Fresh start for Sask. First Nation comes from the bones of a grain elevator

The plot of land is near-empty, but standing on the November-frosted dirt and looking over it, Elaine Arlene Pelletier calls it home. And that’s what her community plans to build, board by board.

Pelletier is an elder from Lucky Man Cree Nation, a Saskatchewan nation that has formally held the land, located about 100 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, for about 34 years.

There are few indications on the 3,100 hectares of land that it might be home to anyone: an aged community hall, a nearby trailer and a yellow “NO HUNTING NO TRESPASSING” sign.

Now they’ve been joined by what will soon be the community’s first house, its skeleton grafted from the bones of a recently dismantled grain elevator.

“To see these buildings here it’s emotional, because we’ve never had a home — a reserve — before,” Pelletier said. “Now this is our home.”

Pelletier has been living for about 42 years in a small town about an hour’s drive away, but said she would move in an instant if there was somewhere to stay on reserve.

That’s the goal Lucky Man has for Pelletier and the other members. Leadership estimates there are about 120, but expects that number to grow.

See footage of the new house in progress: 

Sask. First Nation community comes from the bones of a grain elevator

Featured VideoChief Crystal Okemow of Lucky Man Cree Nation gets her first look at a net-zero constructed home on their land made from recycled wood from a grain elevator.

The house is being built with wood carefully collected during the dismantling of two Saskatchewan grain elevators. Its an environmentally friendly alternative to cutting down more trees that reduces the carbon footprint in comparison to typical construction, though the calculations to determine if the build is fully net-zero construction haven’t been completed.

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The plan is for the house to have net-zero energy and emissions thanks to well-insulated walls, a heat pump and solar panels.

Lucky Man Cree Nation Chief Crystal Okemow said they chose a net-zero build with climate change in mind. They want to set the stage for the rest of the community, also planned to be net-zero.

“You always think about the generations behind you, coming.”

Once a grain elevator, now a house

One of the companies the First Nation has been working with dismantles aging, unused grain elevators. Instead of being trucking to garbage dumps, or burned, the valuable century-old wood has become the walls and flooring of Lucky Man’s first house.

“The idea was to reuse this mass timber, which is really strong and it’s in really good shape,” said Ian Loughran, owner of Vereco Smart Green Homes, which oversaw the net-zero design of the building.

Loughran referenced the importance of net-zero emission homes, given the federal goal to lower emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2050.

WATCH | Company tears down Sask. grain elevators to reuse valuable wood: 

Sask. company finds new uses for province’s old grain elevators

Featured VideoA Saskatchewan company is on a mission to deconstruct grain elevators and repurpose their wood into construction materials and affordable housing.

The plan is for the 1,450-square-foot home to be finished in March with electric heat and functioning sewer services. Water will have to be trucked in at first.

Lucky Man hasn’t chosen one person or family to occupy the home. Until it is a part of a neighbourhood, it will become a temporary residence for elders, families and guests celebrating at the community hall.

A community hall with a wooden ramp leading to it alongside a teepee frame
The Lucky Man Cree Nation community hall, with no kitchen or water supply, is one of two buildings on the reserve before construction began on the new home. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

Chief Okemow said the next goal is about a dozen houses in the next five years, all net zero.

After that, about 40 homes over the next 20 years, along with businesses, roads and permanent water infrastructure. 

Okemow said she asked members of the community — some across Saskatchewan, some as far as Canada’s east coast — if they would return home if there was a community to stay in. She said most of them are like Pelletier: build it and they will come.

From the dirt, up

Lucky Man’s biggest hurdles are money and policy, according to Okemow.

The community struggled to secure a reserve until its land entitlement was finalized in Treaty 6 territory in 1989.

Okemow said the membership started pushing leadership to finally build a physical community around the time of the pandemic.

A woman stands in the wooden frame of a home with a man behind her
Chief Crystal Okemow, right, stands inside the new home being built on Lucky Man Cree Nation, holding a heavy wooden door intended for a security room inside. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

With membership numbers so much lower than many other communities, and no one living on the reserve, council has to really battle for money from Indigenous Services Canada, Okemow said.

“Because we’re a small nation, Lucky Man sees a lot of discriminatory policies,” Okemow said.

She said the band’s relationship with Indigenous Services Canada has improved. Yet the dream for a complete community, drawn out in a master plan that Okemow was hesitant to share, is still distant.

This first home was built using money from a recent housing needs assessment, Okemow said. Without much more funding, the plan for the lake- and forest-dotted landscape will remain only a well-documented vision. Okemow is adamant that doesn’t happen. She plans to push for the government to follow its treaty obligations to aid First Nations.

“I’m a little hard-headed, but I like to use that to the advantage of the nation,” she said.

CBC has contacted Indigenous Services Canada for comment, but did not receive a response before publication time.

Okemow is optimistic that Lucky Man Cree Nation will find a way to build its community.

She said it’s important that children grow up in their home First Nation, rather than off-reserve like she did.

“I’ve never lived on Lucky Man,” she said. “It’s much more impactful when you’re living in your own tribe with your family, your relatives. It’s hard to put into words. It’s such a huge impact in your life.”

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