With only 11 kilometres to go, work has stopped on the long-awaited Waskaganish road after the province and Ottawa decided to hold back promised funds.
The 102-km road was supposed to be finished in time for this winter.
But the two governments suddenly suspended the flow of money in early November, complaining that the project was nearly $6 million overbudget.
Cree officials say they are baffled. They, retort that the road costs went up mostly because of changes in the project demanded by Quebec and the feds.
“A lot of it is their fault. They demanded changes,” said an official at the Grand Council of the Crees, which is helping the community negotiate with the governments.
Waskaganish Chief Robert Weistche is upset because the community was counting the days until the road opens.
“We have to put some logic and reasoning into this,” he said.
After work on the road started last year, the governments decided to increase the projected speed limit from 70 to 90 km/h, said Weistche.
That meant design changes costing an extra $4 million.
The rest of the budget overrun is due to an unexpected jump in gas prices and a higher-than-expected cost for impact assessment, Weistche said.
Another problem: the previous band administration forgot to factor in the cost of winter road maintenance, Weistche said.
Further complicating things is the fact that the provincial official responsible for approving funds for the project has just been appointed to a new job.
Daniel Doré, the Quebec Transport Ministry’s new director for Abitibi and northern Quebec, said he needs an explanation of why the project went overbudget before he can approve any extra funds.
“We have no information on this,” said Doré.
But when asked about the increased speed limit, gas-price hike and other problems cited by the Crees, Doré said it was the first time he had heard about them.
He said he had been on the job for only three days when contacted by The Nation. “You’re informing me of something,” he acknowledged.
Doré promised to ask around about the problems and get back to us.
Cree officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in the background there is a deeper issue behind the dispute.
The problem, they say, is federal and provincial officials are meddling in local Waskaganish politics.
The government officials were close to former Waskaganish Chief Billy Diamond’s administration, said the Cree officials.
Now, the governments are trying to undermine the new chief, Weistche,
because he has tried to change the way the band is run, the sources said.
Under the previous administration, the band wound up with a massive multi-million-dollar debt.
Weistche brought in outside investigators to look into the band’s finances and also fired the firm Roy Lumby, which managed seven large construction projects for the band.
Cree officials questioned why the government officials are making a big issue of the road cost overruns now, when they were well-known many months ago.
“My hunch is it’s political. It’s payback time,” said a Waskaganish band official. The Grand Council official agreed: “They are trying to play local politics.”
But Jean-Pierre Roy, partner in the firm Roy Lumby, denied that the road or any other project it managed went overbudget.
“There was no cost overrun when we were there,” he insisted.
Roy also denied that there were any design changes that increased the road’s cost.
“It was never designed for 70 km/h, never,” said Roy.
Roy Lumby is presently suing the band claiming unpaid bills.
The band suspended payments to the firm when it launched its investigation of band finances.
The chief federal negotiator, Jean-Luc Blais, did not return our phone calls.
Meanwhile, Weistche is defiant, saying work would continue on the road whether or not the governments gave their approval.