Some Saskatchewan First Nations are angry after they say they were dealt out of a multimillion-dollar Lloydminster casino project.
"It's not fair. We have people suffering in our communities," said Thunderchild First Nation Chief Delbert Wapass.
"We've been frozen out."
The casino was originally a project involving 10 First Nations as partners. Now, two of them — Thunderchild and the Big River First Nation — say they are being left out of some project components.
CBC News has also spoken to band councillors remaining in the group who question the deal. They say they've been left in the dark on financial details and have yet to see any paperwork.
"I'm concerned, as are other councillors, that there isn't enough transparency," said Poundmaker Cree Nation headman (councillor) Milton Tootoosis.
The casino's sod-turning occurred last month. Officials from the provincial government, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority and a handful of First Nations donned hard hats and posed for the official photo, shovels in hand.
No one from Thunderchild or Big River was there. Wapass said politics and greed has left them out of the deal.
But he said the fight isn't over. If the FSIN and provincial government won't honour the agreement between the First Nations, he'll take the matter to court.
"You know, I've always believed that justice must prevail. And we're going to do whatever we have to within my legal responsibility, being the elected chief of Thunderchild First Nation, to ensure we're treated the way we need to be," Wapass said.
Lloydminster seen as golden casino opportunity
Lloydminster is seen by many as the last Saskatchewan city that could sustain a new, profitable, full-service casino. SIGA already has casinos in Prince Albert, North Battleford, Yorkton, Swift Current, the White Bear First Nation, and the Whitecap Dakota Nation near Saskatoon. The Saskatchewan government operates casinos in Regina and Moose Jaw.
SIGA's annual revenue is $260 million, employing nearly 2,000 people. Two-thirds of them are of First Nations descent.
The push for Lloydminster has been led in recent years by Little Pine First Nation Chief Wayne Semaganis.
Semaganis initially wanted Little Pine to forge ahead alone. That didn't sit well with fellow chiefs across the province. They said at FSIN assemblies that casino profits should serve the collective good. Several of Semaganis's proposals were voted down at FSIN assemblies after many hours of intense debate.
The proposal finally got FSIN approval last year when Semaganis and another principal, Onion Lake Cree Nation Chief Wallace Fox, agreed to have 10 First Nations act as partners.
They formed a corporate body named the Border Tribal Council. Initially, Semaganis was the only director of the council, according to corporate documents. In recent months, that broadened to five directors from some of the partner First Nations.
'It's not a good feeling'
According to Wapass, chiefs of the partner First Nations were asked by the tribal council to commit and sign non-disclosure contracts before they knew anything about the project or how the profits were to be distributed.
Wapass and others say they began to ask questions. Eventually, Thunderchild and Big River were no longer being treated as equal partners, they say.
'Why is it that these guys have such a hard time being fair?' - Delbert Wapass, chief, Thunderchild First Nation
They were not allowed to invest in the casino building, which would have yielded up to $80,000 per year for Thunderchild alone, Wapass said. He's also unsure whether Thunderchild has also been omitted from the new casino's community development fund, which could be worth more than $200,000 a year for each partner.
Wapass said the FSIN needs to suspend approval for construction until all 10 partners are reinstated. He said the FSIN just wants the controversy to go away.
"It's not a good feeling, to have a federation that you're part of not look after the interest of all, rather than the interest of a selected few," Wapass said.
He said partners in the other casinos across Saskatchewan co-operate and share profits without controversy, so the whole situation has left him frustrated.
"Why is it that these guys have such a hard time being fair?"
FSIN attempts mediation
FSIN vice-chief Bob Merasty said he can't go into details because of the possible legal implications. However, the FSIN is working to "ensure all 10 bands are given a fair shake."
The FSIN has hosted mediation sessions for the First Nations involved, but only Thunderchild and a handful of others showed up.
Merasty said he'll continue to work hard on bringing the sides together, but the FSIN will not order a delay or suspension of construction. Merasty said it's an internal matter for the Border Tribal Council members to decide for themselves.
The potential lawsuit from Thunderchild isn't the only legal concern for the FSIN. The Border Tribal Council has already filed a lawsuit against the FSIN for alleged lost revenue caused by the delay in the project's approval. The amount of damages sought is not specified.
SLGA spokesperson David Morris said the provincial government granted approval based on the FSIN resolution, and they will not get involved in the affairs of an individual tribal council.
No one from the Onion Lake Cree Nation nor the Little Pine First Nation returned CBC interview requests.