Fond du Lac says province has backed down from promise to help fund runway extension

An image taken at the scene of a deadly plane crash in December 2017 near Fond-du-Lac. Photo courtesy Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) and the Fond du Lac First Nation are accusing the provincial government of backing away from a promise to expand the runway that was involved in a fatal 2017 crash.

In a press release issued late Tuesday, the FSIN called on the province to “remain true to … commitments made to the community of Fond du Lac.”

According to the press release, the province had committed to do everything that was necessary to ensure a safe runway. It has since determined that the runway project is no longer on the list of priorities, despite funding from the federal government to renovate the airport and improve accessibility to the northern community.

“When we lost our band member and first lobbied for the Fond du Lac runaway project, everyone wanted to help. The Province gave us their word and now, they’ve abandoned us. We are not their priority,” Fond du Lac First Nation Chief Louie Mercredi said in the press release.

“The Province committed to do all that they could and give all the assistance Fond du Lac needed to get this runway built. They gave us hope when they initiated the design phase, which is almost complete. Now it’s election time and we’ve been brushed aside and forgotten. What is more important? Wastewater management, landfills and swimming pools or peoples’ lives?”

Mercredi said air travel accounts for 90 per cent of all transportation in the community and said Fond du Lac is the most isolated community in the province.

“We need the province to prioritize the lives of the people living and working in Fond du Lac and recommit their portion of the funding to make sure it’s finished before more lives are lost,” Mercredi said.

“Our people are now left with questions.”

In a statement, the provincial government refuted the First Nation’s claims.

“Safety is the top priority for the Government of Saskatchewan and we are committed to ensuring the Fond du Lac Airstrip is safe and operating under the Transport Canada guidelines and restrictions,” the statement read.

The provincial government said no application was received for the project. Without a completed application, the project was not able to be considered for the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program, they said in a statement attributed to Minister of Government Relations Lori Carr.

“In June 2019, officials from the Ministry of Government Relations requested a full application be submitted for the Fond du Lac Airport project, which did not occur,” the province wrote. “The Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation, along with other eligible recipients, will be invited to participate in the full ICIP application intake anticipated in late 2019.”

The province said they also applied to the federal government to widen and lengthen the runway. While funding to rehab the existing runway was approved, they said, funding to widen and lengthen the runway was not.

The province also said the runway is safe.

“Currently, the runway meets the physical and safety standards prescribed for its class code and is safe to be used by the appropriate aircraft classifications,” the province said.

“It is also important to note that the Transportation Safety Board evaluated the runway at Fond du Lac and said that the runway was not a contributing factor to the accident that resulted in the tragic death of one individual.”

Last year the Saskatoon StarPhoenix reported that procurement documents showed the province’s intention to add 1,200 feet to the 3,800-foot runway at the airport.

Other work outlined in the province’s tender included new runway lights and the rehabilitation of the existing runway, taxiways and apron.

The province hoped some of the funding would come from the federal government’s Airports Capital Assistance Program.

Fond du Lac’s airport is provincially owned.

Earlier this year, the federal government did announce several improvements to the Fond du Lac airport.

During a February visit to Saskatchewan, Minister of Indigenous Services Seamus O’Regan said the federal government would provide funding to rehabilitate the runway, taxiway, apron and airfield lighting system at the airport.

The promised funding amounted to $12,148,100 and includes asphalt rehabilitation, the installation of a precision approach path indicator system, a replacement of runway and taxi edge lights and a replacement of apron floodlights.

The funding came from the Airports Capital Assistance Program.

On December 12, 21017, an ATR 42-420 aircraft operated by West Wind Aviation crashed shortly after taking off. Nine passengers sustained serious injuries, and 16 others were also injured. One of the seriously injured passengers, Arson Fern Jr., later died.

It was determined that the airport did not have adequate de-icing equipment.

While the investigation is still ongoing, in later 2018 the Transportation Safety Board released a pair of recommendations urging the Department of Transport and air operators to identify airports where there is inadequate de-icing and anti-icing equipment, to ensure proper equipment is available and to take action to reduce the likelihood of aircraft taking off with “contaminated critical surfaces,” such as ice on the wings.

Despite allegations that the plane was improperly loaded, the TSB has determined that the take-off weight was below the maximum and that the centre of gravity was “within limits.” Investigators did determine the plane took off with ice on its “critical surfaces.”

FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said in a press release the Fond du Lac runway expansion should be put back on the list because lives are at stake. Vice Chief David Pratt made similar comments on Twitter.

“How many more lives need to be lost before the Province decides to follow through with their commitments to Fond du Lac?” he asked.

“There are no greater priorities for Governments, than human lives. The Province’s initial investment does not meet the funding needs of Fond du Lac and their studies are inaccurate. This runway is a priority. We need Saskatchewan to come to the table and follow through with their commitments to prevent future tragedies from occurring.”

This story has been updated to reflect a response received from the province.