Bearspaw First Nation gains control of savings fund after dispute with Ottawa

The Bearspaw First Nation in southern Alberta will soon be able to establish its own savings trust fund with more than $50 million in the bank after settling a dispute with the federal government.

Chief describes transfer of funds as 'proud, important and historic event'

The Bearspaw First Nation had asked Ottawa for the right to control its own oil and gas royalties and for the return of about $50 million collected from oilpatch activity on its territory. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

The Bearspaw First Nation in southern Alberta will soon be able to establish a savings trust fund with more than $50 million of its own money after settling a dispute with the federal government.

The First Nation, located west of Calgary, had grown frustrated with the process of gaining control of the royalties it had earned from oil and gas production near its community.

Under the Indian Act, the federal government has had control of band money since the late 19th century and acted as trustee of any energy royalties earned by First Nations. To this day, the government also holds on to money earned from other sources, such as the sale of land, timber and gravel. 

The band has felt the government is doing a poor job of investing the savings and that's why the First Nation wanted to gain control of the funds.

"You want to see it for your children and your grandchildren and they'll always have that legacy of non-renewable resources to keep forever," said Rob Shotclose, CEO of Bearspaw First Nation, in an interview.

"It's significant because it is our own money. In a way, it's a sovereignty issue — and it's also purely economics."

The Bearspaw First Nation was 'definitely frustrated by delays' in being able to self-manage its savings being held by the federal government, says Chief Darcy Dixon. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Bearspaw leaders say they were told by Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) on June 3, 2020, that the government would transfer all of the money to the First Nation, but only received confirmation earlier this month after a CBC News story about the dispute was published in late July.

At that time, Chief Darcy Dixon said the Bearspaw First Nation was "definitely frustrated by delays" in being able to self-manage its savings.

A ministerial standing order approving the transfer of funds was signed by Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller on Aug. 13, two days before the federal Liberals called an election.

The order states: "The Minister of Indigenous Services has decided that the transfer of the Bearspaw Nation's capital moneys is for the benefit of the Stoney Nation and the Bearspaw Nation."

The Bearspaw is one of three bands that make up the Stoney Nakoda Nation. Last year, each band passed a resolution allowing the Bearspaw to withdraw its per-capita share of the money the federal government was holding for the Stoney Nakoda Nation.

Bearspaw's share is about $53 million. It's now the fourth First Nation in Western Canada to succeed in completely withdrawing all of the funds from the federal government.

In a statement, Dixon described the transfer of funds as "a proud, important and historic event for the Bearspaw Nation."

The Samson Cree Nation, located about 100 kilometres south of Edmonton, launched a legal battle against Ottawa to gain access to its money in 1989 and was eventually victorious in 2005. The following year, the federal government transferred $349 million into the First Nation's newly created Kisoniyaminaw Heritage Trust Fund.

At the beginning of 2017, the fund had a balance of $456 million, while $202 million had been withdrawn by the Samson Cree.

The Bearspaw First Nation promotes the proposed trust fund on a billboard along the Trans-Canada Highway west of Calgary. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

The Ermineskin Cree Nation, located next to Samson, and the Onion Lake Cree Nation, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, have both followed suit and set up their own trust funds after many years of delays working with the federal government.

Since inception, the Ermineskin fund's annualized rate of return is 10 per cent, compared with 2.17 per cent if the money had been left under government oversight.

"It's demonstrable what they have done with their trusts," said Shotclose, about the higher investment return. The Bearspaw trust will be modelled after those already in existence.

"We're not reinventing the wheel," he said. "We're just doing what has already been successful in three other First Nations in Alberta."

WATCH | How the Bearspaw First Nation spends some of its oil and gas royalties: 

Resource wealth is used to support social programs on First Nation

1 year ago
Duration 1:32
Bearspaw Chief Darcy Dixon says the community's savings help subside programs and provide care for elders.


Kyle Bakx

Business reporter

Kyle Bakx is a Calgary-based journalist with the network business unit at CBC News. He files stories from across the country and internationally for web, radio, TV and social media platforms. You can email story ideas to