating business opportunities for First Nations as it continues radar site cleanups. Local First Nations residents have comprised "up to 75 per cent" of the crews cleaning up the sites in the past five years, she said.

"We continue to appreciate the skills and experience the Attawapiskat First Nation bring to the [radar site] clean-up project," and [the ministry] remains committed to supporting First Nation owned businesses and local hiring during project implementation," she said.

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Attawapiskat First Nation was at the centre of national and global attention in 2012 and 2013, when Chief Theresa Spence went on a fast to protest against a housing crisis and long dissatisfaction with government treatment of First Nations issues. Her actions drew more attention to the Idle No More Aboriginal rights movement.

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About the Author

Josh O’Kane is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. Since joining the paper in 2011, he has told stories from New Brunswick to Nairobi. More


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