First Nation pursues economic growth so it can take full advantage of self-government powers
By Tyler Clark
SIOUX VALLEY DAKOTA NATION – Back in his younger days, Vince Tacan said that he’s routinely wonder why nothing ever seems to improve in his home community of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation
Now, he points to the Indian Act as a restrictive policy that binds the hands of First Nations leadership, setting communities up to perpetuate the status quo of government dependency.
“The Indian Act policies were just killing us,” he said earlier this week while reflecting on his now-changing community over coffee in the chief and council’s shared office next to their community’s gaming centre.
“That really pushed me to working hard on getting our agreement through.”
This agreement was “self-government,” which Sioux Valley Dakota Nation achieved Royal Assent for on March 4, 2014, after about 23 years of negotiations to move beyond the Indian Act.
Past chief Robert Bone helped pave the way for self-government and Tacan picked up the torch to lead the charge into a one-shot community vote, which came out in favour of the new governance model, making Sioux Valley the first in the Prairie provinces to do so.
More than three years since its Royal Assent, Tacan said that while things aren’t moving as quickly as he might like to see, at least they’re finally moving.
After 150 years of “sitting around” under the Indian Act, they have lots to do, he said.
While they have some facilities in the heart of the community, such as a gaming centre, health centre, gas station and community centre, they still don’t have most other things those living in comparably-sized communities (Sioux Valley has 1,028 members living on-reserve) take for granted, like a pharmacy or even public parks.
“We’re sitting here with none of those things, so we’re basically rebuilding a community from the ground up,” Tacan said.
The groundwork that led to their self-government status began with community consultations around what members wanted to see at Sioux Valley.
Topping their list of priorities was child and family services, followed by policing, economic development, education and health.
Under the Indian Act, First Nations chiefs and council can’t tackle these issues as head-on as manty of them would like, University of Manitoba Department of Native Studies head Peter Kulchyski said.
The Indian Act gives band councils the ability to manage their community similarly to how a municipality would, whereas most First Nations want to approach things in a broader government-like capacity.
In Sioux Valley’s case, 52 jurisdictions have been placed under the community’s control under their self-government agreement that they did not have control of under the Indian Act, including governance, citizenship, Dakota cultural matters, land management, natural resources, education, social development and support services and more.
They might have greater control over these things under self-government, but before they can take full advantage of their newfound powers they’ll need money to pay for things.
“You can’t really do anything unless you have a financial base to operate from,” Tacan said.
To this end, 80 acres of land was purchased tat the northwest corner of Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 21 intersection, with Sioux Valley’s leadership planning to convert the lands to reserve status.
They’ve already constructed a Petro-Canada station on the property, which they hope to surround with a new gaming centre and other attractions that might draw in tourism during the coming years, employing more people out of Sioux Valley.
They’d anticipated receiving reserve status for the lands by this point, but there’s been a hold-up at the provincial level, which Tacan hopes to resolve as soon as possible.
Considering the Manitoba Tories’ commitment to supporting economic development, he’s optimistic that their pledge will apply to First Nations communities and that they’ll soon be able to push the project into a higher gear.
It’s “baby steps”, he said, adding that their Petro-Canada station, which opened in January, isn’t just a small business, it’s a “bridge” that he said proves to surrounding communities that they’re keen on securing their own economic independence.
While there’s been a delay in getting reserve status on the 80 acres of land on which the station is situated, he said that their self-government status has at least made their large-scale aspirations achievable.
If the Indian Act is as constrictive as Tacan says it is, why is Sioux Valley still the only First Nation in the Prairie provinces to do away with it in favour of self-government?
It’s not that the Indian Act is preferred, Kulchyski said, adding that the act is centres on the stipulation that reserve lands are held in trust by the Crown for the use and benefit of the “Indian,” as the act refers to First Nations people.
It’s up to the Crown to determine what the benefit of the Indian means, he said, calling the act a “one size fits all” model that keeps the federal government in the driver’s seat.
Self-government, such as what Sioux Valley currently has in place, reflects “the best that can be accomplished within the existing policy framework,” Kulchyski said, adding that whule it’s an improvement it’s still not ideal.
“They can accomplish a fair number of things under the existing framework…that may move them ahead, while not achieving what might be the long-term goal.”
The long-term goal for many First Nations is sovereignty, which self-government under its current parameters does not allow, leading some First Nations leaders to delay pursuing self-government until such time as it’s closer to their vision.
The current self-government framework still keeps the feds in the driver’s seat. Although they’re relinquished greater control to the First Nation, they can still call the shots if they see something they don’t like.
“It’s not a model that First Nations want to generalize,” Kulchyski said.
For Sioux Valley, it’s a means of finally doing something good, Tacan said.
“There are still folks here who don’t have a purpose, and I think that leaves the door open for things like depression, suicide and all the other stuff that goes on,” he said.
“My goal is to move as quickly as I can, to get things built, to provide the opportunities so there are no excuses. I don’t want people to say ‘there’s nothing for me to do.’”
The Brandon Sun reached out to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada for their response to Sioux Valley’s progress on self-government and we provided a largely generalized written response.
“Canada is committed to honouring this historic self-government Agreement, and will continue to work with the Province of Manitoba in a spirit of partnership and co-operation to fully implement the agreement,” spokesperson Shawn Jackson wrote.
“Self-government is part of the foundation for a renewed friendship with Canada, and is a pathway to development and economic growth that will generate benefits for Indigenous people and all Canadians.
“Our shared goal is to work together to move beyond the Indian Act and make real progress to advance reconciliation with First Nations Communities.