New digs spell opportunity for Missanabie Cree

Missanabie Cree First Nation members didn't travel far to find their new band office, having recently moved into the building across the street from their old headquarters in downtown Sault Ste. Marie.

While the retrofitted Royal Bank of Canada branch still needs some work, including the installation of signage out front, Missanabie staff have largely settled into their new digs and are happy about the massive increase in space.

During a tour of the building, located at 602 Queen Street East, band administrator Shereena Campbell told The Sault Star that the new office is roughly 60 per cent larger than their old headquarters, which lines up with the First Nation's recent jump in administrative staff.

"Missanabie Cree has undergone a tremendous amount of capacity development over the last couple years, increasing our staff size from ... I believe it was 11 back in 2015," Campbell said. "We now have approximately 27 staff."

Outside of increased capacity, this new office also features some notable amenities that will make life a little easier for Missanabie staff and members who choose to drop in for a visit.

This includes a full kitchen that facilitates far more complex meal preparation, with the previous office only allowing for microwave cooking.

The bank's elevator provides a boost to accessibility standards, since it gives elders and those with mobility issues a better opportunity to take part in board meetings on the second floor.

And the bank's massive vault presents more secure storage capacity for the band's important documents and historical artifacts, as well as an opportunity for some day-to-day spikes of humour amongst staff.

"I think they said they were going to put my office in there," Chief Jason Gauthier said. "If I misbehave, they'll just lock it and throw away the key."

Joking aside, Gauthier believes that this new band office is an important step in the Missanabie's development as a First Nation, which has picked up a lot of upward momentum throughout the past couple decades.

Despite being promised land through the James Bay Treaty of 1905-06, the Crown failed to make good on these terms for over a century, leading Missanabie members to scatter throughout Ontario in search of better economic opportunity.

But after years of hard work and lobbying, Missanabie members finally managed to secure around 3,800 hectares of Crown land through a 2011 agreement with the provincial government, which led to this land receiving official reserve status in 2018.

And after finalizing a $150 million settlement with the federal government in 2020, Missanabie members are currently in the process of developing this reserve land located around 100 kilometres northeast of Wawa.

"We've done some work already," Gauthier said. "We've built a road, we've laid down some foundations and now the houses are going to be going up in the spring."

While a significant chunk of Missanabie members currently live in the Sault, Gauthier said the band's intention is to encourage more and more people to move onto their reserve land once these housing projects prove tenable.

But until then, Gauthier said the new downtown band office will serve as a great platform to launch this reserve creation, while also providing its members with access to vital support services within the city.

"There's alot going on," he said. "We're invested in lots of different things and lots of different areas, but I think overall we're trying to create a better life and environment for our individual community members."

Gauthier also told The Star that the band's old office, located at 559 Queen Street East, is in the process of being repurposed.

Missanabie Cree First Nation currently has over 630 registered members who are living in communities like Sault Ste. Marie, London, Toronto, Sudbury, Timmins and Wawa.

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Kyle Darbyson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sault Star