PUKATAWAGAN -- For decades, this community north of Flin Flon was the "Dodge City of the North."
No longer. There's a new sheriff in town.
Chief Arlen Dumas, elected in 2008, still has much to do. But the progress he has made in Puk may prove to be an example of how to turn ravaged and impoverished First Nations communities around.
It has been three years since the Winnipeg Free Press published essays from 10 Winnipeg citizens who visited Pukatawagan, the first time they had seen an Indian reserve. They were shocked and appalled at the overcrowded living conditions. A severe housing shortage had as many as 25 people sharing a small house, eating and showering in shifts. The community had few amenities because a diesel spill caused by faulty equipment installed by Indian Affairs and Manitoba Hydro during the 1970s had contaminated the town centre, causing the band hall, nursing station, school and about 100 houses to be torn down. Violence, substance abuse and poverty prevailed in Puk for decades while the community argued with mainstream officials about who was responsible and who would pay for cleaning up the mess and rebuilding.
That's still not resolved. But Puk is not standing still while it waits. Arlen Dumas won't stand for it.
Dumas was born in Puk. Raised by his grandparents in the community and on the trapline, he soaked up a love for the north that he will carry throughout his life. An extremely bright child, Arlen was provided with a scholarship by his band to attend prestigious "prep" school, Lakefield College, in Ontario, where he excelled. He had his sights set on Harvard when a high school teacher convinced him that Mount Allison University in New Brunswick was Canada's Harvard. Arlen majored in political science and Canadian studies before he was eventually called home.
It was payback time. Arlen was asked to reorganize the nursing station in Puk, which had been plagued with poor administration, causing it to borrow funds to meet immediate needs while awaiting regular funding, then going into debt from borrowing charges ,and so on. Within three years, Dumas had the nursing station running like a Swiss watch and it remains so to this day.
But in October, 2008, it was time for Arlen Dumas to apply his education and the love for community which his grandparents instilled, towards rebuilding the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation.
Arlen, just 31 when he stood for chief, was elected on a promise to get the band out of "co-management," That is an arrangement, put in place by the federal government, which forces the community to be co-managed by an outside accounting firm. While it guards against financial mismanagement, it diverts money from community services and it slows decision-making. Worse, it is incompatible with independence and self-determination.
Dumas and his council developed a new governance structure, including transparent and accountable financial management systems, and were out of co-management in four months.
Dumas also immediately turned his attention to the big picture needs of his community. The manager of every portfolio -- health, education, economic development, youth etc. -- was asked to provide a report outlining the state of his jurisdiction, where they wanted to go and what challenges they faced. The entire community was reviewed and revamped.
The First Nation has to work with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and, while previous experience had made Dumas leery, he decided to give the big bureaucracy a chance.
"INAC was put on notice that all we want is positive change and we are willing to work cooperatively to achieve this," said Dumas. "But they were also told that the community was ready to take more activist actions, if necessary."
So far, so good. INAC has accepted every one of Puk's proposals. With the cooperation of various powers-that-be, the community has been able to build 42 new housing units, using all local labour except for the project manager. Soon, the band will have that capacity, too. There have been upgrades to the railway which serves the community, including a waiting station so people don't have to stand outside in 50 below zero weather like they have for decades. They are working to re-open a saw mill which can turn out log houses for sale intact or as kits. And they are moving forward on some land claims.
"We still have serious problems in our community which go beyond the immediate needs of shelter," Dumas said. "We face 90 per cent unemployment and building houses only goes so far.
"We have to restore our fishing operations. Buyers used to come to the communities and buy from our people right off the docks. When the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation tried to bring order and stability to the market, they also made it so cumbersome and costly to market fish, our people gave it up. The lakes are almost suffocating with fresh fish. We are going to get back to that industry one way or the other.
"But we also recognize the hundreds of millions of dollars which have been harvested from our traditional lands through mining and forestry without our people being paid a penny.
"Flin Flon, Lynn Lake, Sheridan, Snow Lake - communities were developed where people could work and raise a family in a nice neighbourhood. Why can't that happen here?"
"With the new 'duty to consult', the MCCN is ready to negotiate with the mining companies to develop joint operations which will split profits equitably. And provide the jobs our community needs. And create the same kind of wealth which created Flin Flon and Thompson and other great communities in the north."
Arlen Dumas is a young First Nations citizen, born and raised in his home community but enriched by travel and a liberal education. He looks around at the youth in his high school and sees the same potential. The only difference is that Arlen would like to keep those kids at home when they receive their education. Thus, he has been able to arrange for the University College of the North (UCN) to create a regional centre in Puk. Just another accomplishment in a very rapid list Chief Dumas has managed in his first, two-year term He is up for re-election in October.
Dumas is proud to share the financial statements of his administration. He makes $64,000 a year. He has prepared a report which outlines the progress of every portfolio and their plans for the future, written in clear, easy-to-understand English. The council holds regular general assemblies in Pukatawagan where citizens are encouraged to ask questions, criticize, and make recommendations.
He instituted the "Missinippi Challenge." These games featured competitions in paddling, log tossing, marathons and other fitness and fun activities. The young children were motivated to do their best, and many were heard to say that one day, they want to be a Missinippi Challenge champion.
Dumas is simply doing what a chief is supposed to do. And we simply need more like him.
They have a long way to go in Pukawatagan. But for the first time in 30 - 40 years, there is hope in the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation.
There is still overcrowding in Pukatawagan. And some of the residents drink too much and get into trouble. But you can't call it "Dodge City of the North" any more because the streets aren't full of shoot-outs at high noon (or midnight).
Three years ago, the fire chief (who makes a lot of friends in communities like Puk) was driving around. In the north, people usually wave when you drive by. But there weren't many people walking around outside in Puk. And half of them had their head down and didn't see to wave.
Now when you drive around with Chief Dumas, there are people walking around most everywhere. And they all wave. And behind the waves, there are a lot of smiling faces.
With his attitude and education, Dumas is simply doing what a chief is supposed to do. And we simply need more like him.