Restoration: Whitecap Dakota First Nation on the Path to Self-Governance

Hon. Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Chief Darcy Bear, Whitecap Dakota First Nation
Hon. Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Chief Darcy Bear, Whitecap Dakota First Nation

Whitecap Dakota First Nation, led by Chief Darcy Bear, is in the final stages of negotiating and ratifying a self-government agreement with the Government of Canada. The road to self-governance began when Chief Bear and the Whitecap Dakota Council ran into roadblocks trying to build economic opportunities for the First Nation. “First Nation governance of the community is dictated by the Indian Act, accountability to the Minister and rules governing almost every aspect of life and government on reserve,” says Murray Long, director of Self-Government, at Whitecap Dakota. “Chief Bear was elected Chief in 1994 and started to initiate different opportunities for economic growth. The first one was the golf course. As they worked on that, they ran into problems with a cumbersome land management process under the Indian Act which required a Minister’s approval for all land transactions in the community.”

Whitecap Dakota First Nation

Whitecap Dakota First Nation

These issues drove Whitecap Dakota to become an early signatory to the First Nations Land Management Framework Agreement in 2003 and passed its own Land Code under the First Nations Land Management Act with land use plans, zoning, and leasehold interests. In years since, this new system helped advance economic projects such as the Dakota Dunes casino, a business park, a hotel that will be opening this fall and plans for a future spa and golf residential developments. The new system removed 25 per cent of the Indian Act’s and proved that more can be done without it than within it.

Chief Bear and the Council recognized the opportunities through further self-governance and pursued negotiations with Canada, beginning with signing a framework agreement in 2012. Whitecap Dakota is now in the closing stages of the final step—negotiation of a final government agreement with Canada—and will head to ratification and a vote in June 2021. “Our goal is to negotiate a self-government agreement that recognizes Whitecap Dakota First Nation as a government alongside other governments in Canada, with powers to make and enforce our own laws, supported by fair fiscal relationship that ensures our governance is sustainable for future generations,” says Chief Bear.

Whitecap Dakota is unique, however. “When Treaties 4 and 6 were negotiated in 1874 and 1876, the Dakota people were not included because they were seen as American Indians, not British Indians despite being allies of the British in the War of 1812 and signing military and economic alliance treaty in 1787. Chief Whitecap was at signings at Fort Qu’Appelle and Fort Carlton but was not permitted to sign Treaty,” says Long. “It is certainly ironic that Canada has now recognized the Dakota role in the War of 1812 Bicentennial celebrations when Dakota warriors such as Wabasha were made officers, yet still not seen fully as part of Canada.”

That is a critical part of the treaty relationship that has been missing for Whitecap Dakota and has led to complex talks with the federal government. In the negotiations, the lack of treaty has been an issue since the beginning. For example, Whitecap Dakota First Nations were given 16 acres of land per person or 80 acres for a family of five. However, treaty First Nations got 128 acres per person or 640 acres per family of five. “As we move forward with our governance negotiations, we have a companion process in place to seek reconciliation with Canada that will recognize the Dakota’s role in Canada.  We look forward to negotiating a treaty agreement that puts it in its rightful place within the fabric of Canada where we truly belong,” says Chief Bear.

As the negotiations come to an end this year, many of these historical issues continue to be worked on. Beyond land, the negotiations have covered taxation, infrastructure, and lawmaking. “We’ve negotiated a lot of powers to make our own laws. It will be recognized on our lands and gives us more authority to control our own affairs. All of those things create, I believe, a stronger community than being controlled from the outside,” says Long. The First Nation is also approaching negotiations from a business sense, to ensure that they are being treated fairly by the Government of Canada. As well, they want to ensure that they can carry out successful self-governance and have comparable services to the communities around them. “If the fiscal relationship between the two governments isn’t sound, you’re not going to be able to maintain sustainable governance and you set yourself up for failure,” says Long.

This fall, Whitecap Dakota will present its draft Constitution to its members for consultation and finalize the governance agreement with the federal government in early 2021. In Spring 2021, all Whitecap Dakota members will be able to review the self-government agreement, and vote on ratification in the summer. After ratification comes a two-year implementation and then Whitecap Dakota is a self-governing First Nation, adding to the already 25 self-government agreements involving 43 Indigenous communities across the country. “My Council and I have worked with our Elders and community members from the beginning of this process. We have a mandate to negotiate a fair and lasting agreement that works for our community today and the generations that follow,” says Chief Bear.

What is Indigenous self-government?

Canada recognizes that Indigenous peoples have an inherent right of self-government guaranteed in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Canada’s Inherent Right Policy was first launched in 1995 to guide self-government negotiations with Indigenous communities.

Currently there are about 50 self-government negotiation tables across the country. These tables are at various stages of the negotiation process and in many cases are being negotiated in conjunction with modern treaties.

Self-government agreements address (among other things) the following key aspects:

  • the structure of the new government and its relationship with other governments
  • new funding arrangements
  • the relationship of laws between jurisdictions (such as how different laws will work together)
  • how programs and services will be delivered to community members
  • ways to promote improved community well-being (often with a focus on Indigenous languages, heritage and culture and socio-economic initiatives)
  • preparations for when the agreement takes effect (such as implementation planning).

-From Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada