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Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN)

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) is the representative body of Saskatchewan’s seventy-four First Nations, committed to honouring the spirit and intent of the provincial treaties made with the First Nations in the 1870s. The FSIN is a complex organization consisting of the Chiefs-in-Assembly, a Senate, an Elders Council, an Executive, an Executive Council, and an Indian Government Commission. Other aspects include an Auditor General, Treasury Board, and five major commissions: Lands and Resources, Economic and Community Development, Education and Training, Health and Social Development, and Justice. Members of the Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine, Dakota/Sioux, and Dene Nations form the FSIN, which recognizes the autonomy and jurisdiction of each of Saskatchewan’s First Nations. Ten tribal councils and eleven independent First Nations are also affiliated.

The history the FSIN dates back to 1946 and the merger of the League of Indians of Western Canada, the Protective Association for Indians and their Treaties, and the Association of Saskatchewan Indians into the Union of Saskatchewan Indians (USI). Saskatchewan Premier T.C. Douglas (CCF) promoted the union, anticipating that the USI would encourage First Nations integration into Canadian society; but First Nations leaders were more concerned with establishing on-reserve day-schools, accessing higher education and old-age pensions, and fostering improved treatment of First Nations war veterans. John Tootoosis was elected president, John Gambler and Ernest Goforth elected first and second vice-presidents; Mistawasis Chief and World War I veteran Joe Dreaver’s daughter, Gladys, was selected as secretary-treasurer. A new constitution was struck, identifying six key issues requiring resolution: the protection of treaties and treaty rights; the fostering of progress in First Nations economic, educational and social endeavours; co-operation with civil and religious authorities; constructive criticism and thorough discussion on all matters; the adherence to democratic procedure; and the promotion of respect and tolerance for all people.

The year 1946 was a watershed for First Nations politics in Canada, following the federal government’s invitation to the USI and several other First Nations political organizations to testify before the Special Joint Senate-Parliamentary Committee (SJC) investigating the Indian Act. Little came of the SJC; the USI concerned itself more with provincial political issues, and in 1958 changed its name to Federation of Saskatchewan Indians (FSI). The FSI continued its work at improving First Nations socio-economic conditions through regular interaction with provincial officials. In an age of limited communication, various strategies to keep members informed were devised, ranging from annual meetings to publishing Indian Outlook (1960–63), which was analogous to published conference proceedings.

The catalyst leading to the emergence of FSI was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 proposal to eliminate treaty rights and abolish reserves. FSI leadership fought implementation of what became popularly known as the “White Paper,” initiating a long period of political growth and influence. Agitation led the federal government to offer financial support for the FSI’s community development program in 1972, a year in which organization delegates agreed that the FSI’s constitution should be registered under the Canadian Companies Statute. The FSI also took a significant leadership role in First Nations education in 1970s: the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College (currently Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre), the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (currently First Nations University of Canada), the Saskatchewan Indian Equity Foundation, as well as the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies were all established in succession, in an attempt to meet the increasing educational needs of the provincial First Nations.

The FSI is perhaps best known for its work intensifying the First Nations self-government debate when, in 1977, it formally articulated the principles of self-government in a position paper entitled Indian Government. Sovereignty was presented as both “inherent and absolute” since First Nations governments traditionally exercised the powers of sovereign nations. A second paper in 1979, Indian Treaty Rights: The Spirit and Intent of Treaty, expanded upon the idea of self-government and prescribed the recognition of treaty rights in return for ceding certain “Indian” lands for use and settlement. The FSI held firm to the belief that during treaty negotiations, First Nations leaders were guaranteed all powers of Indian nationhood and accompanying jurisdiction, the right to be born and live Indian, and socio-economic rights.

A reorganization effort in the early 1980sresulted in the FSI evolving from a longtime provincial non-profit governing body into the FSIN, described as a true federation of nations. On April 16, 1982, following an agreement to form Canada’s first Indian legislative assembly, the chiefs gained formal control of the executive and administrative functions of Saskatchewan First Nations government at the band, tribal council, and provincial levels. A resolution known as the Provisional Charter of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (Convention Act) was adopted, outlining the FSIN’s governing structure; and the first Chiefs’ legislative assembly was held one year later, on October19, 1983.

The FSIN to this day remains an influential political organization. The FSIN and the Canadian government, for instance, established the Office of the Treaty Commissioner (OTC) in 1989 to aid in determining the restitution owed to twenty-five First Nations in lieu of improper land surrenders; the OTC was renewed in 1996 for a five-year term with expanded terms of reference. Ever concerned with economic development, the FSIN also signed two agreements with Saskatchewan in 1995, initiating Aboriginal gaming: the Gaming Framework Agreement (GFA) and the Casino Operating Agreement (COA). The stated goal behind gaming was to engage in an economic venture to aid in ameliorating poor on-reserve socio-economic conditions. The prevalent theme throughout this brief history of the FSIN is the push toward self-governance by strengthening the internal authority of bands through the reassertion of traditional institutions. Self-governance in this instance is not considered irreconcilable with promoting cross-cultural dialogue with representatives of the federal and provincial governments; in fact, it is deemed a necessity if a nation-to-nation relationship is to flourish once again.

Yale D. Belanger

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