'Funding gap' halts construction on $75-million Métis cultural centre in Fort McMurray

The project was originally expected to cost $22 million, but the cost crept up over the years. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC - image credit)
The project was originally expected to cost $22 million, but the cost crept up over the years. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC - image credit)

Construction on a $75-million Métis cultural centre in Fort McMurray, Alta., has been halted after the organization behind the project ran into a funding shortfall.

The Métis Nation of Alberta's McMurray Métis Local 1935 broke ground on the project in the fall of 2020. Construction started in 2021.

The project has received nearly $35 million in funding from municipal, provincial and federal governments.

In a news release this month, McMurray Métis said construction "needs to be paused" and that the local leadership will now focus on "securing the existing asset" and "addressing the funding gap to move this project forward."

The group said it is "committed to continuing to build our foundation for future generations, and the Métis cultural centre is an important part of our future."

The cultural centre was designed for use as office space, grounds for training and employment and child and family welfare support.

It would also display Métis artifacts, like the cache of interviews with elders a summer student found that were thought to be lost in the 2016 wildfire.

The building, at the confluence of two rivers in MacDonald Island Park, is designed in the shape of an infinity symbol.

McMurray Métis declined an interview request.

The project was originally expected to cost $22 million, but the cost crept up over the years.

In July 2021, McMurray Métis told the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo that its latest estimate put the price tag at $74.7 million.

In an email this week, project director Shawn Myers said McMurray Métis is "working diligently" to answer all questions from the community.

"It is time for this project to get real," Myers said. "We will not continue to throw numbers around. We are seeking cost certainty at this time as we are developing a new approach to project management and delivery that achieves cost certainty."

New team brings 'significant' expertise

A new project team with "significant project management expertise" has been put together, he said.

"We continue to engage with our funding and construction partners as we work to get this project back on track," Myers said. "We are committed to openness and transparency with all stakeholders."

The project team, he said, is working to "understand how we got here and what the costs will be going forward."

He added it's important to put in project controls, "so that next time we tell the community how much this project will cost and when it will be completed, that those statements represent reality and are accurate."

In April of this year, McMurray Métis president Peter Hansen announced an operational and financial review to "restore member confidence."

The review was to include an audit to make sure past financial decisions were made responsibly, a financial review of the organization, and a review of the cultural centre construction.

In July 2021, Wood Buffalo regional council voted to provide the cultural centre project with a $13.1 million grant.

McMurray Metis Cultural Centre/Facebook
McMurray Metis Cultural Centre/Facebook

This week, a spokesperson with the regional municipality said officials are aware that construction on the centre has been halted.

"We have been made aware of the issues and concerns around the project, we understand from those conversations that there is no intention of abandoning the project at this time," Greg Bennett said in an email.

Bennett said should the construction be permanently stopped, the municipality would require McMurray Métis to repay the grant it received. The municipality has no direct management of the project, he said.

Savannah Johannsen, a spokesperson for Alberta Culture, said the province provided $5 million to the project through a capital infrastructure grant in 2021.

As well, Alberta Infrastructure approved $16.5 million in federal funding through the Investing in Canada Infrastructure program, Johannsen said in an email.

Ted Bauer, chief of staff at Alberta's Ministry of Indigenous Relations, attended the groundbreaking ceremony two years ago.

"It's unfortunate what is happening right now," Bauer said. "We are hoping that at some point in the future we will be there for the ribbon-cutting."

He added: "It's such a shock to see this happen… they were right on track."

Verna Murphy, a former councillor with the regional municipality, had hesitations about the scope and cost of the project when McMurray Métis originally asked for funding.

Murphy, who voted in favour of the $13.1-million grant allocation, said the construction halt could be a lesson for Wood Buffalo.

"When we have a big capital project like this, I think there should be a certain percentage [of funds] that should already be on the table before the municipality puts in any further money or allows the project to even begin," she said.

"I'm hoping that the money will be secured and the project can move forward.".

She said she's glad to see McMurray Métis pausing to correct its financial situation before continuing.

"It really makes me sad," Murphy said.

"It's just unfortunate for the entire community if it doesn't finish at this point."