Next year, a new development located on the Tsuut’ina Nation reserve is set to be officially unveiled. The project, the result of a partnership between the Tsuut’ina Nation and the developer Canderel, is located along a 10km portion of the Southwest Calgary Ring Road, and is being touted as a transformative combination of retail, commercial, entertainment, health, residential and tourism amenities on Calgary’s doorstep.
Given that the development relies on access from the ring road, known as Tsuut’ina Trail as it crosses the reserve, it would be easy to see the project as a direct result of the construction of this road. However, it’s more accurate to say that the construction of the road is a direct result of the Nation’s desire to develop reserve land on Calgary’s border.
Although the proposed development is certainly a new undertaking for the Nation, the idea of developing land on the reserve’s eastern edge is one that’s been nearly 50 years in the making. The planning for both the road and the developments were initially done independently of each other, with each involved party willing, or even preferring, to proceed without the other. As time went on it became increasingly clear that neither could be completed without the other, and the two projects eventually became inseparable.
PURSUIT OF SELF-DETERMINATION
The Nation has derived economic benefit from reserve land in different ways over the years, including royalties from oil and gas extraction, land leases, and the sale of surface resources such as timber and gravel. Though important, these sources of income alone have not always provided the growing community with the resources it needed to be prosperous. In the early 1970s the Tsuut’ina Nation sought to create more ambitious economic enterprises, and looked to take advantage of the proximity of the City of Calgary to help make that happen. In recent years those plans have revolved around the Southwest Calgary Ring Road, though this was not always the case.
In 1970, Tsuut’ina citizens Reg One Spot and Arnold Crowchild were appointed to head up a newly-formed economic committee by the Nation’s Chief and Council.1 The committee’s mandate was to explore development opportunities on reserve lands, and to assess the benefits and drawbacks of any such initiatives.
For many years, portions of the Tsuut’ina reserve had generated rent under long-term leases to the Canadian Military. The Nation, however, was now looking beyond land leases. The new committee was not seeking to simply lease empty land to third-party developers, but instead were looking at ways for the Nation itself to become a developer in order to reap rewards larger than rent alone would provide. Arnold Crowchild explained their position in November of 1970; “What the tribe could get from leasing this land out may seem like considerable money, but it is only a drop in the bucket compared to what we could get if we developed it ourselves”.2
Beyond the financial benefits for the Nation as a whole, the ability to develop the land was seen as critical in improving the employment opportunities of Nation members. The Nation’s employment rate was far below that of neighbouring Calgary in the 1970s, with a reported 50-70% of the Nation unemployed, depending on the season3. “The most important thing for us right now is to create jobs for our people. We can only do this by setting up our own enterprises” the economic development team is quoted as saying.4
The east side of the Nation’s reserve, being directly adjacent to Calgary, was seen as an ideal place to explore development opportunities. This portion of the reserve benefits from its close proximity to the city, including access to potential customers and the City’s transportation network, and was viewed as some of the most viable land for commercial development. The relationship between the Nation and local city residents was noted as an important consideration for any potential development, and this relationship was to be maintained by sensitive developments. “[Our developments] would have to be clean industries so we won’t develop bad relations with our City neighbours close-by” said Mr. Crowchild and Mr. One Spot5, a position which would be reiterated by a soon-to-be-released consultant’s report.
AN INITIAL PLAN
In 1971 a $75,000 study was written by Stanley Associates Engineering Ltd.6 in order to help assess the development potential of the reserve. From this report a five-project development plan was created that was intended to unlock the commercial value of the land. This plan called for the development of:
- 189 acres in the Southeast corner of the reserve along Fish Creek/Wolf Creek for a tent and RV campground, with a golf course and swimming facilities,
- 16 acres south of Anderson Road/Bull Head Road for a sports and recreation complex, including a hockey arena, tennis courts, football field and swimming pool,
- 160 acres adjacent to Oakridge and Cedarbrae for a mobile home park,
- 10 acres for an industrial park, and
- 1,500 acres near Bragg Creek on the reserve’s west end for a residential ‘cottage community’
The study also recommended the creation of a new legal body through which the Nation could carry out its development projects. In 1971 Sarcee Developments Ltd. was established, a company wholly-owned by the Nation, with Reg One Spot and Arnold Crowchild becoming its founding directors.7
The last proposal on the consultant’s list, the ‘cottage community’ near Bragg Creek, is arguably the most economically successful of the Nations early development plans. However Redwood Meadows, as this residential and golf-course development is known, is located on the reserve’s west side, and is therefore the development least impacted by the Southwest Calgary Ring Road story. Though Redwood Meadows is deserving of its own article delving into its history, I will not be covering that story here, and will instead focus on developments found on the east side of the reserve.
FIRST STEPS TOWARDS DEVELOPMENT
1971 saw not only the delivery of the Stanley study and the creation of Sarcee Developments, but it also saw the first tangible steps towards opening the reserve’s doors to outside business.
The previous year, groundwork had been laid to construct a Tsuut’ina ‘Industrial Opportunities Park’; an agreement had been signed on October 7 1970 between the Nation’s Chief and Council and a non-indigenous business, Alberta Panel Buildings Ltd., who was looking to set up shop on the reserve.8 The Tsuut’ina Council agreed to pay Alberta Panel Buildings to construct a 9000 sq.ft. factory on the reserve, which the company would then rent from the Nation and pay royalties on each unit produced. The factory cost the Nation $32,560, and by January of 1971 the facility was completed and the company relocated from Calgary to the reserve.
Upon opening, the company employed ten Tsuut’ina Nation citizens in the manufacturing of building panels.9 Another 25 Tsuut’ina citizens were trained under carpentry courses run by the Canada Manpower job training program on the reserve in early 1971, with the graduates intended to work at the new plant.10 Although the upfront cost of constructing the factory meant that it would take years for the initiative to become financially lucrative for the Nation, the employment opportunities for citizens ensured that the project was valuable, even in the short-term. In addition to the boost in employment, the Nation’s leadership also saw a mutual benefit from their relationship with Alberta Panel Buildings by contracting the company to build a small number of homes for Nation residents.
Although seemingly off to a promising start, the relationship between the Nation and Alberta Panel Buildings began to unwind almost before it began.
EARLY PROBLEMS ARISE
Despite having moved into the facility in January, by March the company was reportedly in trouble, and had accumulated significant debt. According to Chief Gordon Crowchild, Alberta Panel Buildings approached the Nation with a request for $50,000 in operating funds in order to keep the factory open.11 The Chief also stated that the company’s rent cheque for April had been returned, and the rent on the factory went unpaid. The additional funding sought by the company was denied by the Tsuut’ina Council, and the factory ceased operations in April.
For his part, Gerald Pogson, President and General Manager of Alberta Panel Buildings, blasted the Nation; he claimed that the books and assets of the company had been seized.12 Mr. Pogson quickly pushed for the dispute to be resolved via arbitration, as mandated under the terms of the original agreement between the company and the Nation’s Council.
When the arbitration process had been triggered by Alberta Panel Buildings and notice was sent, the Nation’s lawyer declined to attend. A letter sent to the company’s legal team stated “We do not think this is a valid notice, because in our opinion the agreement, so called, of October 7th 1970 was legally a nullity, not having been ratified by the Crown.”13 Chief Crowchild contended that the original agreement was only a working draft. He reminded the company that the Federal Government, who alone held the power to lease and administer First Nation reserve land, had yet to formally ratify the agreement; without that ratification, he argued, any agreement was effectively void.
Without an approved agreement and a permit issued by the Federal Government under the terms of the Indian Act, the Nation’s legal team did not view the pending arbitration as valid. As a result, they did not send a representative to the proceedings, did not submit evidence, and did not appoint their own arbiter to co-evaluate the dispute.14 The sole arbiter at the hearing, who had been selected by Alberta Panel Buildings, soon found in favour of the company, stating that he found the company’s evidence to be “quite satisfactory, forthright and completely un-contradicted”.15 An award of $325,000 was made in favour of the company in June of 1971, and judicial approval was granted for the Nation’s accounts to be garnished; both decisions taking place without the Nation’s representative present.
The matter was appealed by the Nation’s legal team, and the garnish was soon set aside, in part due to “irregularit[ies] in the proceedings in the alleged arbitration”.16 The decision to stop the company from accessing the Nation’s accounts was then upheld by the Supreme Court of Alberta, who stated that the company had entered into the agreement with the Nation’s Council, and not the entire Nation. Therefore the arbitration “could only be between the Council and the [company]…”.17 The order to garnish the entire Nation’s funds was ruled to have been made in error.
The court was also of the opinion that the original agreement between the company and the Nation’s Council wasn’t valid due to the lack of ratification by the Federal Government, vindicating the Nation’s original legal position.
Although Alberta Panel Buildings ceased operations almost as soon as they began on the reserve, the Nation made good use of their newly-vacated manufacturing facility. In the void created by the absence of one company, another was created to fill the space. The Nation created its own company, Sarcee Builders Ltd, in order to manufacture pre-fabricated building panels and construct houses.18 Employment for Nation citizens remained a priority, and Tsuut’ina graduates of various training schemes continued to apprentice and work for the new company. Sarcee Builders in turn continued to manufacture building panels and houses, and went on to construct homes both on the Tsuut’ina reserve and in Calgary.19
In the wake of the original arbitration decision, Chief Crowchild wrote “Our Band has learned a valuable lesson, and that is to make sure that all aspects are thoroughly checked before proceeding with any project.”20 This commitment was kept the following year when the Nation’s five-project development plan was put to a referendum of Nation citizens. In March of 1972, a vote was held on surrendering 1,871 acres of reserve land, which was passed by a margin of 94 for to 17 against.21 The surrendered land was to be entrusted to Sarcee Developments Ltd., wholly owned by the Nation itself, in order to develop it for the benefit of the people.
SARCEE SEVEN CHIEFS SPORTSPLEX
The second modern development project undertaken on the east side of the Tsuut’ina Nation reserve also saw significant changes from the original 1971 plans, though this new development largely avoided the complications that surrounded the Nation’s early industrial endeavours.
Initial planning for a recreational facility, as envisioned in the 1971 consultant’s report, called for 16 acres of land to be used for a sports complex that would include a hockey arena, tennis courts, sports fields and a swimming pool. The project was to be constructed adjacent to the Calgary community of Woodbine, about 1 km south of Anderson Road/Bullhead Road.
Over the next few years the plans would undergo a number of revisions, and the scope fluctuated with each specific iteration of the project. In 1973 the facility was envisioned as a three-rink facility, including an international-sized ice sheet and a combined seating capacity of 15,000.22 Funding for the estimated $8 million price tag of the three-rink version of the arena complex was sought from outside investors including from the City of Calgary itself. The City ultimately turned down requests for funding23 from the Tsuut’ina Nation, and other private sources of finance were not forthcoming.
The complex was soon scaled back from these more ambitious plans, and the project was relocated. The arena was moved about 1.7km north of the originally-planned location, and would now be located just north of the reserve’s Anderson Road entrance, adjacent to the community of Cedarbrae. With the plan locked down, construction on the complex was set to begin.
In 1975 Chief Gordon Crowchild broke ground on the arena project; now designed around a single sheet of ice with seating for around 750 spectators, capable of seating more than the entire 550 population of the Tsuut’ina Nation at that time.24 The new facility also featured a gymnasium, meeting rooms, a daycare and room for growth. Before long, a five-table pool hall was also added to the building, as well as the first Tsuut’ina Nation cultural museum. The project cost $1.6 million, and was largely covered by the Nation’s oil and gas royalties and general funds, with supplementary funding provided by various Federal and Provincial government departments and schemes.25
The complex was designed and engineered by Epic Consulting Western Ltd, and in keeping with the Nation’s mandate to ensure that development projects deliver benefits to Nation citizens through employment, construction of the arena was undertaken by Sarcee Builders Ltd.26 Opened on March 12 1977, the complex was officially named the ‘Sarcee Seven Chiefs Sportsplex’, as suggested through a naming competition. The winning suggestion was separately made by four people: Shawn Runner, Conrad Runner, Ronald Dodginghorse and Jamie Dodginghorse.27
AN ENDURING BENEFIT
The Sportsplex provided the Nation with important recreational and cultural space, which the Nation previously had to go elsewhere to find prior to the opening of the facility. Kainai News noted in 1976 that “In the past the band has had to rent facilities either in the City of Calgary or at neighbouring reserves at a high price.”28 Recreational use of the facility by Nation citizens would be free, including ice time, and the Nation as a whole could now book the building to host important events without leaving the reserve.
Instead of Nation citizens having to go to Calgary for recreational facilities, the situation soon reversed, and it was now Calgarians coming to the Nation to use the new Sportsplex. Beyond providing much-needed facilities, increased employment and community pride, the Sportsplex also fulfilled the original vision of developing a revenue-generating asset for the Nation. Even before the arena officially opened, a schedule was created that saw users from nearby Calgary communities booking ice time for more that $11,000 per month, and included users from Oakridge, Lake Bonavista, Willow Ridge, Canyon Meadows and more.29
In 2013, the gymnasium of the Sportsplex played host to an important event that would determine the fate of the facility. The Final Agreement between the Tsuut’ina Nation and the Province of Alberta to construct the Southwest Calgary Ring Road through the reserve was signed in the Seven Chiefs gym on November 27 2013. As the facility was located in the path of the new road, the approval of the deal meant that Sportsplex would have to be demolished for that road to be built.
In 2016, nearly 40 years after its construction, the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex was demolished in order to make way for the ring road. However the ring road did not just remove an important facility from the reserve, but it also helped facilitate the creation of a new one. The ring road land purchase agreement included compensation to replace buildings that would be demolished for the road, and in 2015 the Nation broke ground on a new arena. The new Tsuut’ina All Chiefs Sportsplex, located nearby with two rinks and seating for 5,000 people, is currently under construction30 and set to open by the end of 2018.31
ENTER THE RING ROAD
Of the four economic development projects first proposed in 1971 for the east side of the Tsuut’ina Nation reserve, only two were implemented. The industrial park and the Sportsplex were developed to some degree, while plans for a campground along Fish Creek and a mobile home park near Oakridge were ultimately not pursued.
Around the same time that these initial economic developments were being assessed by the Tsuut’ina Nation, the City of Calgary and the Province of Alberta were also assessing some related developments of their own; notably, the Southwest Calgary Ring Road.
This project, more than any other development, held the promise of being able to unlock the economic potential of the east side of the reserve. Ensuring that all parties could come together to reap mutual benefits from a ring road deal, however, was not a sure thing. With all parties initially focused on their own priorities, a deal that would allow Calgary and Alberta to build the ring road through the Tsuut’ina reserve, while also allowing the Nation to benefit from increased access to the Calgary market, seemed out of reach. Only through mutual understanding and respect of each-other’s needs would progress be made, and the journey that would lead to the current Tsuut’ina Nation development plan would begin.
The story continues in Part 2, coming soon.
Thank you to Dan Van Leeuwen, Lyle Dodginghorse and Amy Lonsberry.
1 – ‘Sarcee Land Worth Millions, but Many on Welfare’ Calgary Herald. October 17, 1970.
2 – ibid.
3 – ibid.
4 – ibid.
5 – ibid.
6 – ‘Tourist and Residential Development Could Boost Waning Sarcee Reserve Fund’ Calgary Herald. June 21, 1971. And ‘Sarcee Land Worth Millions, but Many on Welfare’ Calgary Herald. October 17, 1970.
7 – ‘Sarcee Land Lease Plan Announced’ Calgary Herald. November 25, 1971.
8 – Alberta Panel Buildings Ltd. v. Sarcee Band, 1971 AltaSCAD 48
9 – ‘Blackfoot Stoney Sarcee – IAB Report’ Kainai News. March 31, 1971.
10 – ‘Post School Programs – Highlight Reports’ Employment and Related Services Division, Education Branch, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. November 1971.
11 – ‘Sarcee Chief States Position in Dispute with Alberta Panel Firm’ Kainai News. August 15, 1971.
12 – ‘Sarcee Dispute Clouds Outlook for Indian Reserve Industry’ Calgary Herald. July 7, 1971.
13 – ‘Sarcee Chief States Position in Dispute with Alberta Panel Firm’ Kainai News. August 15, 1971.
14 – ‘Calgary Firm Awarded Large Damage Sum Against Sarcees’ Kainai News. July 15, 1971.
15 – ibid.
16 – Alberta Panel Buildings Ltd. v. Sarcee Band, 1971 AltaSCAD 48
17 – ibid.
18 – ‘Sarcee Land Lease Plan Announced’ Calgary Herald. November 25, 1971.
19 – ‘From the Sarcee Country’ Kainai News. May 18, 1976.
20 – Sarcee Chief States Position in Dispute with Alberta Panel Firm’ Kainai News. August 15, 1971.
21 – ‘Sarcee Reserve Plans Approved’ Calgary Herald. April 20, 1972.
22 – ‘$8 Million Arena on Sarcee Reserve to Seat 15,000 Fans’ Kainai News. February 10, 1973.
23 – ‘Sarcees Cool to Freeway on Reserve’ The Albertan. January 9, 1975
24 – ‘Sarcees Start Work on Sports Complex’ Kainai News. November 28, 1975.
25 – ibid.
26 – ‘Big Business Development on Sarcee Reserve’ Kainai News. March 2, 1976.
27 – ‘Calgary Central Report’ Kainai News. March 7, 1977.
28 – ‘Big Business Development on Sarcee Reserve’ Kainai News. March 2, 1976.
29 – ‘Calgary Central Report’ Kainai News. March 7, 1977.
30 – ‘Sod turned for a new All Chiefs Sportsplex at Tsuut’ina Nation’ Calgary Herald. July 29, 2015.
31 – Address to the Tsuut’ina Nation Christmas Feast, Chief Lee Crowchild. December 28, 2018.