SPECIAL REPORT

SUDDEN WEALTH

OIL BRINGS INDIANS MIXED BLESSINGS

JOHN HOWSE October 8 1990
SPECIAL REPORT

SUDDEN WEALTH

OIL BRINGS INDIANS MIXED BLESSINGS

JOHN HOWSE October 8 1990

SUDDEN WEALTH

SPECIAL REPORT

OIL BRINGS INDIANS MIXED BLESSINGS

The words of a Cree song called Niyanan Piyesisak (Five Birds) rang through the brightly postered Nipisihkopahk Kindergarten on the Samson reserve, 70 km south of Edmonton. Creespeaking instructor Dola Buffalo, a graduate of the University of Alberta, listened approvingly to the classroom choir, then told Maclean’s. “They sing the Cree songs and take them home. Then the parents want to take language lessons too.” Other youngsters, meanwhile, listened through headphones to an English nursery rhyme. A few blocks away, in the classrooms of the native-run Maskwachees Cultural College, an adult group of school

dropouts wrestled with upgrading courses in English and mathematics—as well as courses in Cree language, history and culture. Both classroom programs are part of a concerted effort by the Samson Cree band to raise education levels on the reserve through a mixture of academics and cultural awareness. Said Melvin Potts, vice-president of the college and a Cree Indian: “Here we instil Cree cultural values and restore self-esteem. We make them proud to be Indians.”

The ability to offer enhanced education programs is only one of the obvious benefits

available to the 3,900 members of the Samson band. Since the discovery of oil below local tribal lands in the early 1950s, the Samson Cree have become one of the wealthiest Indian bands in Canada. But the reserve continues to experience the same problems that buffet others, among them high levels of alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide. And band leaders lay the blame for those problems on the shoulders of the department of Indian affairs, which, under Canada’s Indian Act, acts as trustee for the oil royalties earned on reserve lands.

Drugs: In particular, they accuse the department of encouraging irresponsibility among

the young because of its policy of issuing onetime payments of up to $50,000 to all band members when they turn 18. Said Samson Chief Victor Buffalo: “Within one week, some buy a truck or car and are unemployed. Others abuse drugs and alcohol. It is a cancer of a situation.”

As a result, in September, 1989, the Samson Cree filed a $575-million lawsuit against Ottawa. The lawsuit demands that the government give the band full control over its financial resources. It claims that the provisions of the Indian Act giving the government control over

the oil revenues are unconstitutional and “discriminatory on the basis of race alone.” Said Buffalo: “The failure of the Indian Act is that it does not recognize the inherent sovereignty of nearly 600 separate Indian nations.”

As well, the lawsuit accuses the federal government of financial mismanagement. In the statement of claim, the band declared that between 1972 and 1989, oil royalties generated on reserve land amounted to $807 million. But between 1979 and 1989, the interest credits paid to the band were based on an average interest rate of 11.7 per cent—compared with the average rate of 16.4 per cent that the band claimed it could have earned under a privately managed investment plan during that period. As well, the band charges that Ottawa used the trust money for its own purposes—primarily to finance the national debt. “They loaned it to themselves,” Chief Buffalo told Maclean’s. “I have looked for a vault of cash in Ottawa and I have not found one.” For its part, the government has not yet filed its defence in the case.

Still, the Samson Cree clearly enjoy the kind of prosperity that eludes most Canadian natives. Investing its oil wealth, the band has built more than 160 km of roads, several modem housing subdivisions and a large recreation facility on the reserve. It has also invested in off-reserve commercial housing in Edmonton and Calgary and in a shopping mall at the Rocky Mountain resort town of Lake Louise. The band’s $14-million farm and ranch division operates two off-reserve feedlots, has 8,000 acres in crops and recently acquired a 400head buffalo herd. At the same time, Peace Hills Trust Co., a federally incorporated trust company that the band founded 10 years ago, provides longand short-term financing and cash - management programs to about 200 native organizations across Canada. Peace Hills Trust last year reported a profit of just over $1 million.

Cash: But in spite of the band’s wealth, Chief Buffalo says that the ¡_ Samson Indians could do a better job 8 than Ottawa of managing their own z affairs. “We desperately need better ~ cash management programs,” he said. Among his priorities, he added, is bringing to an end the $50,000 cash payment to 18-year-olds, which he says undermines incentives for job training while perpetuating social problems on a reserve where 75 per cent of the population is under the age of 21. “A lot of this money could be going into long-term pension programs rather than buying new trucks,” said Buffalo. And most members of the Samson Cree say that they will be able to achieve their ends only if they can finally wrest control of their affairs from Ottawa’s domain.

JOHN HOWSE on the Samson reserve