Nation building is a dynamic concept with multiple dimensions that has no fixed formula because different things work for different aboriginal communities. In general, the nation-building view assumes that economic and social progress on first nation land is not an economic challenge as previously believed, but a political obstacle that is in need of overcoming. (Wegner, Module 1)
The nation-building approach argues that this problem can be fixed through effective governance, economic development, and finding the right cultural match for each nation. This can be achieved through the utilization of five tools; exercising sovereignty, building capable governing institutions, creating a cultural match, providing a strategic orientation, and having strong leadership to execute each.
In the past decade, many first nations reserves in Canada have begun the process of distancing themselves from the standard approach of development in favor of the nation-building approach in hopes of bringing prosperity to their people. This article will critically apply the theory of nation building to Whitecap Dakota First Nation in order to gain insights into the success of their nation-building approach and the potential limitations faced by the community to future development.
In order to critically examine Whitecap Dakota First Nation under a nation-building approach, it is necessary to develop a theoretical framework in order to guide and clarify the discussion.
A ‘nation’ is a community of people sharing similar characteristics such as language, culture, or traditions. A membership code is essential to establishing who is and is not considered part of the nation. From 30 years of research conducted by Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development emerges five elements that are important to achieving sustainable development for native nations; sovereignty, capable governing institutions, cultural match, strategic orientation, and leadership. (“What Is Native Nation Building?” )
The researchers in the study assert that these are not requirements to successful nation building, however; those nations who exercise these are more likely to succeed. What distinguishes the nation-building approach from the standard approach to aboriginal development is that communities begin to switch from a state of inaction to action in attempts to begin to dictate their own destinies.
The end goal of the nation-building approach is to achieve self-determination with the sustained ability to exercise practical sovereignty within the given territory.
Self-determination is defined as “control by the people of a given territory over the form their government shall have, without the manipulation by any other nation.” (Wegner, Module 1) Self-determination essentially means aboriginal governments get the ability to decide their own fate rather than have it dictated by the federal government and the provisions of the Indian Act.
Practical Sovereignty is defined as “exercising practical control (i.e. control in practice) within existing laws over the essential areas within aboriginal governance that enable nation building.” (Wegner, Module 1) A key component than of self-determination is the ability to exercise practical sovereignty. This can mean having the ability to create laws and taxation mechanisms as well as being able to execute program service delivery.
Whitecap Dakota First Nation
“The Whitecap Dakota First Nation (WDFN) is a modern and progressive First Nation with a proud culture and a strong sense of community. Whitecap’s members have mandated their leadership to implement a nation-building vision geared toward Strengthening Community and Building Opportunity.” (“Welcome.” Whitecap Dakota First Nation.)
WDFN is a non-treaty first nation community located 26 km south of Saskatoon. As shown above, WDFN has consciously undertaken the nation-building process through a mandate provided to their leaders by their community. As of 2008, Whitecap Dakota has a small membership base consisting of 518 members. (“Whitecap Dakota First Nation.” Saskatoon Tribal Council)
Over the past twenty years, Whitecap Dakota has gone from being a poor first nation land to one of the most successful, becoming a model for aboriginal governance and economic development for other first nations. As Chief Darcy Bear explained, “When I first came into leadership with our community here, we had an unemployment rate of about 70% and today we have an unemployment rate of about 6%, … and we actually have more jobs than people today…”. (“ARCHIVED – Whitecap Dakota First Nation Economic Development Partnerships.” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada)
This success, however, has yet to be examined critically examined.
WDFN has expressed great desire for self-governance and the creation of effective governing institutions for their community. Beginning to move from self-administration towards self-governance is a crucial step in the nation-building process.
WDFN began this process in 2004 with the negotiation of the Whitecap Dakota First Nations Land Code. This allowed Whitecap to begin management of their own resources and was their first move to distance themselves from governance under the Indian Act. The Land code allowed for leasing and taxation over their first nation territory and was the first step towards sustainable revenue generation for the community through creating the ability for diversified economic investment into projects such as a golf course and casino.
These were the initial steps taken by WDFN in the quest for self-governance and was expanded in 2009 with the Whitecap Dakota First Nations Land Management Act. The next step for WDFN in attaining effective governance and self-determination was the negotiation of a self-governance agreement with the federal government.
WDFN has taken significant steps towards gaining sovereignty and ultimately self-governance for their community by beginning the process of negotiating a self-governance agreement with the federal government. Self-government agreements address the structure and accountability of first nation governments, their law-making powers, financial arrangements and their responsibilities for providing programs and services to their members. (“Whitecap Dakota Self-Government Negotiations.” Whitecap Dakota First Nation.)
The timeline for achieving self-governance for WDFN began on April 27, 2009, when the WDFN community gave the mandate for leadership to begin the process. (“Self Government Negotiations.” Whitecap Dakota First Nation) Negotiating self-governance agreements have the crucial role of replacing the outdated economic and governance structure created through the Indian Act. (“Fact Sheet – Whitecap Dakota Self-Government Negotiations.” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.)
The formal self-governance negotiations with the federal government began in 2010 and lead to a Framework Agreement in 2012 that set the process for further negotiations. An Agreement in Principle was reached in 2015 and by 2018 a final Agreement will be enacted after a community referendum is held by WDFN.
It is important to note that WDFN has achieved legitimacy and transparency with their government through exercising responsible governance by seeking community consultation at each stage of the self-governance negotiations. They have achieved this by holding community meetings after each agreement and there will be a community referendum in order to decide on the final agreement that is to be implemented. Taking these steps also helps to ensure that the proper cultural match is made during negotiations.
In order to sustain self-governance, internal mechanisms are being created and developed which can foster and support effective governance. These include a WDFN membership code and a constitution for the WDFN community. The ability to provide effective governance is not just limited to institutional design.
Effective governance is a prerequisite to successful nation building. Three important requirements to obtaining effective governance are:
Whitecap Dakota has made substantial advancement in all three areas under their nation-building approach.
In regards to transparency, in order to foster investment Whitecap opened their books long before the passing of bill c-27. Furthermore, Whitecap Dakota was a major supporter and facilitator of bill c-27 that led to the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, 2013. (“Whitecap Dakota First Nation Posts Transparency Act Disclosure.” Whitecap Dakota First Nation.)
This was not only a crucial nation-building step for Whitecap Dakota, but for every other reserve located within Canada. The First Nations Financial Transparency Act requires First Nations to publish their audited consolidated financial statements and a Schedule of Remuneration and Expenses for elected officials on their website beginning in the 2013/14 Fiscal year, by July 31 each year. (“Whitecap Dakota First Nation Posts Transparency Act Disclosure.” Whitecap Dakota First Nation.)
This was a needed step in the process of attaining transparency, legitimacy, and accountability on First Nations Land and Whitecap Dakota played a key facilitative role in getting this process moving.
In order for the governing structures to have legitimacy through the nation-building approach, the proper cultural match is required. In practice, the Indian Act has hindered this process by imposing an imperial system of governance upon first nation communities.
To build legitimacy and effective governing institutions, many first nations have begun to move away from the Indian Act and its dictation over aboriginal governance, specifically, the way first nations elections are conducted. Out of 70 first nations in Saskatchewan, 44 have begun to achieve this, including Whitecap Dakota, by adopting Custom Election Acts that are developed by their own communities and not imposed by outside government.
By moving away from having their electoral system being dictated by the Indian Act, Whitecap Dakota has been able to build legitimacy within its governance structures and this contributes to the establishment of effective governing institutions. This change has also contributed to stability in leadership because terms have been changed from 2 years to 4 years under their new system, which ultimately means less of a turnover within the Chief and Council.
This legitimacy is also being created through the WDFN’s attempts to create a constitution through community consultation. As WDFN develops more effective governing institutions they are attempting to assert more practical sovereignty through building partnerships with local, provincial, and federal governments.
Nation building is driven by the emergence of practical sovereignty whereby first nations take control of their own agenda and use the tools available to them to craft an approach that reflects local conditions, needs, cultures, and values. (Wegner, Module 1) Whitecap Dakota First Nation has been marked by a transformation towards self- determination by asserting their own decision-making power through negotiated agreements with local, provincial and federal governments.
Self-determination gives nations the ability to take hold of their own destiny and to start moving from inaction to action.
WDFN has pursued this through partnerships and joint investment with local, provincial, and federal governments. This can be seen through such arrangement as their expansion of their water facility which received an additional $4.5 million boost to its funding from both provincial and federal governments. (Menz 2016)
They have also made agreements to begin service delivery in partnership with provincial governments in areas such as education. This particular agreement allowed Whitecap Dakota Elementary School to become part of the Saskatoon Public Schools, making it the first on-reserve school to be part of a Saskatchewan school division. (News Talk Radio Staff 2014)
This is only the tip of the iceberg for WDFN and their partnerships. The Saskatoon Health Region is partnering with the Whitecap Dakota First Nation to create a primary health care and chronic disease management service, model. (“Primary Health Care – First Nations and Metis Partnerships.” 2014)
Through partnerships and joint ventures, WDFN now offers programs and services in Economic Development, Finance, Health, Education, Public Works and housing which contribute to their ability to provide effective governance and sustainable development for their community. It also builds on their nation-building approach of Building Community.
WDFN has pursued a proactive nation-building approach of economic development. Through this view effective development (and overcoming of barriers) is a political problem solved through the creation of an environment where business would want to invest and where entrepreneurial people could flourish. (Wegner Module 3)
For WDFN this was done through a model built on transparency. Long before the Transparency Act was enacted, WDFN attracted investment through opening up their books for auditing to investors. They established the Whitecap Development Corporation in the 1990s with the vision of creating a healthy, diversified economy for its sole shareholder the Whitecap Dakota First Nation and it achieves this vision through incorporating the effective use of their resources while respecting the Dakota culture and protecting the environment. (“Whitecap Development Corporation”)
The Whitecap Development Corporation is the economic arm of WDFN and has achieved economic success for the community by attracting millions of dollars in investment for the community.
One point of diversification from the nation-building approach that has worked for Whitecap Dakota is the fusion of business and political institutions. The Board of Directors is composed of the Chief and his two council members, among others and this gives elected officials direct power over the decision-making process on economic and business activities.
The attribution of the Development Corporations success can be given to be strong business skills provided by leadership and the decisions that have been made not with short-term solutions in mind, but with calculated long-term strategic visions. The mixture of politics and business it appears has not hindered the Development Corporations ability to provide profits for the community.
WDFN has shown that strong leadership can overcome the obstacles that are “inherent institutional challenges of government-owned enterprises”. This also deviates from many first nations approaches that generally focus upon resource development opposed to business attraction.
It is interesting however to think of the possible ramifications a change is leadership may bring to the community. A new leader could have different directions and visions for the community and may not be set on staying the course of the previous leader in attempts to distinguish themselves; WDFN has been lucky to have the same leader for over 20 years.
Potential Problems for WDFN Nation Building
A potential problem with the continuous development of Whitecap Dakota is a lack of human resource capacities. A major part of nation-building is attaining the ability to meet and provide for your citizen’s needs through program service delivery.
Two internal factors are important in order to be able to do this;
- The nation’s financial capacity and
- Their human resource capacity
With such a small membership population and a substantial portion of their membership already living off the reserve could possibly become a hindrance to continuous development for their nation through a struggle to attain adequate human resources to support development.
This problem is subtly shown in Chief Darcy Bears earlier quote that essentially said they have a surplus of jobs in their community. This problem has been alleviated in part due to WDFN’s proximity to Saskatoon and their ability to draw from the labor pool in the city.
It appears their leadership has already noticed this limitation and has begun the development of programs to entice on-reserve living for its members in hopes to support long-term development.
Programs like their new Market House Rental On-Reserve Subsidy program provides assistance to WDFN members on reserve that occupies a WDFN market-housing unit up to 20% off the market rental rate. (“Market House Rental On-Reserve Subsidy Program.” 2016)
The Private On-Reserve Home Ownership program provides financial assistance to Whitecap Dakota First Nation members for private home ownership on-reserve and consists of a one-time grant of $25,000 and the value of a legally surveyed 99-year residential leasehold interest as per the Whitecap Dakota First Nation Land Code. (“Private On-Reserve Home Ownership Program.” 2016)
These are clear indicators of their attempts to attract more people to their community in order to support continued development.
WDFN has been highly successful in many areas such as self-governance and economic development and has been successful at achieving a cultural match with the community. They have remarkably embraced the nation-building process and have begun to assert sovereignty over their land beginning with the creation of their own land code in 2003, up to now where they are in negotiations to create a final self-governance agreement.
In order to sustain this external development, WDFN is proactively attempting to establish a constitution and taking steps to assert their sovereignty in negotiations with governments and organization. The WDFN community provided leadership with a strong orientation and vision and mandated them follow through.
Strong leadership has been effectively able to balance the relationship between business and politics allowing the Whitecap Development Corporation to flourish and has stayed strong with their community’s vision in order to execute this. Overall, WDFN is well ahead of other first nations in the nation-building process. However, their biggest hindrance to continuous development on is a lack of human resource capacities.
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“ARCHIVED – Whitecap Dakota First Nation Economic Development Partnerships.” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada; Communications Branch. September 15, 2010.
“Fact Sheet – Whitecap Dakota Self-Government Negotiations.” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
Grant Kenneth and Jonathan Taylor, “Managing the Boundary Between Business and Politics,” in Rebuilding Native Nations, ed Miriam Jorgensen (Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 2007), 179
“Market House Rental On-Reserve Subsidy Program.” Whitecap Dakota First Nations. April 2016.
Menz, Kevin. CTV News – Saskatoon. July 26, 2016.
News Talk Radio Staff. “Whitecap Dakota Elementary School Joins Saskatoon School Division.” News Talk 650 CKOM. October 24, 2014.
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Wegner, Nicole. “Module 3.” University of Saskatchewan.
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