Birdtail Sioux First Nation Coun. Heath Bunn and Chief Ken Chalmers stand overlooking the valley where the Canadian National Railway line runs through the community in this March 2012 photo.
Members of Birdtail Sioux First Nation will vote today in a community-wide referendum whether to designate a stretch of reserve land for commercial leasing and business development under new federal legislation.
Today’s vote is the first step toward the construction of a new multimillion-dollar Canadian National rail spur on the western Manitoba reserve and future plans for the creation of an oil terminal in the heart of Manitoba’s oil country.
But it also marks the first test run of new and controversial legislative changes to the Land Designation sections of the Indian Act that came into effect with the passing of Bill C-45 earlier this year.
"There’s advantages in this, and we just can’t pass them up," Birdtail Chief Ken Chalmers told the Sun. "We’re not giving away land. We’re not surrendering anything. It’s just legislation to be taken advantage of."
For several months, Birdtail’s chief and council have been conducting negotiations with the Canadian National Railway, in a bid to create a hub of economic development on the reserve. Last April, CN general manager J.P. Newton confirmed the company was prepared to provide rail transportation services to Birdtail, once the "appropriate contractual agreements" were finalized.
The plans call for a two-kilometre stretch of track running along parcelled sections of reserve land — about 1,884 acres total — that will be leased out to various corporate partners. The deal, once finalized, will have huge financial repercussions for the tiny aboriginal community, which is located about 130 km west of Brandon, as several corporations are lining up to get in on the potential economic benefits. There are already plans being made to develop an oil terminal at the site, in order to take advantage of Manitoba’s growing energy sector.
"We have to develop the site. Roads, infrastructure, all that stuff has to be done. We want to start moving oil by October. Our partners are working the logistics out. It all depends on (today’s) vote. Everybody’s ready to pull the trigger."
According to Greg Farney, the president of Calgary-based oil and gas company Strive Energy Services Ltd., today’s referendum could be a very positive event for Birdtail, "should they vote yes."
If and when the land designation change moves forward, Strive Energy has agreed to be one of Birdtail’s new business partners in the development of the rail spur land.
"There’s lots of opportunity that we’ve seen out there in respect to interested parties," Farney said. "The focal point is the vote, and once it’s a positive, we move forward from there."
Under the federal Indian Act, First Nations are unable to develop this kind of business park unless the land has been designated for the purpose of leasing. Due to the cumbersome nature of the Act, achieving that kind of designation would often take several months or even years.
Prior to Bill C-45, in order to designate any reserve land for commercial lease, a band government had to obtain a majority vote from a majority of voting members — essentially a majority of a majority — for the federal government to approve the designation. If a majority of voters didn’t show up to vote, the band would have to hold another expensive referendum.
The Conservative government’s changes now allow communities to green light the lease of designated reserve lands upon the favourable vote of a simple majority of referendum participants, regardless of the number of persons eligible to vote.
"This is available now," Chalmers said. "The process was designed exactly for this, so we could move at the speed of business. The world moves at the speed of business and they go someplace else. We don't have to go referendum after referendum.
"It’s not about the almighty dollar. My children’s future is in the mix here."
Aboriginal groups in Canada such as the Assembly of First Nations and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs have criticized Bill C-45 and the "arbitrary" changes to the federal Indian Act as an attack on the rights of Canada’s indigenous people. Idle No More organizers said the Indian Act changes allowed for the opening up of treaty lands and territory.
But Chalmers says that’s a misinterpretation of the legislation. He suggested any First Nation could use the new designation legislation to further economic development in their respective communities, and he urged aboriginal communities to consider the option.
"It’s a great opportunity for all First Nations — keep and manage your land. We have a right to it as a Dakota nation, and this vote will reflect that I hope. This is sovereignty on our land, and making money to save our culture and our people."
Chief Chalmers has been told by officials with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada that several federal ministers and other First Nations are watching today’s vote on Birdtail very closely.
"It’s their legislation, and we’re the proving ground. So I've been really trying to push it."
When contacted by the Brandon Sun on Monday, a federal spokesperson with Aboriginal Affairs confirmed that Birdtail Sioux’s designation vote "is the first to be held under the changes made as a result of Bill C-45."
The daylong vote will begin at 9 a.m. at the Birdtail Sioux School. The poll closes at 8 p.m.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 26, 2013