Twenty years of negotiations came to an end with one stroke of the pen, as Chief Vince Tacan signed the first-ever self-government agreement in the Prairie provinces Friday, freeing Sioux Valley Dakota Nation from several portions of the much-maligned Indian Act.
"Today we can start moving forward on our economic development projects and start looking at some of the issues that directly affect the community,"àTacan said proudly.
The agreement, between Tacan, federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt and provincial Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Eric Robinson, reflects more than 20 years of collaboration between the parties.
When the deal was finalized a loud cheer went up in the Sioux Valley Veterans Hall.
In October 2012, the reserve voted 64 per cent in favour of self-government and Tacan said his council will take a "slow and cautious approach"àimplementing what will be a new system of services in Sioux Valley.
"The feeling is relief... now we can start focusing on things that are important to us and we don't have to worry about the baggage and onerous reports that have to be completed by other levels of government,"àTacan said.
Elder Mary Hall cried when asked about what the new agreement will mean to the community.
"We are overwhelmed,"àsaid Hall as her eyes filled with tears. "It is so wonderful and we have all these feelings that we want to share. We hope that our children and future grandchildren will see the benefit of this agreement."
Health care, housing, policing, economic development and child and family services are some of the key issues the reserve will now address on its own terms. It's part of an agreement worth between $80 to $85 million over five years, according to a source.
The federal minister didn't pull punches when speaking to the crowd about the limitations and shortcomings of an act which provides Canada's federal government exclusive authority to legislate in relation to "Indians and Lands Reserved for Indians."
"The Indian Act is an impediment to progress for First Nations," he said passionately. "That is why we are taking concrete steps to introduce the incremental change that many First Nations have been calling for."
Following a gift exchange between the three parties, Valcourt acknowledged there were several chiefs and councils in Sioux Valley that worked toward the agreement. Ultimately, it was the people of Sioux Valley Tacan's leadership that made it possible.
Since taking office in March 2010, Tacan has taken the reserve's debt from more than $3 million to approximately $700,000. The reduction wasn't always easy or favourable, sometimes meaning laying off people in the community, but it paved the way for self-governance.
"This chief and council have come a long way in terms of better managing the finances of this First Nation,"àValcourt said. "This is a community that is engaged and they are concerned about finding efficiencies of doing things better and getting better results so they are ready to be in charge of their own development and their own future."
The agreement could be just the beginning for several First Nations in Western Canada who have requested self-government. Valcourt wouldn't provide any updates on other negotiations, but said the government will move forward on the issue.
"We are working with several First Nations on sovereignty agreements."