The Harris government has come under fire from both the NDP and Big Grassy First Nation after no commitments were made to replace the ailing bridge on Highway 621.
The bridge was at the centre of a land dispute for some time between Big Grassy and the provincial and federal governments. One of its southeast pilings has broken over time, and traffic has been reduced to one lane over the bridge.
When the Ministry of Transportation tried to fix the bridge in the fall of 1995, the local band protested, saying the bridge was on native land and the work crew came on the reserve without the band’s permission.
But Glenn Archie, a Big Grassy resident who sits on the bridge negotiating team, said terms of agreement have been reached between all three parties and a general settlement is being drafted right now.
So he doesn’t know why the bridge isn’t being fixed.
“Big Grassy and the Morson community had planned to build a bridge as a top priority,” Archie said, noting the band was more than willing to start building even though work remains to be done on the land claim.
“We’re trying to push this to be done,” he said.
NDP leader and local MPP Howard Hampton said he questioned Native Affairs minister Charles Harnick last week on whether the province would commit to begin construction to replace the bridge over the Big Grassy River this fall.
When Harnick did not do so, Hampton said he then asked if the government would agree to letting the Big Grassy First Nation contract an engineering firm to replace the bridge this fall, and reimburse the community next year.
Hampton said he received a less than satisfactory response, one which he felt did not show any government commitment.
“They say 1998 at the earliest," he said. "I would read ‘98 at the earliest’ as ‘98 if you’re really lucky’ but probably 1999.”
Hampton wondered if the government had done its homework on this project, noting that fixing the bridge at Big Grassy was a major project and would cost a fair bit.
He noted the other bridge on Highway 621 at Morson also was in need of repair and questioned if the government had set aside enough money to do it.
“We’re also heading into an election campaign in a year and half," he added. "The government could be looking for an election project.”
“There’s a lot of ambiguity on who’s going to do what,” agreed Archie, noting that neither the federal or provincial governments have done much since they came to a mutual agreement in March.
“Now it’s only implementing the agreements we’ve made [that’s hard],” he said.
Archie said nine more items still had to be done before the agreement would be finalized, including a survey of the land under the bridge.
But he added the band was more than willing to repair the bridge in good faith. And no one wants to wait much longer.
“It’s passable right now but we’re concerned about the safety," he said. ”The walkway is starting to separate from the roadway. It’s about a three-inch gap.
“We’ve been working hard to try and get this resolved,” he stressed.