Early last year, the Muskowekwan First Nation (MFN) took a big leap when it finalized the result of a multi-year process that culminated in the successful conclusion of the First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act (FNCIDA) process and the delivery of the Muskowekwan First Nation Solution Potash Mining Regulations into law. This was a multiparty agreement with MFN, Encanto Potash Corp., and the federal and provincial government.
For Muskowekwan Chief Reginald Bellerose, this was a major opportunity to address the challenges that First Nations face while also positioning the Muskowekwan as players in the international arena.
“This allowed us to create an economic development platform that’s not only local in nature, but it’s allowing us to grow into a regional and national economy, and then through minerals and resources, move into an international economy,” Bellerose said in an interview with Native Business Magazine. “The goal is to expand our reach as far as we can.”
After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan in 1996, he went on to receive a master’s certificate in Project Management in 2005. Now in his seventh term leading the Muskowekwan, he’s been a true leader in igniting the entrepreneurial spirit of his First Nations community.
According to a profile by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Bellerose “has been promoting business development and community self-reliance for so long that he deserves to be called a business leader in his own right.” In addition to serving as chief and a business leader in his community, he is also involved in several other Indigenous initiatives – including as chairman of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority. He also sits on various other boards throughout Saskatchewan, including the First Nation Power Authority, Saskatchewan Institute of Technologies, and as First Nations Special Counsel and Director for Encanto Potash.
Bellerose sees the Muskowekwan’s Treaty 4 status as an untapped opportunity for the international economy.
“As part of Treaty 4, we have inherent rights in this area,” Bellerose said. “Our jurisdiction actually comes from what we can do with those treaty and inherent rights, so I have to educate and promote our treaty and our inherent rights and how we got to be where we are. That’s very important.”
When Bellerose negotiated the landmark potash agreement, there was no regulatory framework for operating on First Nations land. As a result, he had to create one, which was not without its challenges every step of the way.
“The biggest challenge is getting the buy-in from everybody,” Bellerose said. “We have to get buy-in from our own people, our own local market, and our regional market. We have to convince everyone that indigenous people can do this. We have to go and beat a drum and tell everyone that this can happen, we have the capacity, and we have the skill. And finally, we have to demonstrate that if there’s a deficit in skill or capacity, we can hire people to meet that demand.”
Potash is a major source of potassium – the seventh most abundant element in the earth’s crust and something that is found in every cell of plants and animals. Because it improves water retention, strengthens roots and stems, assists in nutrient transfer, activates important enzymes, ensures that plants use water efficiently, and helps keep produce fresh on the shelves, potash is a major ingredient in commercial fertilizers. With the human population and its agricultural needs on the rise, demand for potash continues to grow substantially.
“For governments around the world, their people need to eat,” Bellerose said. “If you look through the lens of food security, people are going to have a need for potash.”
Because economic extraction of potash is limited to 12 countries, most places around the world have to rely on imports to meet demand and more than 80 percent of the world’s potash is exported. Saskatchewan alone produces 90 percent of Canada’s total output and approximately 50 percent of the world’s supplies.
For Bellerose, the ability to extract potash supplies from the Muskowekwan’s First Nation lands was an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up. In addition to providing a source of economic revenue – which in turn increases self-sufficiency and provides vital services to the community – it also allowed the Muskowekwan to position themselves as a major part of the Canadian economy and work with investors to show that they should be working with First Nations like the Muskowekwan.
“Right now, First Nations aren’t really on investors’ radar,” Bellerose said. “If you look at Bay Street or Wall Street, they have their portfolios set up as to what jursidictions they like to work in and invest in and create their flow. We have to create an awareness that our jurisdiction can also attract investment and attract opportunity.”
He said that the two biggest challenges to creating the necessary awareness are certainty and confidence, but progress is being made.
“We hope that the efforts that we’ve been making will increase the certainty and the confidence of average investors and large investors and everyone within the investment community,” Bellerose said. “We need to move beyond the millions and the tens of millions. We need to get into the hundreds of millions and the billions of dollars coming into our jurisdiction. But not everybody knows that First Nations have their own lands, their own resources, and their own economy.”
In case there was any question, investors should be taking notice. In December 2016, Encanto Potash signed an agreement with NACOF, the Government of India subsidized Farmers’ Co-Operative, to supply 100 million tons of potash over 20 years.
“I believe we are making First Nations History,” Bellerose said in a statement announcing the agreement. “This recent study makes it clear the Encanto potash mine, thanks to the rich potash resources beneath the MFN, has the capacity to meet this long-term supply contract with India’s NACOF. This represents one of the largest developments on First Nations land and will allow the Muskowekwan people to be active participants in the economy.”
At the end of the day, Bellerose’s role in re-igniting the Indigenous entrepreneurial spirit will help the Muskowekwan continue the legacy of being Indigenous.
“We can still have our language and our culture,” Bellerose said. “We can still be who we are, and we don’t have to change in order to do business.”