lapointe and bear

Joe LaPointe and Chief Darcy Bear stand in front of one of the new, all-market homes. (Madeline Kotzer/CBC News)

A First Nation south of Saskatoon is leading the way when it comes to building homes for sale to anyone, regardless of their First Nations ancestry or not. 

In May, construction began on four, 1190-square-foot homes along Whitecap Dakota First Nation​'s Littlecrow Trail, a road that runs by a patch of land enshrouded by bushes on the reserve’s west side. It's the first First Nation to do this in the province. 

The homes, in various stages of completion, are the first of 10 to be built on the sprawling lot. Each house’s price point starts at the $371,000 mark and all have been designed with unfinished basements so that a homeowner could turn the space into a separate basement suite, for an additional cost of $80,000.

So far, two of the homes have sold, one to a couple residing in Moose Jaw and the other to one in Major, SK.

Chief Darcy Bear, leader of the Whitecap Dakota First Nation, said the impetus for the project came from a perceived need for on-reserve, employee housing.

'We want to be a part of the economy'- Chief Darcy Bear

“We’ve got about 680 jobs now in the community and of that 680, 500 commute from Saskatoon on a daily basis,” Bear said. “Of the 500 we surveyed, 240 of them said they would like to reside out here, whether it would be a rental property or a home ownership opportunity. This will be the first of the home ownership opportunities”

The current residential development is the first phase of a larger commercial housing project agreement that Whitecap Dakota has entered into with Valley River Development Corp..

Joe LaPointe created the company specifically for future development projects on the First Nation.

LaPointe, who founded and owns Saskatoon-based finance and insurance company All-Sask Financial, was attracted to the community’s tranquility after visiting it for a SIGA fireworks display.

“Just coming out here, the peace and quiet, the stillness, the whole backdrop of what is available here is huge. So how could we say no to that,” LaPointe said of the partnership.

Leaving the Indian Act behind

The Whitecap Dakota First Nation is a short drive from Saskatoon, located 26 kilometres south of the city on Highway 219. Throughout the years the reserve has capitalized on its close proximity to the city.

The First Nation is perhaps best known for its large casino and golf course, The Dakota Dunes Casino and Golf Links.

In the past it has partnered with the Saskatoon Health Region, Saskatoon Public Schools, Saskatoon RCMP and several rural municipalities to give its residences access to health care, education, policing and better roads.

'Our people want jobs, our people want opportunity,'- Chief Darcy Bear

Chief Bear said all of the progress his community has achieved has been a building of a means to an end; complete self-reliance.

“Our goal has always been to be a sustainable community,” Bear said. “Generating our own source revenues and not just being reliant on government money.”

According to Bear, this is why 89 per cent of Whitecap Dakota’s members voted to ditch certain provisions of the Indian Act when given the chance.

The opportunity presented itself after changes were made to the Indian Act in 1999, allowing First Nations to opt out of 34 land-related sections of the legislation in order to develop their own land codes to govern their own reserve lands and resources.

At the time, the changes responded to First Nations' expressed interest in taking advantage of economic development opportunities for themselves — a capability that the First Nations Land Management Act (FNLMA) made possible.

Saskatchewan First Nations and the FNLMA

Now, the Whitecap Dakota First Nation is one of six, Saskatchewan First Nations who have successfully undergone the process of coming under the act.

Muskoday, Kinistin, Muskeg Lake, Kahkewistahaw and Flying Dust are also allowed to manage and develop their land as they see fit under FNLMA. The One Arrow, Yellow Quill, George Gordon, English River, Mistawasis First Nations are currently in the process of doing the same.

And while other First Nations are taking steps towards developing their land under FNLMA in similar ways, none have gone as far as Whitecap Dakota.

According to Saskatchewan's Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) office, there are a few examples that may come close, such as Kinookimaw Beach, Sakimay and White Bear.

However, the land has been used mostly as vacation property and, according to AANDC, in most cases the properties are not houses built by a First nation and then sold. Instead they are leases on land for which the leasee has placed a cottage or house on.

Chief Bear said using the FNLMA to build commercial houses was a natural next step for his community.

“We have been segregated from society and not allowed to be a part of the economy and one of the things that we have always said is we want to be a part of the economy,” Bear said of the FNLMA.

“Our people want jobs, our people want opportunity. They want to be contributing citizens.”

Selling reserve living

The Whitecap Dakota First Nation has already built two, large apartment complexes across from the new, all-market homes.

Bear said currently, all 34 units the buildings provide are occupied and there is a wait list to get in.

Because of the demand for housing on the First Nation, Bear explained he sees a dual functionality to the new homes that are being built: either a good revenue opportunity for a smart investor or a sound choice for a family home.

“We have all of the infrastructure in place, all the lots are legally surveyed, they are registered and you can get mortgages,” Bear said. “It is a new opportunity.”

'it should not make any difference'- Joe LaPointe

Anyone who buys one of the homes will technically be taking over a 99-year lease of the land, which will roll into perpetuity upon the lease's completion. This is how the First Nation has managed to sell the property without surrendering the land back to the federal government.

Joe LaPointe said selling people on the idea of living on the Whitecap Dakota First Nation has not been hard. Although he does admit first-time visitors are often surprised with the community’s resources.

“People who had never been out here before [saying] ‘Oh my goodness, is this nice, is this wonderful,' well yeah, it is,” LaPointe said. “So what, because it is a reserve. It does not make any difference. Or it should not make any difference.”

LaPointe would not discuss phase two of Valley River Development Corp.’s plans for the First Nation, but did say future plans would be “incredible”.

Bear said in addition to building more homes on the First Nation in the future, band members have also zoned between 40 and 60 acres for a business park that will make space for about 10 new businesses. Those who buy into those commercial spaces will operate on a 49 year lease.

“Today through the First Nations Land Management Act and the land code we can actually move at the speed of business,” Bear explained. “We want opportunities like anyone else wants opportunities.”

Bear and LaPointe expect the new homes will be finished in December of 2014. Construction on the remaining six that comprise phase one will begin in spring of 2015.