Mitaanjigamiing dedicates land for new Fort Frances development

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

Mitaanjigamiing First Nation held a special ceremony to bless the land they have acquired in Fort Frances that will be the home of a sprawling development intended to bring further economic development to the First Nation and other communities in the district.

Held at their new property next to Canadian Tire in Fort Frances on Wednesday, October 12, 2022, the blessing was the first chance many members of the public had to learn more about the acquisition, as well as some of details regarding what the future of the development will look like. Mitaanjigamiing First Nation chief Janice Henderson, along her council and members of the Gobe Corporation, including Chief Operating Officer (COO) Randy Councillor, spoke to the assembled crowd about the development and the possibilities it will bring to the district, including new jobs and places to stay.

Following introductory drum songs and an opening prayer and blessing from elder Edna Morrison, Henderson noted that the announcement was a very important opportunity for the people of Mitaanjigamiing, and will help to provide opportunities for economic development, jobs and future investment for the First Nation community by taking money received for several different settlement claims and using it to build a diverse economic portfolio.

“This is a very exciting day for us,” she said.

“It’s a momentous occasion for us. We’re looking forward to opportunities for our First Nation, for our community members now, and for our future generations. I appreciate the people that have come out here to celebrate, help us to bless these grounds. We look forward to what our community will be able to do.”

The plans for the development will also help to benefit Fort Frances by bringing in more tax dollars and job opportunities, as well as additional space for those coming in from out of town to eat and stay.

“We need more businesses here, and our COO has reached out,” Henderson said.

“We’ve done feasibility studies and studies on the ground, as this was the site of the former gas station. That has all been tested to ensure its not contaminated.”

During the event, it was announced that the development will include a 250-seat Smitty’s restaurant, a Co-op gas station, and a Studio 6 all-suite hotel as the first confirmed businesses to come to town as part of the project. The concept plan includes additional buildings for living and retail spaces, though no word on what they may include was presented during the event.

While not all of the details for the development were revealed, Mitaanjigamiing First Nation board president Paul Henderson noted that work surrounding the development has been ongoing for several years at this point, and has included consulting with businesses to gauge what kind of interest there could be from other Canadian companies in opening a Fort Frances location, including Popeye’s Chicken, a Mr. Mike’s restaurant, and a Mary Brown’s chicken.

Brad Fyfe, the vice president for the Gobe Corporation, said he is also excited for the opportunities that will arise as part of the land development, adding it is a big undertaking for the First Nation that will benefit many different communities in the region.

“This is an opportunity to create jobs and help the economy grow, which is something that is really needed in our area,” Fyfe said.

Additionally, Fyfe stressed that the new development, even before construction has started, has proven to be invaluable to teaching and passing on valuable skills to youth from the community, as he noted Councillor has been hard at work doing just that throughout the process.

“Throughout this project, with Randy’s guidance and knowledge, he brings his level of expertise, but also he’s been mentoring some of our younger Gobe workers who may not have had that opportunity,” Fyfe said.

“I know he’s taught them a lot along the way, as well as us as board members and chief and council. We’ve never ventured out on a project of this magnitude, so he’s been teaching us a lot as well.”

Mitaanjigamiing chief, members of council, administration and the Gobe Corporation pose for a photo following the official reveal and land blessing for their west-end Fort Frances development on Wednesday, October 12, 2022. The new development, located next to Canadian Tire, will feature a Smitty’s Restaurant, Co-op Gas Station and a Studio 6 hotel, among other retail and living spaces. the announcement is two years in the making and will serve as a strong economic driver for Mitaanjigamiing and other neighbouring communities in the district. –Ken Kellar photo

For his part, Councillor said that the hard work and planning to get a development like the one planned for the west end of Fort Frances has been done with consideration for Indigenous teachings and cultures, aspects of their community he said will benefit them in the long run as they continue to build out their economic strengths.

“When we exercise our traditions and culture, it just makes our business opportunities that much stronger,” Councillor said.

“Fort Frances isn’t the only stop for us. This is just the initial phase of where we’re going. We wanted to bring something proud to our membership, to our community, our neighbours in all directions, including the town of Fort Frances.”

Councillor said that planning aspect also extended to the way the community has presented the news of the development to the community. Rather than letting people know what was going on, the decision to release a concept video and unveil a new sign along King’s Highway has been meant to stir up conversation by taking people by surprise.

“This is a very important historic moment for the community, and this is so fascinating because it’s a first for the community,” Councillor continued.

“I think it’s going to be well received within the town of Fort Frances and by the neighbours, all our neighbours across this district.”

Some of those very neighbours were in attendance at Wednesday’s event, including Fort Frances mayor June Caul, Couchiching First Nation chief Brian Perrault and Alberton reeve Mike Ford, all of whom passed along their words of congratulations and encouragement.

“I’m thrilled to see this happening,” Caul said.

“This is so exciting to see a vision as fantastic as this, and the expertise and humour brought by [Councillor] to this development is awesome to see. We are in need of businesses here, we are in need of more economic drivers in this town, of more employment for our people.”

Perrault shared he was happy to be part of the day, especially as Mitaanjigamiing is their closest neighbouring First Nation, separated only by a few bay areas of Rainy Lake, and he noted it was important to recognize that First Nations people have always been economic drivers in Fort Frances by frequenting businesses and working jobs.

“This work you’re doing here, everything you’re bringing into the town is going to benefit a lot of people, not only your community but the surrounding communities, and we look forward to a time when we will look at things together, Couchiching and your community and other communities,” he said.

“It’s important to say to the residents of Fort Frances, there was a paper mill there, it shut down, there were a lot of jobs that were lost, moved on, but something the town needs to remember is the First Nations here, we support all these businesses, all of our people support all these businesses, and the town would have died a lot faster without the support of the First Nations. It’s great when we can see progress like this.”

Ford shared that he was excited to see the good fortunes of one community benefiting others as well, particularly as the proposed development fills in some gaps in the region.

“Any development in the area is good,” Ford said.

“It is great to see our neighbours have so much faith and be willing to go out and do something that’s much needed in the area. Trying to get a hotel in this town is tough, so it will do well, and the housing that’s proposed for the site will do well too. It’s just something that the whole district needs.”