“Planning Has Always Been An Important Part Of First Nation Livelihood”: Interview With April Roberts-Poitras

As part of Saskatchewan Economic Development Week 2017, the Saskatchewan First Nations Economic Development Network interviewed leaders in the First Nation business and economic development community. Below, SFNEDN Board member Heather Exner-Pirot talks to April Roberts-Poitras, Interim CEO of Sturgeon Lake Developments, about structuring First Nations business, transparency with band members, and creating wealth for self-determination.

Exner-Pirot: Can you tell me a little bit about Sturgeon Lake Developments Ltd. (SLDL)? Your history, your current activities and your goals?

Roberts-Poitras: The SLDL history begins with its shareholders, Sturgeon Lake First Nation. It arose out of a communal need to better the quality of life membership and create our own economic base.

  • 1906 – Timber Rights taken away by Canada
  • 2001 – Cash Settlement ($4.5 M) to restore economic justice; put in Trust for future economic development
  • 2005 – Chief and Council appoint an “Economic Development Advisory Committee”; and direct them to prepare a long-term Plan. The Committee then recommended a corporate structure, Sturgeon Lake Developments Ltd. (SLDL) and Sturgeon Lake Limited Partnership.
  • 2008 – A Board of Directors is appointed by Chief and Council of the First Nation, as recommended by the committee

In 2009, SLDL made 3 major acquisitions:

  • We acquired from Prince Albert Development Corp. the John E. McDonald Building, renamed the Sturgeon Lake Office Complex. The building has 30,000 square feet of rentable office space. The current occupants are: Health Canada, INAC, PAGC, TLE/ SLFN, Public Works.
  • We purchased 33.6% shares into Glenmor industries
  • We purchased 10% shares into Double Diamond Industries

It’s the long-term goal of SLDL to expand its network of contacts, while developing and creating potential partnerships for potential investments opportunities.  Our mission is to create business opportunities that will generate wealth for Sturgeon Lake First Nation through business investments and partnerships.

Exner-Pirot: What kinds of business ventures does SLDL look for?  Are there particular sectors, partnerships or attributes that you prioritize?

Roberts-Poitras: SLDL is be interested in the following sectors: agriculture and bio-tech, construction, education and training, manufacturing, mining and minerals (value added), real estate/land development/leasing, and tourism.

Exner-Pirot: SLDL is looking at promoting entrepreneurship to Band Members.  How does this get done in practice? What are the challenges and what has worked well?

Roberts-Poitras: We used to have a business development start-up program where an entrepreneur could receive assistance (technical and financial). The transparency and accountability from the approved applicants faltered regardless of what flexibility was afforded. The program was phased out and only technical supports and resources are offered now through the website.

Exner-Pirot: You are also the current Coordinator of the Kanawayihetaytan Askiy program at the University of Saskatchewan, which is focused on lands and resource management.  What are some of the trends in Indigenous lands management that you see coming forth?

Roberts-Poitras: Planning and awareness is key. First Nations in Canada historically and up until the 1980’s have not had the authority or policy support to guide the development process on reserve in regards to membership, housing, social needs, education, health and more specifically, lands. As of 2014, INAC reported that there were over 3,377,826 hectares of land area registered as reserve land in the Indian Lands Registry System. This represents approximately a 12% increase of the First Nations land base since 2006. The land planning process is more important now than ever in creating a sustainable community and managing economic development efforts. There needs to be more awareness of policies affecting First Nation communities, information that details the categorization of the lands right down to the soil quality. The history of the relationship between the lands and the people is just as relevant toward long-term solutions.

The Kanawayihetaytan Askiy Certificate has proven and continues to prove, that planning has always been an important part of First Nation livelihood.

For instance, the annual hunt, where First Nation people followed the bison but this would not have been as successful if it was not planned with detail, from the path taken to the weapons used. In terms of awareness, it was the concept of sharing information or providing awareness (lessons learnt) among the people; this awareness assisted in improving the odds.  I am sure those aspects were demonstrated throughout various histories of different Indigenous groups.

Exner-Pirot: What is the relationship between lands management and economic development?

Roberts-Poitras: From a nehiyaw perspective, land itself is a resource, it is a history, it is the culture of people, it is the traditions, and it is the relationship to mother earth.

Economic development is an activity, a practice, a means to reach another means for a greater purpose. It can be communal and decisions are made for a collective benefit with the intent to affect a smaller group of people – like the First Nation community or the local Rural Municipality.

Exner-Pirot: What kind of capacity-building efforts do you think Saskatchewan First Nations should be prioritizing if they want to grow their economies?

Roberts-Poitras: Internal capacities need to be focused on. Educating our youth and leaders on the micro/macroeconomics, and economies of scale. Although we have gas stations on reserve, the price of oil in Venezuela affects our ability to carry gas, which recycles the dollar locally. Training and policy development are very important.  Following a policy that was not created by First Nations, because there wasn’t one put in place by First Nations, is not adequate anymore.

Exner-Pirot: What’s your vision for SLDL in ten years? What would success look like?

Roberts-Poitras: We want to expand, build or purchase an additional building, purchase more land in concert with our Treaty Land Entitlement, and hire more qualified and skilled membership from Sturgeon Lake.