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 Reginald Bellerose.

Chief Reginald Bellerose – Top 10 economic developer

By Evan Radford

Upon meeting Chief Reginald Bellerose of the Muskowekwan First Nation, three things stand out: he values independence, he’s patient and he’s very, very busy.

What might not be apparent is that Reg Bellerose has accomplished a first in Canada: he and his council members have completed the process to open a potash mine on First Nation land, generating what he calls “our own source revenue.”

“The Berlin Wall still stands strong on each reserve. That’s the Indian Act that divides on-reserve and off-reserve Indians. And that Berlin Wall, the only way to tear it down is to generate our own source revenue,” Bellerose said while speaking with Treaty 4 News.

Encanto Potash Corp. and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada

The idea first started in 2008; it had more to do with attracting investment on reserve, according to Bellerose, who’s been serving as Muskowekwan’s chief since 2005.

“It could be rail, it could be oil. Just anything where dollars, capital, would come on to reserve.”

“We’re trying to get our land where it’s valuable and we can create joint ventures. So the goal would be to create three or four horses that, you know, make money every time like a carousel: every time it goes around, it throws out money to Muskowekwan,” he said.

A big help was the First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act (FNCIDA), a bill first tabled in late 2005 in Ottawa.

It allows Ottawa to create project-specific regulations for each First Nation for commercial and industrial developments. It “provides for the adoption of regulations on reserve that are compatible with those off reserve,” according to the Indigenous Affairs Canada website.

The potential for a potash mine started in 2008 with Encanto Potash Corp., a Vancouver-based mining junior company that touts its commitment to working with First Nations communities on potash resources.

Through work with Bellerose and his council, Encanto now has 100 per cent interest in what’s dubbed the Muskowekwan Potash Project, which underlies 61,400 acres of land, according to its website.

Encanto estimates an extraction rate of 2.8 million tonnes per year, supporting what it calls a solution mine for more than 50 years.

To make the project possible, Bellerose and his council needed to win approval from Muskowekwan members via two separate votes: one for what to do on the land surface, and one for what to do with minerals below ground.

Ec Dev series Congratulations-Ad

Members voted on six ballot questions related to the project in April 2014. Of 1,209 eligible voters, 436 to 437 cast ballots, with approval percentages ranging from 77 to 79 per cent.

That now leaves Muskowekwan with a 99-year lease of the land, along with a mineral lease, which grants 100 per cent mineral rights to the First Nation and Encanto for what’s underground.

“That will be the first mineral lease issued in Canada through the Indian mining rights,” Bellerose said.

Independence, self-sufficiency and First Nations youth

When asked about his motivations in pursuing on-reserve, self-sufficient revenue, Bellerose was direct and pointed:

“My focus on doing that is by implementing treaty and inherent rights. Our forefathers gave us everything we need. We don’t need anything from no federal government or no provincial government.

“The different levels of government do not give us or replace what our forefathers gave us,” he said.

That same passion and commitment was affirmed by one of his colleagues, Cheri Moreau who works out of the Regina office for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

As director of lands and economic development for Saskatchewan, she and her team worked directly with Bellerose on the potash project.

“He’s very dedicated to his community. And I feel that his passion is to help make things better for them, so that Muskowekwan can be this really prosperous community,” she said.

“He worked really hard so he can learn everything there is to know about running a potash mine. That takes a lot of dedication,” she added.

Moreau said her staff members echoed similar sentiments. “Everyone that works with Chief Reg, from our environmental officers to our land officers, all really loved working with him.

“He might not be an expert in some of the environmental regulations. But he would take time to talk to everyone,” she said.

It’s that knack for communication that Moreau said lends to Bellerose’s influence.

Reflecting further on his motivators, he was quick to cite the youth of Muskowekwan.

“They’re the ones saying they don’t want welfare. The young people are saying, ‘we want investment and skill development. We want a job.’ You know? The young people want to work,” he said.

If there’s another description apt for Bellerose, it’s that he’s perceptive.

According to data from the 2011 census, out of Muskowekwan’s 606 residents, 345 were 24 years old or younger; 215 residents were between the ages of 5 and 19.

Those numbers don’t account for the approximately 1,100 members living off reserve, all of whom Bellerose said he and his council are obligated to support.

“The treaty rights of people are portable; the treaty rights follow you no matter where you reside,” he said.

Money generated from the Encanto project will provide the means to support all of Muskowekwan’s members, on- or off-reserve, he said.

Looking ahead and next steps

Bellerose said the next two years are crucial to ensure the project is successful.

“The next phase would be getting into that detailed engineering for potash, where people can really have a look at what’s there and what the cost of everything is going to be,” he said. “The sooner the better. We’ve been at it for about eight years. So obviously this is not an easy or short journey.”

The ultimate goal, one he hopes will be realized in that timeframe, is getting people paid.

“We can get to construction and get jobs created. Get the men and women and youth of Muskowekwan working,” he said.

“I believe that if you get up every morning and try to get something done that day, opportunities can come. If you sit back and do nothing and wait for everything to be handed to you, I don’t believe those things will happen,” he said.

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