SIOUX VALLEY DAKOTA NATION — It took Vince Tacan 14 years to finally get a loan to buy cattle for the farm he grew up on.
Most farmers can get that kind of loan by snapping their fingers. But Tacan farms on a First Nation. He doesn’t own his land. It’s held by the band.
So he has few assets on which to borrow against. Even though he had a steady job, first as a tribal police officer, then as a parole officer, he couldn’t get the funding.
Tacan, pronounced Ta-CHAN and meaning "stone" in the Dakota language, points this out to help non-native people understand why the Indian Act must end. There used to be up to 20 farmers in Sioux Valley. Just Tacan and another producer remain. He blames the Indian Act. (That may be overstating it as there has been ongoing attrition in the number of farmers through recent history).
Now Tacan, as chief of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, has his chance to change that. On July 1, Sioux Valley becomes the first aboriginal community on the Prairies to have self-government, and only the seventh in the country.
Public meetings with the community has produced six priorities for their newly-minted self-government, with land issues, economic development, and local bylaws topping the list. But the real abbreviated priority list goes something like this: "land, land, and land." Private land can be bought, sold, mortgaged, leveraged, inherited, subdivided, rented, and that’s not a complete list. You can also tax it, although no one’s touching that hot button.
You can’t really do those things with commonly-held lands controlled by the band. Sioux Valley will proceed in baby steps, and it doesn’t have the land powers that were granted to Nisga’a Nation in British Columbia when it attained self-government in 2000, and where some lands have been privatized and are held by band members.
But it will be a start. The thinking is that self-government — and many more self-government agreements are being negotiated right now — will eventually create a mix of private and commonly-held lands on First Nations, said Joseph Quesnel, policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. That will hopefully kick-start more economic activity.
Tacan, by all accounts, is a tough customer. He even looks a bit like former Canadian heavyweight boxing champion George Chuvalo.
He’s a farmer, was a tribal policeman for five years, and parole officer for 14 years, a job from which he is currently on leave. His careers have shaped him, he says. Tacan actually had to purchase cattle three times. "The first time, someone burned my hay bales." He couldn’t afford to buy feed, so he sold the cattle.
The second time, his hay bales were set on fire again, and again he was forced to sell the animals. He believes it was not random vandalism but targeted jealousy from people within his own band, against those trying to get ahead. His father suffered similar vandalism, from hay bales being torched to people cutting his fences.
Tacan, 54, is on his third cattle herd but it’s obvious to him that ranching can be only a hobby now — he has just 20 head. "That’s like my golfing, I guess," he said.
That’s why he sees his election — he was re-elected to a third term two months ago — and support for self-government as a tipping point: those who want a better life, outnumbering those in favour of the status quo and the devil they know. His opponent in the election ran on a campaign to stop self-government.
Tacan’s police training has also influenced his style. As a policeman, "you’re trained to take charge. You deal with the situation."
Take charge he has, even if it’s meant some unpopular decisions. When he became chief four years ago, he discovered the band’s gas bar was losing $420,000 per year. He also learned that some people had been receiving their gas for free. He shut down the gas bar and laid off all the staff. It’s up and running again with new staff and it sells just gas and oil, not other things like phone cards. He says it’s breaking even, although it’s run more to create employment than for profit.
He’s even suspended one of his councillors. The councillor accepted honoraria (payments) for meetings he never attended. The councillor countered by trying to embarrass Tacan and putting Tacan’s travel expenses on display. That was fine with Tacan. He’s afraid of flying, so he travels cheap. He’s got 390,000 kilometres on his car odometer.
The sum of cost-cutting measures has cut the band’s debt from $3 million, to under $700,000 in four years.
Despite an election just two months ago, opponents have already gone to the media with beefs against him. On the day of a reporter’s visit, the Brandon Sun ran a story about band members complaining some homes damaged in a tornado last year hadn’t been repaired yet. That same day, six female elders gathered on the steps of the legislature in Winnipeg to voice more general grievances against Tacan.
Tacan says he was told the tornado damage wasn’t enough to trigger disaster assistance, and his government funding for home repairs amounts to only about $100,000 per year. "What’s that? One house?"
But he also maintains some of the opposition comes from people rankled that they can’t get favours from the band anymore. "I wasn’t going to kiss anyone’s ass for this job," said Tacan, who makes no secret that his chief’s salary is $65,000 per year — that’s about the national average for chiefs, according to federal figures — but without the benefits and pension he would receive working as parole officer.
There are progressive signs in Sioux Valley, located just off the Trans-Canada on Highway 21, between Brandon and Virden. An electronic community billboard greets you when you drive into the commercial area. It announces a community-wide yard sale; the second annual "End the Silence on Violence" walk; and a need for more foster parents. The community has its own restaurant, the Dakota Diner.
Sioux Valley also has some residential housing, which is rare to see on a First Nation. The reason for the subdivision-style development is to save infrastructure costs like roads, and sewer and water, said Tacan.
Meanwhile, on the top of the valley wall, overlooking the town site nestled below, and always reminding band members of their mortality, are the shiny white crosses of the reserve’s Anglican cemetery. Much of the cemetery still uses wooden stakes as grave markers. It’s also where former chief Robert Bone is buried. Bone started the campaign to bring self-government here 23 years ago, and it has taken off-and-on negotiations this long to accomplish it. Tacan made it a point to show me his grave. Bone’s headstone is a bison carved from rock.
Tacan listed another area where self-government can benefit Sioux Valley. If someone builds a fence around his or her house, or a deck, or an addition, or a gazebo, they don’t own it. It belongs to the band. He’d like to see more "pride of ownership" that comes with private property.
The band has purchased 80 acres of land off-reserve, at the juncture of the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 21, nine kilometres south of the reserve. It hopes to open a kind of truck stop/recreation area. There would be a gas bar, gaming centre, recreation centre, and eventually much more. Only some of the land would be designated reserve land, like for the gas bar. "The rest of the land could be an asset to borrow against," Tacan said.
Sioux Valley will also be able to make some of its own laws. Tacan said that could result in better control of wild dogs, which were present. It might pass a law to address another tricky issue on many reserves: paying rent on Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation homes.
Reserves are a mix of band unit housing and CMHC housing. CMHC housing charges rent. The problem is there is political reluctance and lack of legal tools to evict someone who doesn’t pay. Currently, a prominent member of the Sioux Valley is refusing to pay his rent and the band is stuck paying for him.
Nothing has been determined yet and there will be wide consultations with band members. But ultimately, self-government will give Sioux Valley greater control over governance and a sense of responsibility for its future, said Jacqueline Romanow, associate professor of Indigenous Studies at University of Winnipeg.
"It’s important to remember the reserves were never intended as permanent land bases but were looked at as temporary places until First Nations integrated into society," Romanow said.
Mistakes will be made with self-government, she said, but that’s democracy. "I think it’s important that people believe they have control over their own future in order for them to take responsibility for it."
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