There is a long history of diplomatic relations between Saskatchewan First Nations and the Canadian government, initiated by treaty negotiations in the 1870s. Determined to expand and assert ownership over the prairie region, federal negotiators were dispatched to finalize treaties with the Cree, Saulteaux, and Assiniboine. By 1876, Treaties 4, 5, and 6 were concluded; and the Cree and Dene signed Treaties 8 and 10 by the end of the century. First Nations leaders believed that they were establishing a nation-to-nation relationship with Crown officials, as opposed to engaging in simple land transactions. As independent sovereign nations with a pre-existing right to self-government, they felt therefore entitled to engage the Crown diplomatically. By the early 1880s it was apparent to First Nations leaders that federal officials were reneging on treaty promises. Cree leader Poundmaker unsuccessfully attempted to form political councils consisting of various First Nations leaders to lobby Canadian officials for change; in response, federal officials employed the Indian Act of 1876 to dissuade First Nations political activity. Following the North-West Resistance of 1885, further measures were instituted to isolate First Nations on reserves, making it illegal to participate in ceremonies and rendering leaders politically impotent to contend with federal directives.
Unwavering in their belief in the nation-to-nation relationship, First Nations leaders continued to lobby the government for change. By the 1940s the Union of Saskatchewan Indians (USI), representing the provincial First Nations, was invited to testify before the Special Joint Senate-Parliamentary Committee (SJC) investigating the Indian Act. Also during this period, CCF Premier T.C. Douglas began to work closely with First Nations leaders, hoping that he could promote First Nations integration into mainstream society. The leaders took advantage of this opportunity to unite politically and gain influence over the development of First Nations policy and legislation. Following Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's ill-fated 1969 “White Paper” policy proposing the elimination of First Nations status, treaties, and reserves, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians (FSI) became increasingly involved in federal politics, traveling to Ottawa to meet with members of Liberal, Progressive Conservative, and New Democratic Party caucuses. FSI Chief David Ahenakew expressed his frustration at the lack of programs for Saskatchewan First Nations people, galvanizing Prime Minister Trudeau to hold meetings regarding the protection of treaty rights.
Following a restructuring in 1982, the newly named Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) moved toward implementing First Nations self-government. The Canadian government and the FSIN established the Office of the Treaty Commissioner (OTC) in 1989 to provide an impartial forum to advance treaty discussions; its original mandate was to review treaty land entitlement and education. The OTC was renewed in 1996 with an expanded mandate to facilitate a common understanding between the FSIN and Canada on treaty rights and/or jurisdiction in the areas of child welfare, education, shelter, health, justice, treaty annuities, hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering. The purpose was to expand upon the Treaty relationship in an attempt to foster a First Nations/federal/ provincial tripartite dialogue rather than negotiations. Cognizant of the need to boost economic development, the FSIN began investigating gaming as a tool of economic growth in the late 1980s. By 1993, Saskatchewan First Nations and Premier Roy Romanow concluded that gaming revenues could aid in ameliorating First Nation socioeconomic conditions. Two years of protracted negotiations followed, culminating in the province and the FSIN signing two agreements to formally establish a provincial/First Nations gaming partnership. To resolve highly contentious jurisdictional issues surrounding gaming activities on reserves, two incorporated bodies were established to function as agents of the partnerships: the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA) and the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA). This partnership was renewed in 2002 for an additional 25-year period. First Nations intergovernmental relations also occur at the community level: between bands and tribal councils; and between bands, tribal councils, and the federal and provincial governments. The unprecedented growth of urban First Nations populations has resulted in increased involvement with municipal officials and in a sphere of interaction previously unknown.
Yale D. Belanger