Indigenous Communities

Saskatchewan First Nations taking charge of their own economic development

Empowering pilot project expands to more communities

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First Nation communities in Saskatchewan are drawing a roadmap to merge with the province’s fast-growing economy.

Six First Nation communities in the province were expected to participate in a start-up meeting this week, following in the footsteps of four other communities that completed economic development plans as a pilot project of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC).

Project manager Andrew Baigent of Urban Systems reported on the project’s progress to AANDC’s regional directors in Ottawa on Oct. 9, with the discussion extending well past the allotted time and engaging an unexpected attendee in the assistant deputy minister.

“There’s a lot of goodwill to do unique things right across Canada with First Nation economic development, and this project got some good play,” Andrew says, adding it could now move to a whole new level.

“This is a pilot project that was based in Saskatchewan. Now that they’ve seen it’s been successful in Saskatchewan, they may want to take it and make it national,” Andrew says.

Because of the work Urban Systems did with the inaugural four communities, they have been engaged to consult with another six communities.

It’s a meaningful step in establishing Urban Systems’ new Saskatchewan branch, as the organization leverages its considerable work with First Nation communities in British Columbia to support economic development eastward.

“It was great because we were new to Saskatchewan, but they recognized what we’ve done,” Andrew says, explaining how Urban Systems was selected for each community in the pilot project. “Economic development with First Nation communities in B.C. has come much further along that it has in Saskatchewan, so the fact that we were new to Saskatchewan was less important than the fact that we’d worked a lot in B.C. with First Nation communities.

“We can show what happened in B.C. to lay out a roadmap in Saskatchewan,” Andrew says, noting a number of First Nation communities are becoming more financially self-sufficient.

He cites an example of a 400-member First Nation that has 7,000 people living in beautiful homes on its developed land in Kelowna, B.C.

“The bigger revenue stream is through development,” Andrew says. “First Nations in B.C. are funding themselves through economic and land development, and that’s where we need to get to in Saskatchewan.

“Saskatchewan is booming – it feels right now the way Alberta did 15 years ago,” Andrew says. “First Nation communities see that and they’re challenging themselves to be a part of it.”

With the support of the AANDC regional director in Saskatchewan who conceived the pilot project, Andrew says now is “the perfect time” for the province’s 73 First Nation communities to move forward with their own economic development opportunities.

“It’s going to lead to a lot of changes in Saskatchewan,” Andrew says.

Developing economic development plans was a nine-month process for the Red Pheasant, Cote, Mistawasis, and Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nations in central Saskatchewan. Andrew, along with Urban Systems team members Tonii Lerat, Clayton Drewlo, Graeme Hayward, Sean Fadum, Matt Steyer and Matt Sloan, supported the communities through several steps. They ranged from completing a land inventory and determining the best use for land, to drafting a strategy for future land purchases as well as action plans for three economic development opportunities that each First Nation identified with extensive community consultation.

Another step was added that Andrew emphasized in his report to the AANDC. He’d advocated for a business networking event, held Sept. 25, so the four First Nation communities could engage potential business and financing partners.

“I did not want to just have a shiny report at the end of the project and these communities not move forward,” Andrew says. Consequently, 10 agencies were invited to the networking event. Each gave a 10-minute presentation, followed by a trade-show format where the agencies manned information booths.

“The four First Nation communities could go to those potential business partners that made the most sense for them and have a face, a name and a handshake with someone who hopefully is going to help them get to where they need in order to build their project,” Andrew says.

Connections were forged, and while it’s too early to say what might result, the potential is there for First Nations and funders to partner.

Other collaborations will be vital to building the First Nations’ capacity for economic development. The communities, for example, have been encouraged to team up with well-established developers to learn the process of land development.

“What’s possible for them is economic prosperity,” Andrew says. “They didn’t know where to start when we began, but now they have a roadmap and that’s what’s changed.
“They are in a much, much, much better position to control their own destiny. The communities are very committed to doing that, and we’re committed to helping them.”

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