Cover Story

A legacy of alliances

Whitecap Dakota First Nation Graduation Day, June 2022. Photo by David Carter Photography.

How Whitecap Dakota First Nation is paving their way to economic sustainability by achieving self-governance

Located 26 kilometres south of Saskatoon, Whitecap Dakota First Nation (WDFN) is settled neatly among a cozy mix of rolling hills, sand dunes, and the ruggedness of the river valley. One of the few First Nations in Saskatchewan with road signs and street addresses, WDFN is a quiet but bustling community with many new residential and commercial developments.

WDFN Drummers on graduation day. Photo by David Carter Photography.

As a relatively small First Nation, with around 700 members, WDFN punches well above its weight economically, which is a success story intimately linked to the character of the Dakota people, the location of the First Nation, and their ongoing quest for self-governance and a sustainable economy.

“When I was first elected [to council], we didn’t have one dime in our bank account, we had an overdraft, we had a stack of payables, we were lacking policies, including governance,” says Chief Darcy Bear of WDFN. “Just seeing the financial health of our Nation, probably the easiest thing back then to do would have been to just walk away and say, ‘No, I don’t want to be part of this.’ But when you accept responsibility, being a leader, you have to accept all the challenges that go with it.”

Bear, a talented negotiator who probably knows federal legislation better than most of his federal counterparts, is unquestionably a leader. In the nearly thirty years he has been chief of WDFN, the community has grown its wealth, developed numerous on-reserve businesses, and is even attracting businesses to the First Nation’s business park—a rare feat for a First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Alongside this economic growth, WDFN and Chief Bear have nurtured community development, built infrastructure, created laws and forms of taxation, and are slowly making their way towards true self-governance.

From the start, two things continue to guide Chief Bear’s decision-making: the Dakota history of building alliances and the First Nation’s proximity to Saskatoon.

“We looked at the fact that we have our location beside the City of Saskatoon [and] that we’re here for 100 plus years, but we weren’t utilizing that connection,” says Bear. “But the other thing that we weren’t practicing was the fact that we’re big on alliances. And that’s what we started doing.”

Building alliances is a deep part of the Dakota character. The word Dakota means ‘friend’ or ‘ally,’ and the traditional government of the Dakota people was called “Oceti Sakowin,” an alliance of seven Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota groups. This “kinship network” shared many things, like language and spiritual beliefs, while maintaining trade and military alliances.

They did the same with the Europeans that showed up in their traditional territory, creating trade and military alliances with the British and French from the 1600s onward. More famously, the Dakota joined the military alliance, eventually repelling an American invasion of Canada from 1812 to 1815.

Bear’s approach to economic development, and nation-building on WDFN, is deeply embedded in forming alliances. These alliances have—among other things—“ended education disparity,” brought healthcare to everyone living on the First Nation, whether a WDFN member or not, created a tourism corridor, and paved a highway from Saskatoon to Lake Diefenbaker, named Chief Whitecap Trail after one of the founders of Saskatoon.

Back: Councillor Frank Royal, Chief Darcy Bear, Councillor Dwayne Eagle. Front: Veteran Elder Willis Royal. Photo by David Carter Photography.

“We have the only on-reserve provincial Primary Health Care Clinic in Saskatchewan, open to everybody,” says Bear. “Even the local farmer that’s non-Indigenous can walk into our health clinic and receive care, and that’s all part of what we call the spirit of alliances and working together with others.”

Stable governance structures are critical to creating alliances, and community and economic development, suggests Bear. “You need governance stability. That’s very important to any community, whether you’re a town, whether you’re a city, whether you’re a province, even the federal government, you need to have that whole governance stability,” says Bear.

As an example, Bear notes that WDFN moved from three-year election cycles to four in 2012. They also have a minimum of four Band Membership meetings a year to discuss community priorities and initiatives.

But just as important as stable governance is a community’s “right to an economy.”

“Any community needs to have any economy … it drives everything else, because from our land leases, our business profits, some of our taxes, it drives our own source revenues, and we can invest that money back into our community back into underfunded programs, such as our language and culture,” says Bear.

Bear points to the pass system as an example of the paternalism and restrictive regulation governing First Nations people. “For my grandfather to leave Whitecap when he was a young man, just to go get supplies or anything, he had to get a pass from an Indian agent,” says Bear. “If he wanted to sell his livestock or sell a crop or sell wood, he had to get a permit from the Indian agent to do that. No local farmers in the area had to get a permit from anybody or had to get a pass to leave their farm, but for First Nations we had to, so we didn’t have a right to an economy.”

The pass system, like residential schools, is something many Canadians consider the past. However, the impacts continue to negatively affect First Nations people, their communities, and economies.

“When I was first elected [in 1991], we had a 70 per cent unemployment rate,” says Bear. “We didn’t have modern infrastructure, we still had to cut wood to heat our homes, we had to haul water, there was no modern plumbing, there were outhouses. You’re 20 minutes from a modern city, yet you’re living in third-world conditions.”

Today, WDFN has, alongside other modern amenities, two reverse osmosis treatment plants, door-to-door recycling, new housing and other infrastructure, plus high-speed internet to every home, building, and business. The community also has an unemployment rate of around 8 per cent. Prior to the pandemic, it was below 5 per cent.

WDFN has achieved this through a strategy slightly different from most other First Nations in Saskatchewan.

With two or three-year election cycles and no way to leverage land or set up and enforce laws or taxation, many First Nations are forced to rely on the federal government for critical services, like infrastructure, education, and housing. To counter this trend, First Nations in Saskatchewan, since at least the 1980s, have started economic development corporations to generate revenues and jobs for their communities.

These corporate investment vehicles start, run, or invest in businesses often off-reserve and channel any profits into their communities to supplement ongoing shortfalls in services and infrastructure received from the federal government. WDFN took a slightly different path.

“We started out as many Nations do, trying to develop our own community-owned businesses,” says Darrell Balkwill, chief executive officer of Whitecap Development Corporation. “But we were very cognizant of trying to create investments within the community where our people live.”

Critical to on-reserve economic development is gaining more control over the land, suggests Balkwill. Under the Indian Act, reserve land title is held by the Crown, which is time-consuming and challenging to manage in a business environment. The First Nations Land Management Act (FNLMA) is a legal framework through which First Nations can develop their own land codes and determine how it’s used, which helps environment assessments and permits “move at the speed of business.”

“[FNLMA] eliminates 25 per cent of the Indian Act and allows the Nation to self-govern land,” says Bear.

With that in place, one of the first businesses WDFN developed was a golf course. Once again, Bear turned to a partnership. “Being a small First Nation, we couldn’t do that by ourselves. We didn’t have the capital [and] needed partners,” says Bear.

Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s Chief Harry Cook and Muskeg Lake Cree Nation’s Chief Harry Lafond, agreed to help. Together, they developed what Golf Digest named the “Best New Canadian Course,” marking the first time a Saskatchewan course has won an award in the golf industry’s top publication.

Initially planning to pay off their debts in twelve years, they managed it in six and bought out the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and Lac La Ronge Indian Band portions of the venture.

The golf course started a trend towards hospitality for the First Nation. Not long after the golf course, WDFN became the best and most practical option after a plebiscite voted out casino plans for downtown Saskatoon.

“We became Plan A,” says Bear. “We had to invest in infrastructure, water and sewer systems, high speed [internet] for the businesses, paved roads, street lighting, all of that telecommunications, three-phase power. So, we had to make those investments to attract the casino here.”

To get a return from these investments and maintain the infrastructure, WDFN introduced a property tax. Because WDFN is subject to the Indian Act, Bear started with what he refers to as an “Indian Bylaw,” which is recognized by the band but is challenging to enforce.

To gain more control over property taxes, and increase their legitimacy, WDFN later turned to the First Nations Fiscal Management Act. Through this Act, First Nations can develop their own property tax system, like municipalities, creating revenue and making the community more business and investment ready.

WDFN also has the provincial assessment agency, SAMA, do the assessments. “That way, nobody can say it’s unfair, because they do it for other jurisdictions around us,” says Bear.

Dakota Dunes Resort ribbon cutting in October 2020.

Most recently, the First Nation has added a hotel to its hospitality offering and has shovel-ready plans for a spa. These developments meant more infrastructure and investment at levels the Indian Act programs could not support. Bear says his own staff said he “was crazy, that they’d never get it done.” But they did and again it was about alliance and partnership.

“We had to show the province and the Feds, this is an investment,” says Bear. “So, we got an economist to measure [economic impact], and show them that they get their money back within five or six years.”

It worked. Each partner brought a third of the capital to the project. And, once the hospitality industry gets back on its feet, and tourism picks up, the business hopes to employ around 300 people. So, the economic impact will be significant, and that is only the start.

Wanting to attract private business to the First Nation, a business park was created, and the Nation has already attracted three businesses to it. “We don’t want to own every business in our community,” says Bear.

Balkwill also says gaining control of land management and investments in infrastructure was key to the business park’s development. But so was doing a bit of research into people’s expectations.

Besides providing access to amenities, the regulatory environment needs to be familiar and understandable, says Balkwill. So, WDFN researched Saskatoon and rural municipalities and tried to replicate them.

“The [WDFN] leadership has put a lot of time and effort into creating what, hopefully, is a welcoming environment for our business development and our business attraction,” says Balkwill.

The businesses WFDN has created have been profitable, and, with roughly 800 jobs on Nation and 300 people of employment age, the community has surplus jobs. But the increasingly important driver for the community is the type of revenue you see in other jurisdictions, like tax and land lease.

“The businesses that we’ve created have been profitable, but they’re also creating land lease revenue, they’re creating property tax revenue,” say Balkwill. “We’ve taken over jurisdiction for liquor consumption tax or GST. So, we’re creating other revenue streams, besides the profits, that go directly to the [WDFN] government to allow them to prop up programs and services for community members.”

With these revenues overtaking profits from the business in importance, the shift to business attraction is full steam ahead. “It started out with profits and employment,” says Balkwill. “And through the governance tools, it’s evolved to other types of revenue streams and economic benefits. So that’s why we’re pretty focused on trying to continue to invest here in the community where we can continue to have those revenue streams. We are evolving more and more now to business attraction.”