Located a 3.5 hour drive north of the city of Edmonton and covering a total area of 1,300,851 hectares (13008.51 km2), Big Lakes County is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Its boundaries stretch from south and east of the Town of Swan Hills to north and west of the Town of High Prairie. Hiking, hunting, birding, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing are just a few of the outdoor activities that abound in the County, but the hallmark of the County is it's large lakes. Lesser Slave Lake, Snipe Lake and Winagami Lake are all well known for the fishing and recreational opportunities they present. It is against this backdrop of natural splendour that Big Lakes County strives to provide effective local government to its residents.
Big Lakes County was incorporated as a Municipal District on January 1, 1995, after 90 years as an Improvement District. The I.D. Advisory Council (including Alvin Billings, Guy L’Heureux, Gary Basarab, Craig Bissell, Ken Killeen, Larry Lamouche, Tom Milner, Gail Perry and Ethel Ruecker) had successfully guided the I.D. through the incorporation process and took on the new responsibilities of leading the newly formed Municipal District of Big Lakes. Alvin Billings, the former Chairman of the Advisory Council, assumed the role of Reeve. Municipal elections were subsequently held in October 1995, in conjunction with the province-wide local authorities elections. These elections saw the return of five Councillors, including Guy L’Heureux, Craig Bissell, Ken Killeen, Gail Perry and Ethel Ruecker. As well, four new Councillors were elected including Ralph Courtorielle, Joyce Dvornek, Helen Henderson and John Simpkins. Mr. L’Heureux was chosen to serve as Reeve.
The commitment and leadership of these Councillors, together with the Municipal Administration led by (former) Chief Administrative Officer, John Eriksson, were key ingredients to the successful transition to M.D. status. The continuing dedication and teamwork of Council and Administration has been a key factor in the successes of the municipality in the last 20 years. In the 20th Anniversary year as a Municipal District (2015), Big Lakes has become a County. In Alberta, this transition brings no jurisdictional or organizational changes. However, the County views this change as an opportunity to re-brand and celebrate forward movement into the next 20 years.
Six months prior to the transition from an Improvement District to a Municipal District, Big Lakes assumed responsibility from Alberta Transportation and Utilities for upgrading and maintaining all of the local transportation infrastructure. A Public Works shop was therefore constructed in 1995. Today, the County maintains a total of 1,327 kilometres of roads, 337.59 kilometres of water mains and 28.43 kilometres of wastewater mains. In addition to maintaining the roads and utilities, the County manages the Swan Hills Airport and the High Prairie Airport, the Regional Landfill and several waste transfer stations.
Other new responsibilities that Big Lakes assumed since incorporation include the establishement of its own subdivision approval authority in 1995, and incorporating the Big Lakes Family and Community Services into the municipal administration as a new department on April 1, 1997. Also in 1997, the M.D. adopted its first Municipal Development Plan and revised its Land Use By-Law as required by the new planning provisions of the Municipal Government Act. The M.D. also negotiated the implementation of 9-1-1 services throughout the area.
Seeking opportunities to improve regional cooperation in order to achieve mutual benefits is one of the ways municipalities have been trying to maximize the services available to their residents at the most reasonable cost. Facilitating cooperation and communication between the County and its neighbours has been an important priority in the region. For over two decades Big Lakes has maintained Intermunicipal Agreements with the Town of Swan Hills and the Town of High Prairie. These agreements are updated regularly and include various services such as fire protection, recreation, libraries and operating the local airports.
Regional cooperation between the County, the three Metis Settlements and the four First Nations communities is also important. For example, the Big Lakes County supplies water to the Kapawe’no First Nation and the Swan River First Nation. In another unique agreement, the Big Lakes, in conjunction with Alberta Transportation and Utilities, reached an "Understanding Agreement" with the Peavine Metis Settlement to upgrade the access road to the Peavine Metis Settlement. A similar agreement was negotiated with the East Prairie Metis Settlement.
People and Places in the County
Big Lakes County has a total population of 4,193 (2011 Fed. census) with much of the population concentrated along the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake and in the west of portion of the County. There are five hamlets within the County, Kinuso, Joussard, Faust, Enilda and Grouard. In addition, three Metis Settlements and four First Nations communities are within the boundaries of the County, operating independantly.
However, the communities within the County are characterized by a relaxed, friendly environment. This rural hospitality, combined with the multitude of recreational opportunities, makes Big Lakes an attractive tourist destination. Consequently, tourism is a growing industry in the area. In addition to tourism, the County is home to many of the traditional resource industries that drive the economy of much of the rest of Alberta. The oil and gas and forestry industries are extensively involved in resource extraction and processing in the area, providing a source of employment for area residents as well as a solid tax base for the County. There are also approximately 568,035 acres of farmland in the County, making agriculture another important contributor to the local economy. At one time, there was a commercial fishing industry in the region.
The Force of Nature
The wild beauty of nature abounds in the County. An abundance of wildlife ranging from bears to birds, the rugged forest wilderness and the many beautiful lakes, streams and several beaches make Big Lakes truly spectacular. However, as residents and tourists enjoy the opportunities nature presents, they are from time to time reminded of the powerful forces nature can wield. The County has endured both flooding and forest fires.
Adjusting to Change
Adjusting to change has become a way of life in Big Lakes County. Having successfully adapted to the many challenges that have impacted the region, changes in the Municipal Government Act and Planning Acts, coping with reduced grants and meeting demands for increases services, the County feels that through continued hard work and proper management, it will be in an excellent position to provide responsible local government to its ratepayers today and into the future.
(Segments paraphrased from excerpts of "Serving Martha & Henry: Rural Municipal Government in Alberta 1983-1998", published by the AAMD&C in 1998)