By Jason Warick, The Starphoenix
A Saskatchewan First Nation has refused to sign its annual funding agreement with the federal government, citing drastic cuts to a local job training program and other vital needs.
What will happen next for the Little Pine First Nation is unclear. As with provincial governments, First Nations' annual "contribution agreements" with the federal government fund education, health care, road maintenance, social housing and most other budget items. When an official from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) came last week to the reserve 150 km northwest of Saskatoon with the agreement in hand, Little Pine Chief Wayne Semaganis refused to endorse it. His band council had earlier voted unanimously to reject the terms, which contained a funding cut of nearly 10 per cent to their $5 million budget.
"They call it an agreement, but it's not. It's just take it or leave it," Semaganis said.
"I said, 'Take it back. I'm not going to sign.' " Semaganis said Little Pine leadership does not take the issue lightly. They realize the risk and potential consequences of declining. However, they say the funding cut is unjust, and they had to take a stand to help their people in the long term.
One area being reduced is a program to bus reserve workers to their jobs in Lloydminster. Under the program, which also supplied work boots and other equipment, more than 100 people were taken off the social assistance rolls. They now have good jobs, but no transportation.
"Do they want us on welfare? Taxpayers should know about this. It could now cost them more. It doesn't make sense," Semaganis said.
One other First Nation in southern Saskatchewan - Peepeekisis - has also refused to sign its federal agreement. Semaganis said he hopes still others will follow. He said First Nations simply want to provide the same level of services and social programs as the rest of the province enjoys.
Semaganis hopes federal officials will see the folly of the cuts. He hopes they'll offer to negotiate a fair deal.
Until then, he's told AANDC officials that any communication must be in writing, in case the matter ends up in court.
When Semaganis took over as chief several years ago, Little Pine was $4-million in debt and had rampant unemployment. The government had partially taken over the management of the band, a situation known as "co-management." Through a series of financial reforms, business ventures and other partnerships, Little Pine leadership has brought the debt down to $1 million, and more than 100 people have been taken off welfare and placed in jobs, he said.
No one from AANDC could be reached for comment.