Whitecap Dakota on the Road to Autonomy

Dakota Whitecap First Nation is continuing its journey toward self-sufficiency with the signing of an agreement that paves the way to self-government.

As debate swirls in political circles over whether or not to repeal the Indian Act, a Saskatchewan First Nation has essentially shucked it with the recent signing of an agreement that paves the way to self-government.

Signed on January 25, the day after the historic Crown–First Nations Gathering between First Nation chiefs and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the agreement lays out a to-do list of points that the 562-member Whitecap Dakota First Nation will now negotiate with the federal government. At the end the Whitecap Dakota will have law-making powers spelled out, along with parameters for resource management, cultural preservation and economic development.

“The Framework Agreement represents the roadmap to bring Whitecap’s governance home from Ottawa, so that we may govern ourselves as our ancestors have done for generations,” the First Nation said in a newsletter to its members after the signing. The newsletter also noted the significance of 2012 as the 225th anniversary of the first written treaty between the British and the Dakota. The Whitecap Dakota have lived on the eight-square-mile reservation since the 1860s, when they were led there by Chief Whitecap, according to the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND).

The agreement “will foster an autonomous and accountable First Nation government and also include arrangements to ensure harmonious relationships with other governments,” AAND said in a statement.

The Whitecap Dakota First Nation has already been on the map for its ascent out of near bankruptcy and 70 percent unemployment, where it was 20 years ago. Under Chief Darcy Bear’s administration the Whitecap Dakota have achieved a complete turnaround, with a casino, golf course and planned hotel, as well as housing developments. The First Nation partnered with the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and the Lac La Ronge First Nation to create the 18-hole championship golf course in 2004. The government has received 20 consecutive clean audits as well.

"Governance, accountability and transparency have been the cornerstone to our continued success,” said Chief Bear in the AAND statement. “A self-government agreement will recognize the Whitecap Dakota First Nation as a government with the ability to create laws, authorities and empower our community members to break the cycle of dependence created by the Indian Act."

AAND Minister John Duncan called the agreement “an important milestone along a path of renewal and reconciliation.”

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-Chut Atleo hailed it as “a great example of a First Nation community forging ahead to liberate themselves from the shackles of the Indian Act.”

Bear said the Indian Act “was meant to keep us dependent," he told CBC News. "[And] when you're dependent on somebody, they have power over you. So you have to break that dependency and start empowering the people."