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Bearspaw First Nation signs historic funding agreement with Canada

“Before this, we only had one recognized comprehensive funding agreement for the three First Nations [Goodstoney, Chiniki and Bearspaw]. The issue has been that Canada was getting away with a three-for-one deal funding us.”

ÎYÂRHE NAKODA – Bearspaw First Nation is calling a new funding agreement with Canada’s government “historical” in its purpose to address the First Nation’s economic and governance priorities separate from the wider Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation.

The agreement comes after two years of negotiation and will provide capital for housing, economic development initiatives and an operations manager of its Eden Valley reserve.

“Before this, we only had one recognized comprehensive funding agreement for the three First Nations [Goodstoney, Chiniki and Bearspaw]. The issue has been that Canada was getting away with a three-for-one deal funding us,” said Bearspaw CEO Rob Shotclose.

A comprehensive funding agreement is a contractual arrangement outlining terms and conditions under which the federal government provides financial resources to Indigenous communities to support a variety of needs including healthcare, education, infrastructure, economic development and social services. It is coordinated through Indigenous Services Canada and First Nations’ governments.

Historically, Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation has been funded together as one under what is known as the Stoney agreement, instead of as three First Nations, with three separate communities – Mînî Thnî, Eden Valley and Big Horn.

The three First Nations collectively identify as Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation and share the same culture, values and traditions, however, all three signed Treaty 7 in 1877 with autonomous intent and separate signatories representing each.

Shotclose argued the federal government has taken advantage of this with a one-size-fits-all approach that often fails to address the unique challenges and circumstances of each community, but also disproportionately allocates resources.

“That’s one issue – purely monetary. But also, our view is that we signed treaty as a First Nation and Canada had no right to amalgamate us at their discretion for their administrative ease,” said Shotclose.

“We need to be funded as our own recognized government and that’s how this agreement has come to be.”

In a statement, Bearspaw Chief Darcy Dixon said the agreement is a step toward promoting “lasting reconciliation” and “nation-to-nation” relationships based on Bearspaw First Nation’s priorities.

“I am proud of the work of my council and administration in negotiating a collaborative and important agreement with the Crown,” he said.

While Bearspaw now has its own comprehensive funding agreement, it’s also still part of the Stoney agreement.

Education, health, social services and other programs will continue to be funded by the Crown through that agreement, which also supports Chiniki and Goodstoney First Nations.

“We’re still getting our common services supported by the Stoney funding agreement, but we have recognized and carved off specific areas that Bearspaw operates on its own, anyway,” said Shotclose.

“Now there is specific funding for the Eden Valley reserve itself, and we will get substantially more money there to operate things like our public works, and Bearspaw will get some of its own funding to support housing, which is probably the greatest need in First Nations communities.”

Shotclose said Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation has received about $253,000 annually from the federal government for the past 20 years to support housing in Mînî Thnî, Eden Valley and Big Horn.

With Bearspaw now having a separate agreement, it will receive and manage $253,000 per year for its own housing initiatives in Eden Valley, which has a population of about 650 people.

“We want to be treated as a signatory to Treaty 7. We are a Nation before treaty, but somehow after we signed treaty, Canada – probably for administrative ease; because it’s easier to negotiate with one Nation than three – grouped us on one piece of land,” said Shotclose.

It wasn’t until 1946 that the Crown recognized the traditional lands of the Bearspaw First Nation and designated a five-thousand-acre ranch on the Highwood River, which would become the Eden Valley reserve. Before this, many Bearspaw members refused to stay on land designated for all three First Nations at Mînî Thnî (Morley), which was traditionally occupied by Chiniki First Nation.

In 1947, another five-thousand-acre parcel was designated to Goodstoney First Nation on the Kootenay Plains, where Goodstoney people traditionally camped and hunted.

Although separate lands were eventually designated, the way the three First Nations were funded by the Crown remained the same.

“There is no Stoney tribe that signed Treaty 7. There were three Stoney Nations that got together to sign treaty, along with the three Blackfoot tribes and Tsuut’ina as a seventh signatory,” said Shotclose.

“For so long, the government’s been able to say to us, ‘you guys are one, we’ll fund you as one,’ and we’ve lost out on I don’t know how many millions of dollars over the years as a result.”

Chief Dixon said the new funding agreement with Canada aligns with a declaration Bearspaw First Nation chief and council signed in 2023 recognizing the First Nation’s sovereignty.

The declaration affirms Bearspaw’s authority to govern itself and its people, as well as the rights to its traditional lands and title, and interests in the traditional lands of the Îyârhe Nakoda.

In 2021, Bearspaw First Nation was also able to secure independent administration and management of all its $61 million in capital trust funds from Canada and created the Ozîja Thiha Legacy Trust. These funds are invested through various investment managers and allocated to real estate, infrastructure, global equities and short-term investments.

An audited 2023 annual report of the trust recorded a balance of $58.7 million in net assets, with $8.7 million in distribution to the First Nation since 2021, including to its Ozîja Thiha Education Trust, which supports Bearspaw students pursuing post-secondary education.

“Although there is much work left to do, we believe we are on a positive and promising path to our self-determination and financial stability,” said Dixon.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

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