Between buffalo and bombs, business is literally booming on the Tsuu T'ina First Nation located southwest of Calgary.
The 1,000-plus members of the reserve have parlayed their business acumen and negotiating skills into a lucrative and unique contract to clear their land of unexploded munitions left over from military training exercises.
Wolf's Flat Ordnance Disposal Corp. is one of a score of businesses the nation has established, but it is the one with a billion dollar potential.
Since 1908, a 12,000-acre parcel of the Tsuu T'ina nation, formerly known as the Sarcee reserve, has been used by the Department of National Defence for strategic maneuvers under a lease signed by a former chief.
The lease expired in 1985 and under the terms of the lease the land was to be cleared of unexploded ordnance, called UXO's, before being returned to the members. Although the military declared the land cleared, the First Nation refused to take the land back because the area was still littered with bullets, flares, rockets, simulators, grenades, pyrotechnics of all kinds and unexploded bombs.
Carol Gottfriedson, business development administrator for Tsuu T'ina said the issue was a sleeping giant nobody was addressing, but which was a great cause for concern among the people.
The military training and testing area is in the northern part of the reserve and was neither inhabited or developed so dangers were few. That was until a woman and her two grandchildren, out picking berries, were injured. One of the children picked up a UXO and it detonated, injuring all three. They are the only known victims of the UXO's, but Tsuu T'ina intends that it will never happen again.
In 1986, the chief and council formed Wolf's Flat Ordnance Disposal Corp. to take control of the contamination clean up. The name comes from the late Big Wolf, an Elder and principal man of the nation. Chief Roy Whitney said "we were adamant that the lands be completely free from any contamination that would put our people at risk in the future. We knew that our concerns would be addressed to our satisfaction only if we took a hands-on approach and didn't rely on the military, which had caused the contamination, to do the job for us."
Originally established for Tsuu T'ina clearance work only, it was decided the company could expand into other regions and use the people's knowledge and skills elsewhere after work on their own land was finished.
Wolf's Flat is currently the only Aboriginal-owned and operated ordnance disposal company in the world, with staff trained by world-class experts with experience in Kuwait, South America and the Falkland Islands. Tsuu T'ina experts are familiar with disposal underwater, in the desert and in the tropics. The full-time staff of 79 nation members makes Wolf's Flat the largest corporation of its kind in North America.
Disposal is carried out by 10 search teams of four members each team. A team is made up of an ordnance disposal expert, a leader assistant, a digger and a locator. Four other teams of four operate a specialized data-gathering computer system for ordnance location. In addition there is one three-member setting out team, three quality control teams, one safety office and two Hydroax operators. A Hydroax is a giant scissor-like machine that cuts down brush and clears an area for disposal work.
The area at Tsuu T'ina has been under clearance for seven years and it is estimated there are still two to three years of work left before the land is safe for development. Chief Whitney and the Tsuu T'ina council have discussed options for development, but no plans are firm. Meanwhile, the company is gaining a worldwide reputation in the business and has been invited to other countries facing the same contamination problems.
In the United States there are more than 400 Indian reservations and more than 200 of them have been used as military testing ranges. Wolf's Flat has acted in an advisory capacity in Chilliwack,B.C. and in Australia and is currently in negotiations for work in Nicaragua. Gottfriedson said the prospects for the business are global.
"This is a worldwide problem. The whole issue of UXO clearance only started coming out when the leases began expiring and the U.S. and Canadian governments began to close bases allowing the land to revert to the people. There's so much potential for the business across the world, like in South America, the Philippines, Hawaii and Africa."
There are only three ordnance disposal companies in Canada besides Wolf's Flats. Dillon SNC and Notra are located in the east and owned by ex-military personnel. X-Tech is based in Western Canada and is under contract to Wolf's Flat to do quality control work.
It is estimated that explosive ordnance disposal, especially land mines, has a global value in excess of $1 billion that will be expended within 12 years if nations are to be cleared by 2012, the year stipulated under the recently signed international land mines treaty obligations. The United Nations reports there are 100 million land mines planted worldwide, but for every one there are three UXO's.
A team of six Tsuu T'ina members recently returned from their second visit to Panama as advisors to the Panamanian people who have land that was contaminated by the U.S. military. Three to four ranges leased by the military for testing are due to be returned in the year 2000, but are littered with UXO's, particularly along the Panama Canal. The initial December 1997 visit was to assess the contaminated area. A month ago company representatives met with the different local and government officials dealing with UXO clearance and a contract to work in Panama was secured with funding through the Canadian International Development Agency.
Gottfriedson said the Panamanian experience was interesting for the team.
"It's the first time any of them were exposed to heat of 42C and tropical snakes and bugs. The trees and grass are alive with thing we don't have here. Down there they had to walk through what's called elephant grass that's very tall and has sharp edges. They weren't worried about the bombs so much as about what was in the grass, like scorpions, tarantulas, bees as much as four inches long, and snakes in the trees," she said.
According to a Wolf's Flat brochure, the company trains all employees in technical procedures. On-site training covers the use of locator equipment, explosive ordnance recognition, safety and emergency procedures, clearance methods, site layout and marking and date recording collation. Training takes place yearly to keep up to date on new ordnance or procedures and teams are comprised of men and women who must be more than 18 years of age. This is not a job for summer students.
Once the undergrowth has been cleared by the Hydroax the land is marked into clearance areas and subdivided into four cells per hectare. A locator is used to detect metal to a depth of six feet, but, where required, locator teams bore up to 100 feet to recover deeply buried ordnance. Every item recovered is treated as a live munition until proven otherwise. Suspect items are clearly marked and catalogued. All live ordnance is detonated by a demolitions expert and all fragments are collected and removed.
Once a search team has cleared an area, the quality control team checks the work and ensures there are no bits or parts of dangerous items left in the ground. Following the quality control teams' approval, the land is plowed for one last check and all pits, trenches, dugouts and holes created by the military are filled. Reclamation work to convert the area to vegetation is contracted out and the land is restored to its natural.