Sector: Social Economy & Infrastructure
Of the many monikers given to the city of Edmonton, Alberta, “Gateway to the North” is among the most enduring. Throughout much of the city’s history, it has been a centre of trade and social activity — a place linking Canada’s northern communities with the rest of the world by road, rail and air.
It’s only fitting then, that the main artery connecting the city with its international airport and much of the rest of the province is known as Gateway Boulevard. For generations, this road has connected people and created opportunities for economic development and cultural growth.
Today, Gateway Boulevard is home to a new kind of opportunity for the Edmonton-area based Papaschase First Nation. Nestled in a lot between Gateway Boulevard and Calgary Trail, just north of 23 Avenue, the First Nation has laid the foundation for self-sufficiency and financial independence with the opening of the Ôte Nîkân gas station.
Named after the Cree word for ‘future’, the station is one of the busiest convenience store and service stations in the city. For travellers heading into Edmonton, it’s one of the first places to stop for gas within city limits. For the First Nation, it’s much more than that; it’s a place to promote cultural understanding while securing their financial future.
“We wanted to create revenue and jobs for our people, but we also want to use it to educate. When people come in, we want them to learn about our history, and about how this was our land before Edmonton, before Treaty Six was signed,” says Chief Calvin Bruneau.
The history Bruneau alludes to is disheartening at best. Despite being one of the first Indigenous groups in the Edmonton region, and a signatory of the area’s Treaty 6, over time the Papaschase people were coerced into giving up their land and rights, which eventually led to the community’s loss of its First Nations status. Over the last few years, Bruneau along with the band council have led a tireless fight to regain the recognition, rights and land that were lost.
“It has been a long struggle for our people, but we’re making progress. This is one more step in our journey home,” says Bruneau.
In 2018, the Papaschase First Nation was officially recognized by both the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations and the Assembly of First Nations. Although the band has yet to be recognized at the federal level, Bruneau believes the Ôte Nîkân adds legitimacy and financial clout to their efforts.
Before the gas station officially opened as a Papaschase-owned and –operated venture in 2019, Bruneau had been working behind the scenes on the idea for nearly a decade. The concept had come to him after a visit to a service station in Saskatoon in 2010.
“I was with some friends and we went to this gas station on the corner of a busy road. It was just like a beehive, it was so busy. There were three or four vehicles lined up, and people streaming in and out of the building,” he says. But this was more than just a typical convenience store—something stood out about its layout and design. “They had artwork and cases with things like moccasins on display. That’s when I first got the idea. As a part of Reconciliation, I thought something like this could do a lot of good for our people.”
Years later, after floating the idea to friends, family and the band council, Bruneau sought to make it a reality. He began looking at gas stations for sale. When this south-side Petro Canada—located in the heart of the land that was once the Papaschase Reserve—became available, he knew it was time to act.
“We had a discussion as a council and decided to go for it. The location was exactly where we wanted to be, and of course it helps that the station has traffic from all directions,” he says.
It took more than a year to arrange the purchase from Suncor, but with support from SEF, Bruneau’s dream became a reality in December 2019.
“We wanted it to be fully Papaschase owned and operated, which is something you might not see with other businesses like this. You might see First Nations people working here and there, but we wanted this station to fully be our own. It had to be a place where we could hire our own people,” he says.
Bruneau, ever the visionary, has his eyes fixed on the future. In the coming months, he hopes to install informative displays and showcases, with the goal of one day also selling Indigenous-inspired foods and traditional handicrafts.
“Now that we’ve got the space, and it’s open for business, there’s a lot more we can do for the betterment of our people,” he says. “This is a milestone for now, but we want to do more. We’ll just keep going until we get there.”