Bruce Starlight leans across the open car door and surveys the surrounding countryside. He recollects the time 13 years ago when, along with his new bride, he camped on the land, cutting and stripping spruce trees for sale to ranchers building corrals, hauling the trees out of the bush behind an old saddle horse. Today the land is called Redwood Meadows, a luxurious residential development, and Starlight, 34, is general manager of Sarcee Developments Ltd., the company that has transformed this property in the northwest corner of the Sarcee Indian Reserve 25 km west of Calgary. Sandwiched between the Elbow River and Highway 22 on a seven-kilometre stretch of land, there are 144 houses with another 45 under construction.
One day Redwood Meadows will have more than 1,000 homes, on unusual terms. Purchasers design and build their own homes on land they will never own—instead, lots are leased from the Sarcee band. At the Sarcee’s insistence, moreover, the homes are built according to stringent development guidelines to ensure that as much of the secluded foothills setting is retained as possible. No home can be higher than six metres. The exterior must be done in stone or earth tones. There are no concrete sidewalks along the paved boulevards, just natural grass and flowers. An idyllic development—but the tranquil setting has sprouted a thicket of legal questions over the use of Indian land.
Normally, Indian lands are a federal responsibility—but does a housing development for non-Indian residents on Indian land not fall under provincial jurisdiction, as it would for other municipalities? This puzzler has been before the Alberta Court of Appeal for more than three months with a judgment still awaited. Meanwhile, representatives of the provincial government and the Sarcee band meet in Edmonton June 15, hoping to reach a preliminary agreement that will rescue Redwood Meadows from legislative limbo.
The Sarcee’s gift to exurbia began innocently enough in the early 1970s as a natural extension of an already-existing band-run golf course, one of the best in the area. Development money would be needed, and since the Indian Act does not permit the band to use its land as loan collateral a stratagem was devised. The Sarcee surrendered the 1,100acre parcel to the federal government, which in turn leased it back to them for 75 years, when full ownership will revert to the band. Using the lease as collateral, the Sarcee were able to borrow $3 million from The Bank of Nova Scotia, hire contractors and service the land. Then they started leasing the lots, originally charging around $30,000 (now $50,000), which is about 60 per cent of what is paid for comparable freehold land. Each individual homeowner’s lease runs to 2049, the end of the original 75-year period, with provisions for extension. Simple enough—until the project became mired in a tangle of intergovernmental legal hassles. At one point a provincial minister publicly warned would-be residents that their legal status and rights remained uncertain, and mortgage lenders reacted by refusing to advance funds to leaseholders to build their homes.
By the beginning of 1979 only 28 of the 183 lots in Phase 1 had been leased. But Sarcee is a Blackfoot word for “bold people,” which Starlight says means “they never run from a fight,” and the Sarcee didn’t. The band council, with growing revenues from a natural gas well on the reserve, gave Sarcee Developments a loan guarantee so lease sales could continue. A controller was called in to sort out financial problems. During the past 18 months all of Phase 1 has been leased with Phase 2 slated to open soon and resale houses are hitting the market at anywhere from $125,000 to $250,000. Although the project is still in the red, the development expects to show a profit of $5.4 million by the completion of the second phase.
Starlight is optimistic an agreement with the province is in sight, followed by a quick blessing from the federal government. Today Redwood employs 60 people and there is a shortage of Sarcee people to fill positions. In 1977 a contractor serviced Phase 1. This time the Sarcee are doing most of the work and soon they may start building homes. So, with an annual $500,000 payroll and the eventual dividend that will be paid to every band member out of the development’s profits, the standard of living for the reserve’s 120 families is rising. No longer will they have to content themselves with combing the bush for tall, sturdy spruce trees to chop down for corral rails and mine props at 25 cents each. —
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