Conklin leaders blame RMWB red tape for delaying construction of new homes

Conklin’s leaders say their housing crisis is getting worse because the RMWB is slow to approve permits or send inspectors to the municipal hamlet

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Despite millions of dollars from industry and government for housing, Conklin’s leadership says no homes have been built since the first funding announcement was made nearly four years ago.

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Scott Duguid, CEO of the Conklin Resource Development Advisory Committee (CRDAC), said the RMWB has been slow to send building inspectors to the community, approve permits or answer questions on building new homes. The lots CRDAC bought from the RMWB in 2020 are empty. Yet, the community is ready to start assembling prefabricated homes and homes from Ptarmigan Court.

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“Right from getting the lots purchased through construction completion, it is painfully, painfully, painfully slow. The bureaucratic obstacles that are thrown at us come every month,” said Duguid.

“Over the past month, it’s taken us six attempts to get inspectors to come out and actually look at the sites. The community is seeing work on streetlights and pavement, but where are the houses? Even getting to that point has taken a long time.”

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Cenovus Energy announced in Jan. 2020 a five-year, $50-million housing program for six Indigenous communities in northeastern Alberta, including Conklin. In October 2022, the province and federal government announced $4.4 million to support new housing in Conklin.

Duguid said the nearby Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation (CPDFN), which also partnered with Cenovus, is seeing faster progress on housing. CPDFN is working with Indigenous Services Canada, not the RMWB.

A spokesperson for Cenovus said the company is not commenting on the CRDAC’s complaints. A spokesperson for the RMWB said the municipality is “deeply concerned about the ongoing housing crisis in Conklin.”

“The municipality recognizes the frustration expressed by community leaders and residents with the process involving all levels of government and commits to prioritizing and supporting housing efforts in the community,” said a Tuesday municipal statement.

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A home in Conklin in October 2023. Image by Willow Springs Solutions

Housing one of many services needed for Conklin: report

The RMWB’s 2021 census put Conklin’s population at 178 people, a 22 per cent drop from 229 people in 2018. Conklin’s leadership has complained since the early 2020s about the housing crisis in the municipal hamlet.

A report released Wednesday by consultants Willow Springs Solutions estimates 75 per cent to 85 per cent of Conklin lives in housing considered unsafe or insecure. A 2018 survey reported similar results. Conklin’s leadership hopes to build a new 15-lot subdivision. Rent will be based on income. At least 40 new homes are needed to solve the crisis.

Housing is one of many problems facing the hamlet. The report found eight per cent of respondents are victims of domestic violence. About 73 per cent are older than 40. Indigenous people made up 97 per cent of people experiencing housing insecurity.

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Duguid believes one-third to nearly half of Conklin relies on the Wood Buffalo Food Bank. This matches numbers from the food bank. The nearest grocery stores are roughly a 90-minute drive in Anzac or Lac La Biche.

Conklin’s residents complained there are few prospects for addictions support, childcare, education, employment or healthcare. The report notes many people are frustrated space for these services at the Conklin Multiplex sits empty. A 2019 RMWB report found other Indigenous and rural leaders had similar concerns about their communities.

“Because there’s no housing stock or supply, you’re seeing homes falling into further disrepair. The social conditions that go with poverty and a lack of stable housing is increasing,” said Duguid. “Drug and alcohol use is up, property crime is significantly up, violent crime is definitely increasing.”

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The Conklin Multiplex in Conklin, Alta. on Sunday, September 22, 2019. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network SunMedia

Mixed results from government

Duguid praised the Alberta government for funding water, sewage and electrical services for new homes. He also had no issues with how Cenovus has run their program. He is grateful the program has supported construction training for residents at Portage College.

Other agencies have pitched solutions to mixed results. Wood Buffalo Housing offered to transfer their four homes in Conklin to the CRDAC. Duguid said they are old, moldy and expensive to renovate. The CRDAC was also rejected from a housing accelerator program run by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC).

Duguid says the RMWB has been helpful in other areas. He is grateful for five mobile homes from Ptarmigan Court that will come to Conklin. It will cost the CRDAC $85,000 per unit to transport and set up the units.

He is also happy the RMWB is subsidizing connection fees to its new running water and sewage project, but Duguid says many residents still struggle to pay the fees.

“I’m a not-for-profit community organization,” said Duguid. “When we’re dealing with such a high poverty rate, it’s tough for us to do these things.”

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