Treaty 4 News is excited to present the Top 10 Most Influential Economic Developers feature that profiles business leaders, job creators and entrepreneurs who have made a valuable contribution to improving the lives of Indigenous people through business and have helped keep Saskatchewan’s economy vibrant and strong. 

In the past few years, more and more Indigenous people have forged business careers working at the First Nation community level, building Tribal Council economic development projects, climbing the corporate ladder at government Crown Corporations and in the last few years guiding the private sector as they engage with First Nations.

Now a new generation of entrepreneurs are building successful brands like Neechie Gear, Shop Indigenous, SheNative as they develop products for an ever growing Indigenous market.

Over 10 weeks, Treaty 4 News will release one profile a week of an economic developer we believe is influential in building a better future for Indigenous people through business.

This week we introduce Chief Darcy Bear of Whitecap Dakota First Nation

Chief Darcy Bear 2

Photo credit: Stephanie Danyluk.

Chief Darcy Bear – Top 10 economic developer

By NC Raine

“He’s done so many great things within the community,” says Nancy Linklater of her community leader and friend. “I really do think Chief Bear is a visionary.”

Linklater, an elder of Whitecap Dakota First Nation, says she remembers a time when her First Nation was little more than an underdeveloped collection of around 20 homes.  Back then, it would’ve been hard to imagine the prospering Whitecap Dakota of today. However, under Chief Darcy Bear, Whitecap Dakota now includes an award winning golf course, casino, school, early learning centre, and health centre. The reserve now has modern infrastructure, provides hundreds of jobs to individuals from both on and off the reserve, and is in the process of obtaining self-governance.

For his community leadership, Bear was recently awarded the 2016 Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business [CCAB].

“I’ve known Chief Bear since he was a little boy. He’s been with us since he was born. He takes pride in his community and we’re very grateful for his leadership and dedication,” says Linklater.

Chief Bear Revives His Home Community 

Raised in Whitecap Dakota by his grandparents, Bear never had aspirations to run for council. “One of my community members asked that I run for council. I did on the condition that if I lost, they wouldn’t ask me again,” says Bear.

So much for that.

Chief Bear was elected to Council at the age of 23.  He came into leadership of a reserve that had no policies and no money, but Bear didn’t allow his youth, inexperience, or the dire conditions to disparage his resolve. He began by ascertaining the size of their debt, created a financial management plan, approached the bank for debt consolidation, and stuck to that plan.

“As a young person, it would’ve been easiest just to walk away,” says Bear. “But as leaders, you accept responsibility to find solutions going forward. Anyone can identify a problem. A leader needs to identify a solution.”

Once their finances were in order, Bear addressed the reserve’s under-developed infrastructure. Twenty minutes from Saskatoon, the reserve was still without water, sewer, and modern heating. From 1996 to 2004, Bear enhanced the community with a school, water and sewer infrastructure, waste disposal, three phase power, high speed internet, and cellular service. Critical to these efforts was the community adopting the Whitecap Land Code, which removes the oppressive Indian Act land management process and replaced it with a law and policies that allowed Whitecap the flexibility and tools to “move at the speed of business.” When the basic needs of the community were met, Bear turned his attention to economic development.

“As First Nations people, we want our rightful place in Canada and to be a part of the economy. We want jobs and opportunity the way everyone else does,” says Bear.

Ec Dev series Congratulations-AdBehind his economic plan, Whitecap Dakota opened their doors for public business in 2004. At this time, their unemployment rate was around 70 percent. Today, the multifaceted reserve, headlined by Dakota Dunes Casino and Dakota Dunes Golf Course, employs 680 individuals, and has dramatically shrunk the unemployment rate on the reserve down to just five percent.

“The one thing that always stands out for is what he’s done from an economic development point of view. He took an unemployment rate from 70 percent to one that is lower than the province of Saskatchewan’s rate,” says Jim Reiter, Minister for First Nations, Metis, and Northern Affairs.

“The economic development that he’s achieved has been great for not just Whitecap, but the entire region, and by extension, the entire province,” says Reiter.

Chief Bear Remains Ambitious in Future Plans for Dakota Whitecap

In his seven consecutive terms as Chief, Bear has transformed Whitecap Dakota into one of the most successful First Nations in Canada. Yet, he says there’s still a long way to go.

“As First Nations, our economies are still very much in their infancy,” says Bear. “We had to create a business environment as an investment for our community. We expanded our water and sewer systems this year, which will lead to development for the hotel, business park, and resort community, and create another 300-400 jobs. Our goal in the next five years is to have at least 1,000 jobs in the community.”

Bear has been able to achieve so much success due to his effort to escape the restrictions of the Indian Act – a Canadian statute which governs how reserves and bands can operate.

“The Indian Act didn’t allow us to be a part of the economy. It is very paternalistic – it was designed to keep us out of sight and out of mind while other jurisdictions had the opportunity to develop their infrastructure, economies and employment opportunities,” says Bear.

Besides eliminating restrictive sections of the Indian Act, First Nation communities need access to infrastructure programs such as the Building Canada Fund.  Whitecap currently has an infrastructure application under review with the federal and provincial governments.

“The 680 people employed [in Whitecap Dakota] are purchasing goods and services, paying taxes where applicable and less reliant on social programs. When First Nation communities have the legislative capacity and have access to infrastructure programs, they can open their doors to business activity and take their rightful place in the economy.  The economic multipliers provide benefits to the First Nation, the region, the province and the country ” says Bear.

As such, Bear has begun the process to begin self-government. In 2014, they signed the Self-Government Framework Agreement with Canada. This year, they will sign an agreement in principle, hoping to reach final negotiations by 2018. The process, Bear says, is essential in First Nations controlling their own destiny.

Bear also says that building a great community takes partnership.  Whitecap Dakota has partnered with organizations including Saskatoon Health Region, City of Saskatoon, and Saskatoon Tribal Council.

“Everything we do is in partnership. Even the word ‘dakota’ means ally,” says Bear. “Working with partners means there is mutual benefit. We don’t have to re-invent the wheel. We work with that those to provide the best possible services and quality of life for our region.”

Among those who have worked with Bear over the years is Brooke Dobni, Professor at Edwards School of Business and PotashCorp Chair for Sask Enterprises. The two first crossed paths when Bear was a student of Dobni’s.

“He has a vision. He’s not a person who’s just thinking of the next year or two, but thinking five, 10, 20 years down the road,” says Dobni. “The golf course, casino operation, the infrastructure he’s putting together – it’s a long term, systemic, integrated vision that breeds sustainability.”

“He’s creating so much opportunity for his community,” Dobni continues. “He truly cares about the people around him.”

It’s that very devotion and vision that was recognized with the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the CCAB.

“A leader like Bear inspires his people, his culture, and the Indigenous nation itself. That’s why we celebrate him,” says Jean-Paul Gladu, President and CEO of the CCAB.

“He’s a beacon for the non-Indigenous community as well. Business and government can look at him and say ‘there’s leaders like Darcy Bear out there that we can work with to achieve great things.’ He’s a bridge builder, relationship builder, and a conduit to all things that are good and great to the human spirit,” says Gladu.

A lifetime achievement award might encourage many to start slowing down. But, at 48 years young, it’s fair to assume that the best for Chief Bear is yet to come.

“As far as moving forward, there’s still a lot more work to be done,” says Bear. “We strive as a community to take our rightful place and be part of the economy. Representing my community and continuing to bring jobs and opportunities here would be the biggest thing that resonates with me.”

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  1. National Treasure #81: Darcy Bear | Traditional Iconoclast

    […] Once their finances were in order, Bear addressed the reserve’s under-developed infrastructure. Twenty minutes from Saskatoon, the reserve was still without water, sewer, and modern heating. From 1996 to 2004, Bear enhanced the community with a school, water and sewer infrastructure, waste disposal, three phase power, high speed internet, and cellular service. Critical to these efforts was the community adopting the Whitecap Land Code, which removes the oppressive Indian Act land management process and replaced it with a law and policies that allowed Whitecap the flexibility and tools to “move at the speed of business.” When the basic needs of the community were met, Bear turned his attention to economic development. – Treaty 4 News […]

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