restricted access (Re)Imagining First Nations Casinos: A Necessary Response to Ensure Economic Development
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| 57 (Re)Imagining First Nations Casinos A Necessary Response to Ensure Economic Development Yale D. Belanger I n recent years First Nations casino operations in Canada have settled into predictable operational patterns.1 Apart from the negligence that temporarily plaguedtheSaskatchewanIndianGamingAuthority(SIGA)intheearly2000s,2 the seventeen national for-profijit First Nations casinos are accomplished employers that maintain a relatively low profijile. They produced more than $1 billion for Aboriginal development between 1996 and 2010.3 For many, this period represented the peak of a turbulent political journey that began in the early 1980s when Manitoba and Ontario First Nations leaders approached their respective provincialhostgovernmentsaboutconstructingreservecasinos;andSaskatchewan leaders visited several American Indian casino operations to gather information. Observers from various facets of Canadian society immediately questioned the suitability of permitting First Nations to operate casinos, especially those that were perceived to be lacking social, economic, and political capital. The media likewise appraised the anticipated hardships associated with introducing a potentially harmful product into similarly portrayed dysfunctional First Nations. Federal offfijicials declared that provincial governments were unauthorized to negotiate casino compacts with First Nations while bureaucrats at all levels expressed fears thatauthorizingreservecasinooperationswouldbejudgedasyieldingtoAboriginal 58 | Yale D. Belanger race-based rights.4 The gravity of the situation was not lost on First Nations leaders who were confronting a touchy public relations issue and grappling with a murky legal landscape that offfered little clarity concerning the Aboriginal right to control reserve gambling. Notably all of these events occurred prior to any First Nation tabling a formal casino proposal. The act of seeking out—or in this case identifying—potential alternative economic prospects (casinos) to stimulate reserve development engendered substantial push back from various circles. First Nations leaders pursuing the idea of constructing reserve casinos realized quickly that they would need to reconcile thesevariousforcestoachievetheirgoals.Whattheyfailedtorealizeisthat,despite the proclaimed Canadian desire to see First Nations generate their own source revenue vis-à-vis innovative economic development projects, non-Aboriginal leadershadyettofullyacceptAboriginalpeoplesascontemporaryeconomicagents. Thatis,federalofffijicialsfavoredfarming,agriculture,localcommercialventures,and light industry as the basis for reserve development—any projects that fell outside the scope of these categories were not recognized. As historical geographer Frank Tough argues in his superb essay “From the Original ‘Afffluent Society’ to the ‘Unjust Society,’” this disconnect can be traced to the fur trade, which many writers have concludedwasauniversallyenrichingexperiencetypifijiedbyfreedomof choiceand collective economic achievement.5 Tough challenges this orthodoxy by suggesting that such arguments obscure the “racial division of labor [as] a key means for structuring the industry” that led to the “the relative proportion of income to each of theracialgroups,”thusinfluencing“theirlong-runsocialfutures.”Heexplainsthat “the mixed economy could not absorb commercial value in a manner that would fund future growth,” and the resulting “inability of Native trappers to obtain more than a subsistence share of the fur industry’s wealth has implications for trends in economic history.”6 This process, in his opinion, set “Whites and Natives on diffferent historical trajectories,” resulting in signifijicant economic imbalances that, over time, came to be institutionalized. Thus from both operational and ideological perspectives Canada’s economic development was and remains in part based on the economic exploitation of Indigenous peoples.7 Tough convincingly argues that the forced economicandsocialmarginalizationcharacteristicof thefurtradeisevidentinthe contemporary polarized economic outcomes that frequently distinguish modern reserve economies from those of non-Indigenous communities. Reserve economies persist on society’s economic fringes with limited opportunities for fruitful (Re)Imagining First Nations Casinos | 59 economicintegrationdespiteprofessedfederalandincreasinglyfrequentprovincial desires to expand Aboriginal economic outcomes.8 Non-Aboriginal Canadians remainrelativelyignorantof thesehistoricprocesses,andtendtoblameAboriginal economic inertia on an internal failure to adapt to modern economic principles. In this setting those First Nations that attempt economic development projects that both fall outside the realm of tradition (for example, hunting and gathering) and simultaneously fail to adhere to “modern” modes of production (for example, agriculture, ranching, or natural resource utilization) provoke a destabilizing sense of liminalitythatchallengesCanadianattitudesreliantonstereotypesthatreinforce a collective understanding of what First Nations are from an economic perspective (farmers and/or ranchers, not casino owners). Resonating with several Supreme Court of Canada Aboriginal rights decisions, First Nations economic development remains frozen in time: society and its respectiveIndianpolicyenvisionFirstNationsaslittlemorethanmaturingfarmers andrancherslivingandworkinginreservecommunities.Yetitiswithinthiscontext that First Nations, in the 1990s, managed to convince provincial offfijicials in Alberta, Saskatchewan,andOntariothattheycouldsuccessfullymanagelarge,corporatecasinooperations .Howpreciselydidtheyaccomplishthisfeat,especiallyconsidering that the various governments’ responses to these early demands were frequently antagonistic and grounded in a non-Aboriginal belief in how First Nations should economically develop? Further, what steps were taken in each province that led to a positive negotiated outcome? A similarity of responses is evident...