Skip to content

A decade later, Shamattawa arena remains an unfulfilled dream

If you build it, they will come. That was the theory. "It" was the arena and community centre Shamattawa First Nation started building more than 10 years ago.

If you build it, they will come. That was the theory.

"It" was the arena and community centre Shamattawa First Nation started building more than 10 years ago.

"They" were the children and youth of the remote First Nation with about 1,300 residents, which has been plagued in recent years by attempted and successful youth suicides.

Unfortunately, the construction process went awry before the arena was completed, snarling the half-built facility in legal limbo and threatening to turn it into a very noticeable white elephant, rather than the community gathering place it had been envisioned as.

The story begins in 1999.

"That's when we had the arena," says Nancy Thomas, a Building Healthy Communities mental health worker in Shamattawa. "That's when it was built."

But only partially.

When the facility was about 80 per cent complete, the First Nation ran out of money for the project and would have had to obtain a second loan in order to finish the job, says Shamattawa Chief Jeffrey Napoakesik.

"At that time it was quite difficult to pass that approval to the chief and council because of the financial situation and we couldn't, we couldn't handle it," he explains. "So it was decided not to ask for a second loan and just leave the arena as is but to try and ask for support from the provincial government and the federal government to complete the rest of the 20 per cent."

That decision didn't sit too well with the company contracted to construct the arena.

"The contractor was quite upset," says Napoakesik. "It was Sky Contractors and the guy that was heading that was Forbes Campbell ... he was a lawyer, an aboriginal lawyer that was able to take the First Nation to court because he can do so because he was Indian status. No government could talk to us or agency could talk to us because it was before the courts. They couldn't say anything until we managed to throw it out of the court."

The whole time that was going on, the partly finished building was off limits and unmaintained.

"We couldn't use it," said Thomas. "It was there all that time, you couldn't go in, it was closed. It stayed like that for nine years."

Trouble for the arena project had actually started long before the band ran out of money to complete it, not long after construction started.

"We were under diesel power generation and we couldn't use the arena because it required vast amounts of electricity by our standards but if we were connected to the main grid line that wouldn't be such a problem."

As construction progressed, the builders adjusted plans to try and complete the building within the band's budget.

"The community was trying to build something that we can try and afford," said Napoakesik. "The contractor decided to try and make the arena work. The cement foundation for the rink, it's not built to standard. It's built as substandard and I suppose he did that because he was trying to fit an arena with the amount of money that we had and that was up to $1.6 million."

After construction was halted due to lack of funds, the First Nation was stripped of its ability to make spending decisions, moving the arena project even further back in Shamattawa's list of priorities.

"During the financial difficulty we were thrown into what is called a third-party management where a third party would come and manage all our financial affairs," Napoakesik says. "That cost the community by doing away with other luxuries and just looked after basic services such as the social program, some of the housing program. The band was left with skeletal resources to try and operate a band office and as well chief and council."

Over the past few years, as the provincial and federal government injected stimulus funding into infrastructure projects, there was hope in Shamattawa that the First Nation might be able to qualify for money to complete the long-awaited arena.

"Now there are some potential resources that came up just recently last year for us because the government announced new infrastructure funds and they were willing to fund arenas all across Canada," said Napoakesik.

At the same time, there was a project in Shamattawa that helped the First Nation turn a profit of $600,000, which the community decided to use towards the arena and improving recreational opportunities for youth.

"We made our applications as much as we could muster to try and get [government grants,]" says Napoakesik, "but our application got rejected. We got a letter from the mister responsible for the infrastructure fund saying that they couldn't accommodate Shamattawa."

Despite the setback, Shamattawa pushed forward.

"The community still decided to go ahead and try and put in money as much as we can every year but you know, our effort we feel, is useless," said Napoakesik. "We put in money. We roll two steps forward then one step back."

Much of the work that was already completed would need to be redone to bring the arena back to a usable state.

"It has deteriorated to the point that we have to go back and redo some of the stuff because there's mould problems there, there's been rust on the metal beams and all that stuff," said Napoakesik.

Still, Shamattawa has tried to make use of the building to the extent that it can.

In February 2010, Thomas says, the building was opened and an attempt to clean it out was made. Later that year, it was used to host the 100th year anniversary of Shamattawa's adhesion to Treaty No. 5.

"There was a lot of mould," Thomas says. "Still today there's no ventilation."

During winter months, attempts have been made to use the arena for one of its intended purposes - as a place to play hockey.

"They tried to flood that but it didn't work," said Thomas, though it attracted plenty of skaters. "It was just full. The ice lasted for a while and then it started cracking."

The longer the unfinished arena sits empty, says Napoakesik, the worse its condition becomes.

"There is some vandalism that does happen," he says. "You know, kids want to go there and they're very curious what's in there and want to use the arena somehow. They try to skate on there and have indoor activities but, you know, some of that leads to vandalism, you know, all that, damage of the lights and all."

The cost to complete the arena has now risen to nearly twice the original budget. The First Nation commissioned a report from an engineering firm that estimated it will cost $3 million to bring the facility into a functional state.

"Recently I made a challenge to deputy premier, Minister Eric Robinson to come to our community and make a commitment of $3 million," says Napoakesik. "I met up with Minister Eric Robinson last week in his office and I asked him again if he can commit funds to the Shamattawa arena and there was really no answer, no favourable reply. He said that he was going to visit my community and I said no, if you're going to visit my community prepare to be, you know, commit $3 million to the First Nation or else don't come at all."

The chief notes that Robinson, minister of aboriginal and northern affairs, announced in June that that the provincial government would contribute $5 million towards the construction of a new arena in Peguis First Nation, to replace the previous facility, which was destroyed by a 2007 fire. The provincial contribution represents about one-third of the total construction cost.

Napoakesik says Shamattawa isn't asking for anything fancy.

"We're just looking for a humble arena, just a plain Jane arena, something that we could use that's up to some standard for us," he said. "We want to be able to have our kids skate in that arena and use the mezzanine for other activities. That would keep us going. I think the community would be satisfied with that."

The hope is that an arena in Shamattawa would give youth something to do in their spare time and possibly help prevent further suicides and attempts.

"The community believes that this could be not all of the solution, but one of the solutions to try and counter that effect," said Napoakesik. "We're dealing with suicide in the community and also elsewhere the provincial government commits $5 million to the nearest, their neighbouring community, First Nation community. We are very, quite upset by that. We're not asking for that size or standard of arena."