When I signed with the U.S. military, I did so for deeply personal reasons, but why I joined is not nearly as important as how I, as a Canadian, was granted relatively easy access to the United States.
Let me take you back to the early 1990s when I sundanced for ceremonial purposes in North Dakota's Mandan country -- a trip those who travel to ceremonies and powwows every summer know all too well.
One particular year, I danced with a fellow who was serving in the U.S. air force Special Operations and what amazed me most about him (other than that he had suffered through the four days of dancing in the sun without food or water), was his steadfast grounding in who he was.
In no time, I found myself in front of a U.S. army recruiter who sent me to Fort Benning, Ga., where my long braid was rapidly replaced by a military buzz cut. Then I was off to infantry training, jump school and the Ranger Indoctrination Program as I made my way to the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Without a doubt, these were the most formative years of my life, but I digress.
How I got access to the U.S. is the whole point of this story.
It's a little-known jobs and education pipeline granted to First Nations people when the U.S. government signed the Jay Treaty with Great Britain in 1795 granting "favoured trading" status to Great Britain and First Nations people seamless access to jobs and opportunities out of reach of most Manitobans and Canadians.
According to Article 11 of the Jay Treaty, "It is agreed... to the Indians dwelling on either side of the said boundary line, freely to pass and repass, by land or inland navigation into the respective territories and countries of the two parties on the continent of America... and freely carry on trade and commerce with each other."
To aboriginal Canadians, this means as long as they prove native American blood quantum -- at least 50 per cent native American via long-form birth certificate, letter from their home First Nation or Métis Nation -- then the applicant can get a U.S. social security number.
Here's the largely unknown beauty of the Jay Treaty in today's environment: Not only does it recognize and grant North American Indians rights of legal aliens, it opens the doors to boundless trade and employment opportunities for a segment of our population that is in dire need of the jobs, some First Nations with unemployment rates as high as 70 per cent.
If you are a company that does work in both the United States and Canada and need staff and technical leaders that can seamlessly move across the U.S.-Canada border, not only should you immediately investigate the Jay Treaty, you should be rushing to train First Nations employees.
It's this kind of innovative and fresh thinking that cannot only change the future for First Nations young people, but it can create jobs and fill gaps for badly needed markets just south of the border.
Take the Bakken, N.D., area southwest of Brandon as just one example. Those who have been to the area describe it as the U.S. equivalent of the Fort McMurray, Alta., era of about 10 years ago.
Here, there is massive growth in an area barely able to keep up and a dire shortage of skilled and manual labour. If First Nations people move south using the Jay Treaty, a truck driver alone could earn as much as $50 dollars an hour.
To help spread the word and educate both First Nations people and the business community, the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, along with the United States Consul and World Trade Centre in Winnipeg will be hosting a breakfast in June to talk about the Jay Treaty, the accessibility of the Bakken area to First Nations people and the many potential partnerships that could flow from a deliberate jobs and economic strategy.
The Jay Treaty is the access avenue that allowed me the opportunity to serve in the U.S. military with some of the world's finest leaders. It's the very same pipeline that can change the lives of so many others, just as it changed mine.
James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.