Edmonton Council urges gondola operators on Indigenous engagement

One of the five stations on the approximately 2.5 kilometer route is near the Epcor Generating Station on or near sites already designated as a Provincial Historic Resource, including known burial sites

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Councilors grilled would-be gondola operators during a lengthy meeting on Wednesday about plans for public and indigenous engagement, and what would happen if human remains were found around Rossdale’s traditional burial grounds.

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The Council is considering a conditional agreement with Prairie Sky Gondola (PSG) for a private gondola from downtown to Old Strathcona on the North Saskatchewan River. PSG would give the city about $1.125 million a year to lease and grant public land for 30 years, and up to 90 years. If the city does commit, the company will still have to meet conditions, including holding public hearings and rezonings, in order for it to move forward.

One of five stations on the approximately 2.5 kilometer route is on or near sites already designated as a Provincial Historic Resource in Rossdale, including known burial sites. Previous research for the city in 2004 concluded that they could not identify the exact boundaries of the cemetery.

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Mayor Amarjeet Sohi asked Jeffrey Hansen-Carlson, CEO of Prairie Sky Gondola, whether or not the business would continue if burial sites were discovered.

“We are guided today by the advice that there is a very low probability that we will find human remains in this location. If we do, we will listen very carefully to the advice we receive from our native advisers and from the Indigenous general public and we will make a responsible appeal,” Hansen-Carlson said in response.

Sohi asked if they had to do any archaeological work before the city would approve any land deal. “If there are remains found on this site, I will not consciously support it.”

Hansen-Carlson said this work is costly and can only take place after a deal is approved.

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During the council’s dinner break, Sohi told Postmedia he couldn’t support the gondola without being certain it wouldn’t disrupt the burial grounds.

“For me, it would go against my personal commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous communities… It would be in violation of (the city’s) commitment to reconciliation.

The council needs clear answers on this and the consent of indigenous peoples first, Sohi said. He wants to see the city renegotiate so that an analysis is carried out, potentially with ground-penetrating radar, before a deal is considered.

Indigenous engagement

Several advisers have expressed concerns about how the company will get input from the general public and Indigenous communities.

Neighborhood Dene County Aaron Paquette and Hansen-Carlson shared tense moments when Paquette asked what would happen if Indigenous communities said “no”.

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“What is your goal? Is your goal to get a ‘yes’ or is your goal to find information?” Paquette asked.

“Our goal is to find a way forward where we provide that as a platform…” Hansen-Carlson began.

“To get to yes?” Paquette intervened.

“Our goal is to achieve an outcome where everyone feels like we’ve achieved something significant and everyone has a path to success,” Hansen-Carlson said. “We’ve obviously spent millions of dollars to date…we’d like to get to yes, but if we can’t get to yes, then we can’t get to yes.”

Hansen-Carlson said that since the gondola requires construction in a straight line, changing plans at this point would hurt the progress of the project.

Later in the meeting, Paquette said the debate around possible human remains at Rossdale was “very disturbing” and “very macabre”.

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“It almost feels like people are arguing about the extent to which desecration is acceptable…as if it’s actually a debate about whether or not indigenous peoples, and these things that are held sacred even matter.”

Matthew Weigel, who is Dene and Metis, told the council that the discussion is morbid and dismissive about the remains of his ancestors. “I’m definitely not in favor of building a gondola on someone else’s graveyard, so I don’t know why we’re having this discussion about this one.”

Other Indigenous speakers involved in the project, including Archeology Advisor Cody Sharpehead and former Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation Chief Cameron Alexis, currently with Tribal Chiefs Ventures Inc., expressed their support for the project and the potential of the indigenous tourism and its participation in the project itself.

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Busy public hearing

More than 50 people registered to speak on Wednesday, turning the committee meeting into a public hearing that continued into the evening.

Speakers’ comments ranged from support to opposition.

Developers focused on tourism potential and financial benefits for the city. Opponents spoke of impacts on the environment, public transit and traditional burial sites, fears that Indigenous cultures could be exploited for commercial gain, and issues around financial and physical accessibility.

Several international investors have expressed their support, including representatives of cable car-related companies in Switzerland and Austria, and the multinational conglomerate YIG Investment Group which operates in Myanmar, China and Singapore.

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Impact on public transport

Ward Anirniq County Erin Rutherford was concerned about the impact on public transit. Prairie Sky Gondola said the only transit connection would use the same Arc card system but with different fares.

But during a break, Rutherford told Postmedia the gondola would take away passengers and therefore transit funding. She is also concerned about how this could affect the viability of future bus rapid transit routes.

“If there are events downtown, people will take the gondola and not public transit… my concern is to say there is no cost to the public is not a true statement. “

Bob Black of Prairie Sky Gondola told Postmedia it would cost the public about $100 for a monthly pass to ride the gondola.

lboothby@postmedia.com

@laurby

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