Home Month and Year February 2023 Tsuut’ina Nation’s Taza Development

Tsuut’ina Nation’s Taza Development

Chief Roy Whitney on the Largest First Nation Development in Canada

Chief Roy Whitney. Photo by Riverwood Photography.

The official opening of the Tsuut’ina Trail section of the Calgary ring road in October 2020 was a significant milestone for many reasons. Conceptualized for decades, the road was agreed to in principle 16 years earlier in 2004 between Premier Ralph Klein and Chief Sanford Big Plume. An official Ring Road agreement would not be signed for another 11 years, between Premier Allison Redford and Chief Roy Whitney, in 2013. Seven years later, it officially opened.

Not only did Tsuut’ina Trail provide a key portion of Calgary’s ring road, granting citizens fast and convenient access within and around their city, it also provided a bridge – both literally and figuratively – between the Tsuut’ina Nation, upon whose land the Trail is laid, and its neighbours in the city adjacent.

This new connection is, for the Nation, the opportunity to continue developing its lands in ways that provide significant benefits for its members and the city of Calgary.

“As our population grows, we need to be able to find sustainable ways of budgeting,” says Chief Whitney, serving his fourth term as Chief. “We are looking at how we can develop opportunities that will have longer-term financial benefits, that allow the Nation to be sustainable and provide for itself in the future.”

The Tsuut’ina Nation’s self-determination is recognized by Treaty No. 7, entered into by Chief Bullhead (Chiila) and the British Imperial Crown of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1877.

The Taza Development, comprised of three distinct villages situated along Tsuut’ina Trail, is one such opportunity. Spanning 1,200 acres in all, it is one of the largest First Nation development projects in North America.

“We’ve had the concept of developing so that outside vendors could come into our community and provide services and jobs for many years,” Chief Whitney explains. “It goes back to the Buffalo Run Golf course, then Tsuut’ina Trail, back in the 1980s and 1990s. It truly came to fruition in 2014.”

That was when the Nation partnered with developer Canderel, after its RFP received over 40 applications, to plan, finance and develop Taza. “We’re working well together,” he says.

Importantly, during the Tsuut’ina Trail negotiations with the province, the Nation made sure to guarantee the appropriate overpasses and access required for the Taza development.

Master-planned to embrace Tsuut’ina culture and reflect forward-thinking solutions, Taza (a noun of Dené origin, language of the Tsuut’ina, meaning: something wondrous is coming) is made up of three distinct villages: Taza Park, Taza Crossing and Taza Exchange. Real estate opportunities at the villages include retail, office, rental residential, restaurant and hospitality establishments, entertainment venues, outdoor spaces and centres for innovation and wellness.

Taza Park is the northern-most village, bordering Glenmore Trail and Tsuut’ina Trail. “It’s 530 acres and will be developed as mixed use, retail, office, residential, along with recreation and entertainment,” says Chief Whitney. “We’re working to see if we can complement the [Grey Eagle] Casino, hotel and conference centre with a greater entertainment focus there.”

Phase I of the development is called Eagle Landing, located next to the casino which attracts 1.3 million visitors on average per year. Approximately 6,500 units of residential space and 98,900 square feet of commercial space will be developed. “Our hotel and convention centre have been very successful,” Chief Whitney notes of a major attractant for future tenants. “We had 99 to 100 per cent occupancy throughout last summer.” The Convention Centre, which comprises 85,000 square feet, sells over 70,000 tickets for 200+ events each year.

Taza Park will also be home to Metro Ford and Big Four Motors (at the intersection of Glenmore and Tsuut’ina Trails). “And we have other interested parties looking at opportunities there, for example car service businesses and other dealerships,” he continues. “We hope to begin the groundwork and bring in the services to be able to start developing in there this year.”

South of Taza Park, on the east side of Tsuut’ina Trail and off of 90th avenue southwest, is Taza Crossing. “It’s 360 acres, focused on health, wellness and innovation,” Chief Whitney explains. “We’ve been in discussions with the province about providing health and wellness services there. Innovation is how we approach this.”

Taza Exchange is the furthest south of the three villages, and it is the first to open. At 390 acres, it is a regional retail, office and tourism destination. The Shops at Buffalo Run (TSBR), Taza Exchange’s retail district, will include approximately 257,000 square feet of development adjacent to the new Costco, which opened in 2020 as Taza’s first anchor tenant. The massive warehouse on Tsuut’ina Nation made headlines as the first Costco to be built on a recognized First Nation reserve in North America.

Other Taza Exchange tenants have begun to open one the last few months. “We’re at 80 per cent capacity in TSBR right now,” Chief Whitney says. “Tim Hortons opened in December, and the Bank of Montreal will open at the end of March. We’re really excited to have the Bank in there, it will be nice for the Nation.” A total of 60 tenants will be on the site.

“We’re also looking at opportunities for a tourism hotel, possibly with a waterslide,” he continues. “We’ll just keep going as we come along. And we’re looking at a new office structure, for the needs of the overall nation. We’re also looking at on-reserve residential leasing opportunities for other Treaty Nation members who are working in the City of Calgary.”

Taza Exchange is situated next to the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex, opened in 2018 and owned by the Tsuut’ina Nation. The $55.6 million complex is equipped with energy-efficient ice plant, a 2,000-seat hockey arena and state-of-the-art gym. Calgary minor hockey, ringette and other clubs frequent the facility.

“We’ve had a number of national teams come and train there too,” says Chief Whitney. “We’ve had the Flames, the Hitmen and the Wranglers. We’re in discussions with the Hitmen about potentially using our facility on a more full-time basis. They’ve been really good to work with.”

Cultural influences have been an important aspect to the Taza Development. This includes artwork on the overpasses and bridges along Tsuut’ina Trail. “These art works symbolize the Beaver, which is who we are. We’re Beaver people, from the Beaver Clan,” Chief Whitney notes. “We’ve also integrated our language into the naming of certain areas within the development as we move forward. The elders are utilizing their experience with language to assist us in that.”

Environmental sustainability is also important, including the integration of solar and other renewable technologies on site.

“We originally estimated 25 years for completion,” Chief Whitney says, “then COVID hit, and people learned to shop differently. But now it’s coming back, so we are still looking at another 25 years for completion. We want to take the time to do it right. It’s the largest development on a First Nation in Canada, and many other First Nations are watching us. They come to visit and learn, and we always tell them: location, location, location, is the key.”

He notes the casino does very well for the Nation and provides much needed dollars for education (the Nation has three schools: an elementary, a junior high and Manyhorses Highschool, which opened in September 2020). “But we could be doing better. We’ve provided over a half billion dollars to the province through our casino.”

Development also provides skills, training and job opportunities for Nation members and Calgarians. For example, prior to opening, Costco provided training packages where Members could gain some experience in retail and customer service, on-the-ground training. “We work with a number of companies to provide initial training for our people to get involved with the retail opportunity, the hotel or casino, whatever it may be.” The casino currently employs 500 people from the city as well.

At 2,400 members today, most of whom live on-reserve, the Tsuut’ina Nation has grown considerably since Chief Whitney’s first term as Chief between 1984 and 1986. “When I joined the council in 1976, there were 500 people living here on the reserve,” he recalls. “We’ve grown fast and will continue to grow fast. So we try to be forward looking and thinking.”

Chief Whitney, who has four daughters, five granddaughters, one great-grandson and one more on the way, has spent most of his adult life as Chief of the Tsuut’ina Nation. When he wasn’t in the role, he spent time as a cattle rancher, bus driver, meat cutter at Canada Safeway, and as a milkman for Palm Dairy. He has also worked in the city of Calgary.

“I came back in 2019,” he says. “The skillset required is to listen carefully to your inner gut – to your heart – and then try to put that in perspective within your intelligence, within your mind. The elders used to tell me, ‘If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right’. So I took that advice and that’s how we’ve been working.”

A first-of-its-kind development that promises huge benefits to the Tsuut’ina Nation and its neighbours in Calgary, as well as a model of development for other First Nations, Taza Development is noteworthy for many reasons. The possibilities for its future are indeed limitless.