Swan Lake First Nation cashing in, building up

The sound of drills and hammers are echoing in the air.

By Tiar Wilson
APTN National News
The sound of drills and hammers are echoing in the air.

At least a dozen homes are undergoing major renovations.  Other than the evidence of the gutted home lying on the front lawn, it’s rare to see an unkempt yard.

Doreen Tukundum moved back to her reserve 12 years ago. 

“I like it out here,” Tukundum says as she makes her morning coffee, “There’s been big changes in my community and a lot of (new) houses on top of that.”

Tukundum a hard labour worker most of her life, now lives in a cozy one bedroom apartment in the independent living corridors designed for Elders and people with disabilities.

But she says it wasn’t always like this. Tukundum gives credit to her chief and council.

On the bulletin board inside the band office is a list of approved renovations. Most are minor although a few homes must be completely redone. But all of the posted approvals include the name of the home owner and an estimate of the cost of each renovation.

“It helps,” says Francine Meeches. 

She’s been Chief since 2007 and has seen a positive change since the band began posting the costs of fixing homes.

“People don’t come to us to fix their door knob or a wall they damaged now,” she says.

As the leader of this reserve, Meeches says her council has made improving living conditions a top priority.

But she’s not tooting her own horn. Meeches says she just finished the work started by the two previous chiefs.

“As the chief you can easily go in and disrupt this whole thing if you want,” she says with a cheeky undertone.

Instead, her council chose to stick to the long term plan.

“All it boils down to is how you spend and how you try to retain what you got,” she says.

In 2001, the community was in a 2.8 million dollar deficit. The goal was to get out of it by 2010.

When Meeches stepped up she realized that goal wouldn’t be reached at the original pace.  So she made more changes.

“You had to take away authority from council at some point when it came to spending program dollars,” she says.

Those changes made some people very angry. But by 2009, the band broke even.

Since then, new homes have gone up and old ones were repaired.  It was difficult at first, Meeches says, because they were forced to work with a very small budget from Aboriginal Affairs. 

Tired of living in poverty her council decided to look for economic opportunity. They found it through an unconventional source.

Today, Swan Lake First Nation owns two VLT gaming centres. 

One is off reserve, on a parcel of land on the outskirts of Winnipeg.  The band went after 25 acres of land through treaty land entitlement and won.

The gaming centre employs 15 staff and all but three are Swan Lake members.

“We are non-funded so everything is brought in through the clientele of the gaming centre,” says manager Donna M’Lot.

Combined, the gaming centres make close to $2 million a year.

“All the money goes back to the reserve, all the money goes back to some type of program,” says M’Lot.

Those programs include education, social assistance, and housing programs which constantly exceed their annual budget.

While most don’t mind how the extra cash makes it to the reserve, there are a few who are uncomfortable with making money off gambling. After all, it can be highly addictive.

But the chief says it all comes down to self control.

“Our parents are at least responsible enough to provide what they can for their kids,” Meeches says referring to the fact that it’s rare to see someone entering the band office asking for extra assistance.

“If anything, whatever they have left they will go and try to make money back on what they spent on their food,” she says.

Whether that’s true or not, it’s hard to prove.

The community plans to open the new Spirit Sands casino in the neighbouring town of Carberry in the near future.

But gambling isn’t the sole source of revenue for Swan Lake.

They also own two gas stations. One is conveniently located next to the gaming centre on the strip of land outside Winnipeg.

The first nation gets to keep the gas and tobacco revenue because the store is on reserve land. The profits go into paying-off loans.

“The way we do our financial management is like a resume. If we can be positive in the way we manage our money, then to investors or to the banks, it shows we are doing the best that we can,” says Meeches.

Investors aren’t the only ones taking notice of Swan Lake First Nation’s success.

The reserve recently beat out 100 other communities across the country to win the annual public sector award in the municipal leadership category.

To do so, the band had to be nominated, getting the support of Aboriginal Affairs.

“We won the gold, like it was really surprising,” says Meeches.

That positive attitude doesn’t end once you leave the band office.

Down the road, Joyce Hobson is preparing lunch at the independent living corridors.

“I’m proud of the chief and what she’s done,” Hobson says as she reflects on what the biggest difference this council has made.

She believes it was their ability to open up communication amongst the 720 people living on reserve.

“There was quite a few bickering, rumours, and stuff that weren’t true.  There’s not too much of that anymore,” she says.

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