Aazhogan Limited Partnership acquires full ownership of international bridge

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

It was a historic moment on Friday, May 20, 2022, as the Fort Frances-International Falls International Bridge was officially announced to be under new ownership, making it a unique entity among all bridges in the country.

At a special ribbon cutting ceremony held in the early afternoon on the Canadian side of the international bridge, representatives from the Aazhogan Limited Partnership, made up of Rainy River First Nations (RRFN) and the BMI Group, along with other dignitaries from surrounding municipalities and communities, joined together to announce the acquisition of both sides of the bridge. This announcement brings the entire 287m span under ownership of the Aazhogan Limited Partnership, making it one of only two privately-owned international bridges in Canada (the other being the Detroit-Windsor Ambassador Bridge), and the only one to be owned by an Indigenous group. The partnership previously purchased the U.S. side of the bridge in May 2021.

Speaking at the official ribbon cutting ceremony, Rainy River First Nations Chief Robin McGinnis called the acquisition a significant achievement that will reconnect people on both sides of the border, as well as bringing the river crossing back to the Indigenous community.

“For generations our people have lived here beside the water, beside the river, as we are known as the River People, Ziibi Anishinaabe,” McGinnis said.

“There were seven communities along the river between Fort Frances and Rainy River until there was an amalgamation and six were taken away in 1914-1915. This river has provided medicine, food, a means of transportation and trade for thousands of years. At one point in the past and in the present, we have community members that live on both sides of the river, as there never was that imaginary line between the two countries. I just want to say how proud I am of our group Aazhogan, our partnership, and of our friends, our partners at BMI Group for this acquisition.”

McGinnis extended his thanks to the many individuals representing different communities for attending the ribbon-cutting, noting that the intent for the bridge is to continue to foster economic development for the region, as the Aazhogan Limited Partnership continues to invest in different opportunities that could be announced in the coming months.

Justus, John, and Paul Veldman of the BMI Group were on hand for the ceremony, with them commenting that they are honoured to partner with RRFN.

“We are privileged to be in the Treaty-Three territory today to celebrate with each of you,” they said.

“This is a momentous occasion. This bridge represents many more opportunities to come, and we look forward to having more celebrations like this one.”

While there have been concerns in the community surrounding the ownership of the bridge, as well as the tolls collected from motorists who make use of it, McGinnis stressed that, for all intents and purposes, it will be business as usual for the bridge; simply under new owners.

“As we know, this is the gateway to northwestern Ontario, and we want to make sure the bridge is in operation for years and years and years to come,” he said.

“We’re an economically-driven community, there are a bunch of other projects that are in the go, but that’s why we want to keep this open. It drives the economy in the northwest, and we have a lot of opportunities that are coming up. For Rainy River First Nations, I think it’s a sense of pride. We’ve always lived on the river, and we lived on both sides of the river. With Aazhogan actually meaning bridge, it was a literal and philosophical name that we chose.”

McGinnis stressed that as the new owners of the bridge, they will be required to follow all of the same regulations as any other bridge owner might have to, which includes regular maintenance and inspections. McGinnis said they fully intend to follow through on several required maintenance issues that must be addressed, as they were identified by the previous owners.

“There’s a little bit of work that has to be done here, and we’re going to do everything that those engineering reports say has to get done,” McGinnis said.

“We have the same management group, the same operations group, the same engineers that have been doing it for the last 30 years, so the only thing that’s changed is the ownership. Everyone can feel safe in that aspect.”

To that end, the toll booth will remain on the U.S. side of the border for the foreseeable future, with new bridge cards featuring the Aazhogan logo available for crossings.

RRFN manager of administration Sonny McGinnis, arm in arm with Mayor June Caul, spoke to the crowd assembled for the ribbon cutting and celebrated the hard work done by the partnership to achieve the purchase of the bridge. Sonny also noted that there are plenty of additional economic development opportunities that RRFN is pursuing that will help to strengthen the community and the entire region.

“One of the things we’re looking at are the commercial development opportunities, the residential development opportunities, that ultimately mean jobs and wealth creation,” he said.

“That’s some of the things that we’re focused on as a partnership with BMI. Historically, as a community along this river, it was always known as an international trade zone. We have places along this river that was recognized by Canada as being just that. Coupled with that is the Jay Treaty. We have Jay Treaty rights and our own citizenship recognized by the United States Government. That’s the task, we have to combine our energies with our Grand Chief Francis Kavanaugh. We do have an agenda and we have many opportunities that we want to come to the town and talk about and link arms as we’re doing today.”

For her part, Mayor Caul congratulated the partnership and RRFN for the historic purchase.

“It’s so exciting for me to put my arm through yours in celebration of this great event bringing us together,” Caul said.

“Not only your First Nation, but all our communities, First Nations, partners and neighbours. We’re very happy to have been able to be invited and to come today. It warms my heart, and you need a warm heart to stand out here today, so that’s a good thing.”

Grand Council Treaty #3 Grand Chief Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh was also invited to speak at the ribbon cutting, and he reflected on the significance of the moment.

“With the acquisition of the bridge, like the Chief [McGinnis] said, there’s only two privately-owned international bridges in the country, and this one is owned by a community in our territory,” Kavanaugh said.

“Let’s lift up our Rainy River community for their achievement in acquiring this bridge, and I know the name Aazhogan is very appropriate when we’re in the stage of our reconciliation today. Aazhogan, to us means ‘a bridge,’ and that’s what we need to do. We need to bridge the lack of understanding there is between, not us, but the other side. We need to bridge that.”

Couchiching First Nation Chief Brian Perrault was the final dignitary to speak at the ribbon cutting, and he added his congratulations to RRFN for the acquisition.

“I’m so glad to be here as well, and congratulations to Rainy River First Nation in acquiring the bridge,” he said.

“The falls here, I know it as Koochiching Falls. What I’ve learned recently is all the water comes through here, it’s all gathered up from all those lakes and rivers up there and meets over here at Koochiching. You see reference to that even on the Minnesota side, they call it Koochiching County over there. We’re all part of the Anishinaabe nation of Treaty 3. I’m really glad this is happening and reclaiming, this is what Rainy River First Nation is doing; leading the way, helping to reclaim our traditional territory, and this bridge is very important because we do have a lot of relatives over on the Minnesota side. We’re all the same people.”

The ribbon-cutting ceremony was followed by the annual fish fry held out at the Rainy River First Nations pow-wow grounds later that evening.