Tags: Aboriginal engagement
Author: Northern Gateway
Dated: 6 March 2012
Birdtail Sioux First Nation was once one of too many First Nations communities in Canada suffering the heartbreaking combination of alcoholism, school dropouts, hopelessness and suicide. But a transformation has taken root. Here is the story of Birdtail, the first of a four-part series of how a small First Nation found a path to a brighter future through partnership and collaboration.
Chief Ken Chalmers of Birdtail Sioux First Nation stands before the new school he championed, holds his hand up to his ear and asks, “You hear that? That’s a sound we hadn’t heard for over a hundred years in our community.”
It is the sound of children’s laughter as they scamper around a playground at Birdtail School, a Kindergarten to Grade 12 facility the Chief lobbied hard to build a few years ago.
Bringing back the children is also something Chief Chalmers astutely viewed as critical to break the cycle of hardship and pain on the small reservation of about 300 near the Saskatchewan border in southern Manitoba.
Prior to Birdtail School, the children were bussed to the schools of neighbouring towns.
That wasn’t a strategy for success. Birdtail high school graduates numbered just four in the last 40 years.
And for decades prior to that, the children of his people were educated in residential schools.
“This is my most (crowning) achievement,” says the Chief, pointing to the grand structure replete with architectural symbolism that harken back to Birdtail’s Dakota roots.
“Every kid that should be in school is in school,” says Chief Chalmers. Birdtail will graduate 14 this year and 21 the next. Dakota language and culture is alive in the classrooms.
Children’s laughter feeds the soul for Chief Chalmers. The school filled with laughing children is also the most striking illustration of the transformation of Birdtail, from a community plagued by alcoholism, hopelessness and suicide to one that now boasts a health clinic, a general store, an adult education centre, over 100 freshly renovated homes and a host of economic development prospects on the horizon.
If you ask the Chief where the metamorphisis began, his one-word answer is “industry.”
He may point to his engagement with Enbridge and other corporations as the catalyst. But really, it would be more accurately attributed to the Chief himself. He made a decision a number of years ago that he was going to “do something different” for his community. He’d adopt a different strategy as he sought a better life for his people by foregoing obstruction and confrontation in favour of partnership and collaboration.
When Enbridge approached the Chief to discuss the expansion of its mainline pipeline system through Dakota traditional territory, the Chief was cautious but receptive. Those early discussions eventually paved a path of mutual respect, benefit and partnership. It has become a template, for Chief Chalmers, in his dealings with other corporations, businesses and the various levels of government.
“We’ll partner with everybody we can to make a better life for our people,” he says.
The Chief’s work is far from done. He’d say it has only just begun. Birdtail may have turned a corner but the Chief is still pursuing his vision for the community.
“I see business opportunities wherever I look and it’s my job to bring those children up so they have that chance. It is just great to have these young people that are excited about these opportunities.”