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Saskatchewan golf course helps a First Nation stay in the green

Since 1991, Darcy Bear, chief of the Whitecap Dakota First Nation, has revitalized his Saskatchewan reserve’s economy with budget reforms, new infrastructure and the construction of a renowned golf course and casino.

DAVID STOBBE/The Globe and Mail

The leaders of the tiny Whitecap Dakota First Nation were talking about creating a golf course 30 years ago when Darcy Bear was still in high school.

It was a grandiose dream for a dusty reserve of a couple hundred people a half hour's drive south of Saskatoon where folks still used outhouses, homes lacked even basic foundations, the unemployment rate topped 70 per cent, and the band's bank-account balance was preceded by a minus sign.

But Dakota Dunes, which finally opened in 2005, is ranked number 15 by Golf Digest out of the roughly 3,500 courses in Canada. It is a challenging, traditional links course (minus the rugged coast), ranging over 7,300 yards of rolling scrub. More than 25,000 games are played here every year, and Dakota Dunes is contributing more than $500,000 annually to the reserve economy. The course has become a cornerstone of the success that the Whitecap Dakota have created since Mr. Bear was elected chief in 1991 and demonstrated what a struggling First Nation can accomplish when it aims not just to survive but to thrive.

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"We didn't have $1 in our bank account," Mr. Bear said. There were no financial policies or governance structures. Loans and advances were being dispersed from band funds to community members, never to be repaid. There was no transparency; there was even less hope. "The easiest thing to do would have been to walk away," the chief said.

But that would have meant walking away from a community that had managed to endure for more than a century on some of the most unforgiving land in southern Saskatchewan. Government officials have taken note of the turnaround.

"Whitecap Dakota First Nation is just one excellent example of a community that has shown great leadership to develop their economy and improve lives on the reserve," said Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt. "I commend the commitment of Chief Darcy Bear and of their community to a strong, accountable and transparent government."

The Whitecap Dakota arrived in Saskatchewan in the early 1860s from what is now Minnesota. As supporters of the British during the War of 1812, they had found themselves on the outs with the U.S. government. The British rewarded them with 5,000 acres of rolling sandy dunes – a small swath of prairie where crops would not grow, useful only as grazing land for cattle.

"They wanted to segregate us from society and put us on reservations and keep us out of sight, out of mind, no hope, no opportunity, and gave us the worst land in the country," Mr. Bear said.

And that's more or less how things played out for the next 130 years, until Mr. Bear took office. The first thing the new band council did was create a plan to have the debt paid off in three years. With tight budgeting, strict governance and an end to the personal loans, the books were balanced in two. The next thing was infrastructure: The reserve needed septic systems, a new water treatment plant and a new school, and many homes were perched on two-by-sixes and were starting to rot from the ground up.

"We started talking to our members saying if you want us to speed up building homes, we are going to have to start paying rent," said Mr. Bear, who has a college degree in commerce. So everyone, even those people on social assistance, started paying some money for the roofs over their heads. "We said this is good, things are moving forward, but now we need economic activity."

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The sandy hills are not good for farming, but the drainage is perfect for a golf course. So Mr. Bear looked at what previous community leaders had been considering back in the 1980s.

"The problem with their plans was that they were trying to level all the hills, knock all the hills down," he said. "We said, as First Nations people, we have always been protectors of the environment. Shouldn't we keep this golf course as natural as possible?"

Wayne Carleton, one of Canada's premier golf-course designers, happened to be in Saskatoon and Mr. Bear convinced him to visit the reserve.

"From the very first moment I stepped onto the property, I knew we had the site to create a world-class golf course," Mr. Carleton said.

He liked the property so much, he started working on the concept without pay, which meant Mr. Bear could start looking around for financial backers. He found them in two successful Saskatchewan First Nations – the Muskeg Lake Cree and the the Lac La Ronge Cree.

The year it opened, Dakota Dunes was named best new golf course in Canada.

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McLaren Taylor, the general manager, says it was fashioned in the "old-world" style. "You can't really build this anywhere else," Mr. Taylor said of the rolling hills and the rough that consists of dense, low-lying scrub. "Every hole is its own. Every hole is like your own private fairway."

Half the staff are First Nations people. Many are kids who work between April and September and then go to university or college in the fall.

Mr. Bear says the course has been profitable since the day it opened. "Originally we were going to pay off our debt in 12 years; we paid it off in six. And next year marks our 10th anniversary and we are starting the permanent clubhouse finally."

Meanwhile, the Saskatoon Tribal Council, which represents seven First Nations in and around the city, selected the Whitecap Dakota First Nation as the site for a casino. Between the golf course and the casino, which welcomed its first guests in 2007, the reserve is now attracting more than a million visitors a year and there are plans for a 140-bed hotel that could be operating as early as next year.

There are now 680 jobs on the First Nation, the unemployment rate has dropped to 4.1 per cent, and Whitecap has to bring in hundreds of people from off the reserve to fill all the vacant positions. "Amongst the youth they have a different type of peer pressure going on," Mr. Bear said. "If they don't have a job, they are asking each other, 'Why aren't you working?' "

Whitecap was recently a victim of its own success. The First Nation found out that $2.5-million had gone missing from its general operating funds over the past three years. A former employee in accounting – who is not a member of a First Nation – has been charged with theft and police believe he may have fled the country.

Mr. Bear is angry but undaunted. "Whitecap still has the fiscal strength to withstand this unfortunate event," he said. "And we are going to provide service to our members. But we are also going to continue to move forward with all of our growth plans in regard to the hotel project, the clubhouse project. We are going to continue to be a leader in economic development in our area."

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