Tags: Aboriginal engagement
Author: Northern Gateway
Dated: 15 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 last in a four-part series of how a small First Nation found a path to a brighter future through partnership and collaboration.
Birdtail elder Hilliard Benn says he didn’t know Enbridge or whether the company should be trusted.
When Enbridge approached Birdtail Sioux First Nation prior to a pipeline expansion through territory they view as their traditional lands, Benn was skeptical. So was the community.
“I wasn’t quite sure really what Enbridge is or how they worked,” says Benn, remembering the early days when the community located in southwest Manitoba was getting acquainted with Enbridge.
At the time, Birdtail was battling some very difficult social issues of alcoholism, unemployment and a workforce that was largely uneducated. Birdtail had only graduated 4 people in 40 years.
Birdtail Chief Ken Chalmers saw a path to a brighter future, one that favoured partnership and collaboration over obstruction and confrontation. But it wasn’t just he who saw this path. It was a community decision to build partnerships with Corporate Canada.
“They were very apprehensive, our people,” says Chief Chalmers. “And my people decided, not chief and council.”
That early engagement built a relationship that has since set in motion a series of events involving other corporations, other businesses and various levels of government. The results are striking.
A school, a health clinic, a general store, renovated homes, a water treatment plant and a host of economic development initiatives both on and off the reservation are all either already achieved or what Chief Chalmers still has in store for Birdtail.
Engagement with industry and government has not always been popular with some of his First Nations neighbours but he’s convinced it’s the right direction.
Chief Chalmers is adamant, these initiatives have not resulted in a relinquishment of rights, and he’s resolute in his belief that his traditional territory and his culture have not been compromised.
“We’ve just finished our annual hunt for the reserve and now our fridges in just about every household are full of those meats,” says Chalmers.
He points to the picturesque Assiniboine River valley he says is in the direction of the rights of way of two pipelines, one of them Enbridge’s.
“We’re still doing the stuff we did a thousand years ago in our traditional territory.”