On Cowessess First Nation road signs are a matter of life and death.
Malcolm Delorme, a councillor for Cowessess, said the community had often thought about putting up road signs, but it wasn’t until one tragic incident that the project was initiated.
“One situation we had last year, or two years ago, the ambulance was called for one of our band members,” said Delorme. “What was happening was happening down the hill and the ambulance come out and they were looking for the person at the top subdivision because there was no signs to show them where to go. So that was one of the reasons that we needed signs.”
Delorme said the individual passed away, but road signs could have changed that.
“We figure that maybe things would have been different if they weren’t at the wrong subdivision,” said Delorme. “The signs are very important to us out here.”
The signs sit atop steel posts that hold them high above the ground. Their brilliant white block letters and deep blue background make them legible from a distance.
Cowessess was founded with the signing of Treaty 4 on September 15, 1874. The First Nation covers approximately 12,000 hectares and it’s divided into a top and bottom subsection. For many unfamiliar with the area, like emergency service responders, navigating can be challenging.
Prior to the signs, emergency services were navigating based on directions from the caller, Delorme said. The emergency responders would be dispatched from either Grenfell, 35 kilometres southwest, or Whitewood, 44 kilometres southeast. Delorme said it would take them over an hour on average to arrive; 45 minutes to reach Cowessess and another 30 minutes to find the right location. With these new signs, the map will be digitized and emergency responders can simply punch the address into Google Maps and get exact directions.
“It’s easy for them to find where they’re going now, rather than be lost,” said Delorme. “If I need an emergency call, I just say, ‘Come to Agency Road, house three.’ I mean, how simple would that be?”
Delorme said the biggest setback was funding.
“First Nations don’t have all the funding they need and have to look for the funding and work through funding agencies,” said Delorme, who estimates the project cost $40,000.
The money came in part through the Painted Hand Community Development Corporation and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
Aidan Redwood, a high school student at Cowessess Community Educational Centre, was part of a class that submitted road names.
“We just got a group of everyone and brainstormed all the names,” said Redwood.
Redwood said many of the names were significant to the community; some inspired by special landmarks and others in memory of local families. Visitors can find names like Sweetgrass Way, Gopher Road and Little Albert’s Way throughout the community.
Redwood said these signs are important for the community, for emergencies but also for visitors.
“We have the golf course. People always stop by the school asking where the band office is, where the baseball diamonds are. It’s good to know where those are,” said Redwood.
The whole project was community driven, with band members submitting name ideas and a local Indigenous company, Sweetgrass Communications, designing and creating the signs.
Jamie Lerat, a member of Cowessess First Nation, is owner of Sweetgrass Communications. When she heard about the road sign project she was happy to help. Lerat said she wanted the signs to make Cowessess look more inviting and help combat stereotypes about First Nations being “not nice looking.”
“You go into small towns, they have street signs.” said Lerat. “Why would a reserve not have street signs?”
Lerat credits Chief Cadmus Delorme for kickstarting the project.
“I don’t know why it took to 2018,” said Lerat. “Perhaps it was a chief that is forward thinking, a chief that sees the benefits or sees the opportunities that our reserve could have.”
Councillor Delorme agrees.
“No one really ever pushed it,” he said. “Prior chiefs really didn’t push it, the prior council really didn’t push it, the band members really didn’t push it.”