Article From The Brandon Sun.
“I think we’re ready now … This is the only chance we have, we can never do this again.” — Birdtail Sioux First Nation Chief Ken Chalmers
Later this year, members of Birdtail Sioux First Nation will have a second opportunity to vote on a railway development in the community that has the potential to open up huge economic opportunities for the band. That is, provided the band decides to act on it.
After spending several months in negotiations with the Canadian National Railway and the federal government, Birdtail’s chief and council asked the community to vote in a 2013 referendum on a plan to create a hub of economic development on the reserve.
The plan called for a two-kilometre stretch of track running along parcelled sections of reserve land — about 1,884 acres in total — that would be leased out to various corporate partners. At the time of the vote, several corporations had already lined up to get in on the potential economic benefits. Plans were underway to develop an oil terminal at the site to take advantage of what was, at the time, a growing Canadian energy sector.
Under the federal Indian Act, First Nations are unable to develop this kind of business park unless the land has been designated for the purpose of leasing. Due to the cumbersome nature of the act, achieving that kind of designation would often take several months or even years.
Prior to legislation introduced by the previous Conservative federal government, in order to designate any reserve land for commercial lease, a band had to obtain a majority vote from a majority of voting members — essentially a majority of a majority — for the federal government to approve the designation. If a majority of voters didn’t show up to vote, the band would have to hold another expensive referendum.
Thanks to the Tory changes, a First Nation can now green-light the lease of designated reserve lands upon the favourable vote of a simple majority of referendum participants, regardless of the number of people eligible to vote. It was this legislation that Chalmers was trying to capitalize on.
But that ambitious idea hit a wall of protest initiated by Idle No More co-founder Nina Wilson, who went to the reserve to drum up support for a “no” vote. And her efforts were successful. Out of more than 500 eligible voters, Chalmers says 121 residents voted against the plan, and only 62 voted in favour.
Idle No More organizers tied themselves to Canada’s environmental movement and opposed federal Conservative legislation that relaxed environmental regulations in favour of corporate interests. That movement essentially turned community opinion against aligning Birdtail with oil interests.
Only days later, Chalmers was defeated by former chief Kelly Bunn in a band election. As a result, the federal government was unable — or perhaps unwilling — to revisit the railway idea in the two years that followed until Chalmers was voted back in as chief last year.
Though the plan is now back on the table, there have been some changes. First, instead of bringing on potential businesses — such as those in the oil industry — before the community has its say, Chalmers says he merely wants the community to vote on whether to designate the land for leasing. Then the community will decide who they want to bring on board.
“We first designate it and with the community we’ll pick the companies that come and lease off us,” he told the Sun.
Secondly, Chalmers intends to make sure that band members — both on and off reserve — are fully aware of the plan and the upcoming vote in July, using every means at his disposal, including social media.
But this is the last chance for Birdtail members to get behind it, as there is a limited window of time for the residents to ratify the plan. We hope residents will see the value in voting in favour of the rail spur and the land leasing plan. If it goes forward, it will immediately open the reserve for business.
And that’s not only good for Birdtail, with new investment and future employment opportunities. That’s good for all the neighbouring municipalities, too.