Lac La Ronge Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson
Tammy Cook-Searson has been chief of the Lac La Ronge First Nation since 2005.
The Lac La Ronge Indian Band reserve at La Ronge is low and pocked with muskeg. Roads weave among bulges of Canadian shield and houses sit where rock and high ground permit a dry foundation. It is a small reserve divided into two parts, one on either side of the Montreal River. The Town of La Ronge marks its northern border and Highway 102 cuts through its centre. This is the largest of six communities that make up the band.
Chief Tammy Cook-Searson does not interpret her home and its people for an outsider. Being understood by people outside the community is not a high priority. Enabling her people to overcome poverty, find lasting health, and act on their own behalf is. Despite these clearly political aspirations, Cook-Searson makes no attempt to grandstand her ideas and you get the sense that, as far as people looking in at her community go, things can speak for themselves—people will get it or they won’t. Her work lies elsewhere.
At the newly built 10-bed seniors’ care home, she seems to relax, slipping instantly into her first language, Cree, to greet the residents who slowly make their way to a table where an afternoon snack has been set out. She kisses the elderly ladies’ cheeks and listens to brief stories. The ladies are in their 90s and their memories are remarkably intact. It is frequently from elder members of the band that Cook-Searson feels pressure to redress century-old land transfer issues and secure adequate land for housing. The elders press for a resolution to residential school settlements. It is simple: they remember.
Cook-Searson, at less than half their age, shares a great deal in common with them. She is unique in that she is young but has experienced first-hand the cultural arch that has shaped First Nations relationships with Canadian political and legal authorities since European administration began here. She was born on her parents’ trap line at Brabant Lake, a two-hour drive northeast of La Ronge. Her earliest memories are from trap line life before she was sent to residential school. In her mid-teens, after residential school, she moved to La Ronge to complete high school and start her life on the reserve. Within less than two decades she had followed the entire pattern of change from semi-nomadic hunter/trapper to post-residential school reserve resident that shook Indian culture across 100 years. It does seem that she is uniquely suited for times such as these.
As she moves from room to room at the seniors’ residence she describes its benefits to the elders with a familial satisfaction and surveys the broad view over Lac La Ronge from its windows. You might expect a self-congratulatory narrative on the building’s construction or a bitter schooling on the embarrassing shortages of elder care facilities on Canadian reserves. Cook-Searson gives no hint of either. The place feels good: it is safe, warm, and it is somewhere you’d like someone you love to be.
Around a long and icy curve, past a pair of teenaged girls walking and somehow talking despite matching iPods, police cruiser lights flash against the vinyl-covered walls of a small house. A group of young men and women crowd outside the doorway and watch peace officers handcuff a teenaged boy. Cook-Searson twists to watch the scene in the driveway. “Oh,” she says quietly, “they’ve arrested him. I always feel so bad for people.” At her office, she takes a call from a band member who is recovering in hospital and wants prayer and confirmation that his benefits will continue while he heals.
Being the chief means carrying out a kind of hyper-personal political life that even small town mayors can’t imagine. “You are always on call as a leader of the community,” says Cook-Searson. “The RCMP might call you to let you know about an issue at six in the morning. Someone will knock on your door who needs help with gas to get to a sick family member. You are available to do the little things but you have to look at the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture has a lot to do with land these days. The Lac La Ronge band has roughly 10,000 members in its six reserve communities—La Ronge, Grandmother’s Bay, Hall Lake, Little Red River, Stanley Mission, and Sucker River. These are small pieces of land relative to the band’s expanding population. Low employment and laws buried in the Indian Act that make it virtually impossible for a band member to acquire a mortgage to build a home on-reserve have created a perfect storm in the form of a housing shortage.
“The band can only build so many homes in a year and there are hundreds on the waiting list,” says Cook-Searson. “Effectively, people can’t live on the reserve because they can’t afford to.”
The coincident to this is that many can’t afford to live off the reserve either.
Saskatchewan’s Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE) framework was instituted to address a fundamental flaw in the applications of Treaties between First Nations and Canada—and hopefully solve housing and countless other economic problems among First Nations. Land set aside for Indians under the Treaties was to be given in relation to the number of band members. For various reasons, some accidental and others nefarious, many of the land transfers were much smaller than they should have been. The TLE is roughly a century after the fact in fixing that.
The TLE recognizes that: “This meant that they [Indian people] did not have the land base they needed to get their people established securely in farming. Many Indian people nonetheless did become farmers, and many were successful for a time. As farming on the prairies progressed, Indian farmers suffered under policies of the Indian Affairs Branch such as the pass and permit system that severely restricted travel. Under the terms of the Indian Act, their ability to get loans and operate independently was severely restricted.”
Indians north of the prairie farmlands were in no better position than their counterparts in the south. Freedoms to deal commercially in fish, furs, or other northern resources were extremely restricted. Private land ownership, which is the basis for commercial activity in every aspect of the Canadian economy, was never available to on-reserve Indians. Without privately held, mortgageable, or commercially exploitable land, there was no hope for a place in Canada’s prosperity.
“Some of our reserves are smaller than homesteads,” says Cook-Searson. “What if we had known about homestead rights? What if we had claimed homestead land? But we signed the Treaties in good faith.
“We were recently awarded $300 million as a TLE settlement,” she continues, “ but the federal government and the Province appealed and the band lost. We applied to the Supreme Court and they refused to hear the claim. The elders know that we were shorted land when we signed the Treaty. We do need to move forward on land because we are running out of land for housing and infrastructure.”
Of the many bands in Canada, the Lac La Ronge First Nation would seem to have some unique advantages. Since the 1980s, the economy of Saskatchewan’s north has been steadily expanding. The creation of Kitsaki Management Limited Partnership has been a boon to the band. Kitsaki was founded in 1981, as a band-owned company that is active in the mining and food sectors. Chief Cook-Searson is the company’s president. For the last two years, Kitsaki has given $1 million annually directly to on-reserve projects. The company has also been a resource when the band needs finances to cover the legal costs of negotiations with government.
The demands that those negotiations make on the band, and on the chief and council particularly, can’t be underestimated. “We have developed a Lands and Resources committee,” says Cook-Searson. “The resource development reports come in so fast by the hundreds. Usually there isn’t time to respond to them. When we say we need more time, the federal and provincial agents don’t know what to do.” These development reports refer to land over which the band has no ownership but do fall into its traditional hunting, fishing, and trapping territory. There is an obvious imperative for the band to ensure the ecological integrity of those areas.
In spite of the pressures exerted by complex negotiations with multiple government authorities, Cook-Searson makes a mildly optimistic observation: “We are starting to understand the written way.”
Caution about the “written way,” the contractual habit of colonizing authorities when sheer might won’t do, was impressed on Cook-Searson early in her career. “I went to Kelowna for the signing of the Kelowna Accord,” she says. “I was so excited and it seemed so positive. I sat beside Elijah Harper [former Red Sucker Lake Band chief and the first Treaty Indian to be elected as a provincial politician in 1981]. I asked him if he was excited about it. This was in 2005. He seemed like he already knew it wasn’t going to turn out the way everyone hoped. He’s been in politics for so long. In the end it never did get implemented the way it was intended.”
Cook-Searson keeps the disappointments and oddities of politics in perspective. The elder care residence was built after the federal government closed the band’s home ownership program that made home mortgages possible on the reserve. The $1.7 million that the program had accrued was to be used on the care home or it would be lost.
Her sense of the community’s immediate needs seems to keep her from despairing over bureaucracies that are beyond her control. “My older sister took her own life,” she says. “She tried to reach out for help but there are only so many resources in the community. We need mental health services in the north, we’re going to build a wellness treatment centre.
“Our people need hope. We all make mistakes and we all have trials, tribulations. We need to learn a healthier way of life. A wellness treatment centre gives people an option—people who want to help themselves can build a place where they can come and feel safe and have a voice.”
Chief Cook-Searson is quick to point out that she is one part of a large team working in the Lac La Ronge band communities. More than 800 band members teach, provide health care, and keep the community going. Hers, she points out, is one role of many important ones.
“My mom was always involved in things. People always encouraged her to run for politics because she would help out no matter who needed it. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to politics. I find myself in a position where I can be one of the people who helps carry our language and culture forward. We are still rich in it. There are still a lot of people who know our way of life.”
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