Province, Manitoba chiefs in talks to transfer northern airports, ferries to First Nations control

The Manitoba government and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) are discussing transferring 23 airports and five marine operations from the province to First Nations ownership and operation.

The AMC and the province announced Feb. 20 that they have signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize these discussions.

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The talks were spawned by the 2019 sale of Grace Lake Airport near The Pas to Missinippi Airways, after which the province expanded discussions about transferring the Northern Airports and Marine Operations (NAMO) to First Nations jurisdiction.

“The Manitoba government continues to support the creation of First Nations-led partnerships and ventures and this is the first formal step in developing a viable ownership model and sustainable business plan for a First Nations-led northern airports authority,” said Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister in a news release. “Such an agreement would give First Nations independence in controlling the transportation infrastructure they depend on daily and benefit northern economies. This is a critical step toward furthering true reconciliation in Manitoba.”

The NAMO network stretches from Selkirk at the southern end of Lake Winnipeg to Sayisi Dene First Nation at Tadoule Lake in the north and from Barren Lands First Nation at Brochet in the west to Shamattawa in the east. In addition to those communities, there are airports in Cross Lake, Easterville, Gods Lake Narrows, Gods River, Ilford, Island Lake, Lac Brochet, Norway House, Oxford House, Pikwitonei, Pukatawagan, Red Sucker Lake, St.  Theresa Point, South Indian Lake, York Landing and four others. Ferry operation include the South Indian Lake Ferry, the Split Lake/York Landing ferry and the Norway House/Sea Falls ferry.

“The AMC leadership has been resolute for many years on the need for improved transport infrastructure, including air services, for our First Nations across our traditional territories,” said AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas. “Discussions with government officials and representatives from the private sector on the creation of a Manitoba First Nations Airport Authority represent a critical first step towards First Nations control of air transport and marine infrastructure. On behalf of the AMC, I commend the premier and province of Manitoba for their efforts at strengthening our relationship through economic reconciliation.”

Pallister is committed to maintaining these services at current or improved levels and ensuring uninterrupted, reliable and cost-effective services for all those who rely on them, the press release says.

“The Barren Lands First Nation welcomes this important announcement as a sign of good faith by the province of Manitoba,” said Barren Lands First Nation Chief John Clarke. “I applaud my colleagues within the AMC leadership for their vision and determination for First Nations-led transport independence, and recognize the political will of the government of Manitoba for joining us at the discussion table for joint planning on the way forward for Manitoba First Nations air transport infrastructure.”

The two sides hope to reach an agreement and begin the transition of assets by this summer.

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