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Economic success for two Saskatchewan First Nations

SASKATOON – Two Saskatchewan First Nations are providing a prosperous job environment for its band members, in part because of their economic success.

“We want to be part of the economy, we want to be contributing citizens, we want jobs, we want opportunity,” said Chief Darcy Bear of the Whitecap Dakota First Nation.

When Bear took office in 1991, Whitecap had a 70 per cent unemployment rate and was essentially broke.

Now the First Nation has an unemployment rate of 4.1 per cent and boasts one of the most impressive lists of developments in the province; a top ranked golf course, casino and service station, among other ventures.

“Our job is to create the opportunity for the member to be able to step into and that’s when the First Nation helps support the member with education and those kinds of things,” said Darrell Balkwill, the director of economic development for Whitecap.

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The economic success of Whitecap has allowed the band to support its members in educational endeavors, whether they’re pursuing college, university or a trade program.

“We actually used to have a surplus in our post-secondary budget, today we have a deficit in our post-secondary budget, we don’t see it as a deficit though,” said Bear.

Extended interview: Whitecap Dakota Chief Darcy Bear

The First Nation pays for its member’s tuition to achieve a post-secondary education. University of Saskatchewan (U of S) business student Nora Joyea attended the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies before transferring to the U of S.

“I look at it as them investing in its own band members,” said Joyea when asked about Whitecap’s support of education.

The Muskeg Lake Cree Nation also focuses heavily on education, according to its leader, Chief Clifford Tawpisin. The group has achieved economic success partly through an urban reserve in Saskatoon’s Sutherland area.

Urban reserves receive the same sales tax exemptions that apply to rural reserves, according to the Canadian government.

The Muskeg urban reserve, which includes a gas station and property management, is one source of income that allows the First Nation to support all of its roughly 2,000 members, even if they only receive government funding for the 350 that live on the rural reserve located just north of Blaine Lake.

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“It’s all a matter of improving the quality of life for our membership,” said Tawpisin.

The First Nations also pays the tuition of members who hope to achieve a post-secondary education. One member, Milton GreyEyes, lived on the reserve as a child and now is the property manager in the Muskeg management team.

“Going through university, financially, obviously it can be tough at times and there is a lot of support, so it’s good to work for them and try to give back to them as much as I can,” said GreyEyes.

Joyea also hopes to work for her home community once she finishes her business degree.

“I hope to go back, because you see how successful whitecap is and who doesn’t want to be a part of that,” she said.