Ouje-Bougoumou is a leading contender to win a prestigious United Nations award for excellence in urban design.

As part of the UN’s 50th birthday celebration, 50 communities from across the world are being chosen that best exemplify the values of the UN. Ouje-Bougoumou was nominated under two categories—sustainable development and human habitation. The winners will be announced by the end of January. UN sources say Ouje-Bougoumou is a favourite to win at least one award because of its innovative housing and energy programs and architecture.

Ouje-Bougoumou is a pioneer in efficient home-heating systems—the first community in North America to install a so-called district heating system. Instead of each home having its own furnace or heaters, Ouje-Bougoumou has one central boiler that bums sawdust from nearby sawmills. Underground pipes filled with hot water connect all the buildings to the boiler.

The unique heating system has earned Chief Abel Bosum speaking invitations from across North America. It also allowed the community to spend less on heating and more on things like its innovative housing program.

Instead of depending on unreliable government funds like other Cree communities, Ouje-Bougoumou used some of its settlement money to set up its own housing fund that has put it on the road to becoming self-sufficient in matters of housing.

Residents can eventually become owners of their homes by paying back half the house’s construction cost. This money, combined with the interest earned by the housing fund, ensures that there’ll always be money in the housing fund for future generations.

“What Ouje-Bougoumou has demonstrated is that if an Aboriginal community is given the resources with no strings attached and without any involvement by any level of government, all sorts of creative energy can be unleashed,” says Paul Wertman, an advisor to Ouje-Bougoumou.

“It’s a strong statement in support of self-government.”