Nearly a decade ago at a Vancouver conference, a conversation began that would become the start of an incredible relationship. In 2010, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) held a conference about infrastructure, and one of the speakers was Stephen Fay, Head of Indigenous Banking at Bank of Montreal (BMO). Fay was there to present on the bank’s infrastructure loan program, which at the time had a 15-year amortization. Little did Fay know that Chief Darcy Bear from Whitecap Dakota First Nation was there, waiting to talk to him after the presentation was over.
“It was late in the day, and I wanted to talk to Stephen when he was done presenting,” says Bear. At the time, Bear was working with financial institutions that were offering amortizations as short as 12 years for first nations communities. Off-reserve projects, however, were getting 30-year amortizations on long-term projects in bond markets. Fay and Bear sat down to discuss the needs of the Whitecap Dakota First Nation, Bear’s vision for the future, and how BMO could help. That was the beginning of something extraordinary. “We both saw an opportunity that day,” says Fay. “I saw what Chief Bear wanted to accomplish, and he saw that BMO could help him realize their economic potential.”
The two leaders and their teams collaborated on how they could work together to finance the infrastructure needs at the First Nation near Saskatoon. Whitecap Dakota moved their financial business to BMO, and BMO developed lending solutions that would finance projects with a longer amortization (up to 30 years) at competitive interest rates. In the years since that meeting, BMO and Whitecap Dakota have worked together and created opportunities for not only themselves, but other First Nations across Canada.
Whitecap Dakota began by developing its infrastructure with BMO and moved on to update its own laws and regulations to better its business environment and community through taxation, land leases and local bylaws. “Our community is signatory to the Framework Agreement on Land Management with the Federal Government—Canada refers to it is as the First Nation Land Management Act,” says Bear. “This legislation has allowed us to eliminate 25 per cent of the Indian Act. It enabled our community to develop our own Land Code (land laws) and provided resources for any land reclamation giving out lands a clean bill of health. It also provided resources for land use planning, zoning and development standards.”
The work on land management with the federal government, opened doors not only for Whitecap Dakota but also for BMO. “We no longer have to designate lands for economic development and have a land surrender vote via the Indian Act, which also requires the Minister to sign off on our lease,” says Bear. “Today, our council has the self-governing authority to sign up to a 99-year commercial leasehold interest and a 99-year residential leasehold interest.” All leases are legally surveyed and registered with the federal government and financial institutions such as BMO can now provide both commercial and residential mortgages on reserve. “BMO’s approach to housing in First Nations communities has led to the introduction of an On-Reserve Housing Loan Program in 110 communities across the country,” says Fay. “It was a game changer for the communities involved.”
Whitecap Dakota has also invested in three-phase power, natural gas expansion, telecommunications, fibre for high speed internet, paved roads, street lights, water and waste water expansion. The First Nation has also worked on taxation and land assessment. “We have a Real Property Tax Law via the First Nation Fiscal Management Act,” says Bear. “We use the Saskatchewan Assessment Management Agency to do all property assessments, then we apply our mill-rate and issue a tax notice to the businesses on our lands.”
Today, Whitecap Dakota and BMO are working together on another major project—the Dakota Dunes Hotel and the Dakota Dunes Springs Spa. Expected to create another 225 jobs when they open, the new complex (paired with the already existing Dakota Dunes Casino and Dakota Dunes Golf Links course) will be a major tourist destination in the Saskatoon area. The work doesn’t end there. After completion in 2020, the First Nation has plans for a condominium development, business park, historical interpretive centre and twin arena complex.
“This project is a huge boon to the Whitecap Dakota First Nation, and we’re proud to be a financial partner,” says Fay. For Bear, the Dakota Dunes Hotel and Spa is another milestone about to be completed from the vision he and his council have developed. “The work we have done has allowed our community to move at the speed of business. This project is one more way we’re helping our community and our people thrive,” says Bear. “We want to take part in the economy like all Canadians, and we want to honour our ancestors through our nation building. This work is doing that.”
Left to right: Zane Hansen, President and CEO, Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority; Chief Darcy Bear, Whitecap Dakota First Nation; The Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Indigenous Services at the time; Councillor Dwayne Eagle, Whitecap Dakota First Nation; Councillor Dalyn Bear, Whitecap Dakota First Nation; and Stephen Fay, Head of the Indigenous Banking Unit, BMO Financial Group