Among the lore of Saskatchewan’s pioneers, Bernard Shepherd breaks the mould — he’s Cree, his ancestors were born on this continent and the ground he broke had nothing to do with farming.
“It really started with the whole idea of a casino … it was about creating jobs,” says Shepherd, reflecting on the gains. 2021 marks 25 years since his community’s Bear Claw Casino reopened after the province slammed the door on the band's first foray into gambling.
Thanks to his work as chief of the White Bear First Nation, shared with that community’s leaders in the 1990s, Indigenous-led casinos are regular fixtures today: Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA), their regulating body, earned $270 million in the last fiscal year, employs more than 1,600 people, manages seven year-round casinos, and is also celebrating its 25th anniversary.
But as Shepherd, now a band councillor, looks back he’s reminded that the tidy, yearly milestones offer only half a picture.
Earlier events in the '90s point to familiar themes when governments interact with Indigenous people: Heavy-handed police power; minimal government support for First Nations; betrayed commitments.
The fuller picture reveals White Bear bent the rules in its favour, proving a rare exception to the golden casino rule: The house always wins.
Shepherd and his community weren’t the only players at the table in the '90s. They were just the only ones with the gall to start counting the cards, rules be damned.
The full picture includes a messier milestone, sitting on the timeline in 1993.
The Mounties zigzagged through the snow as they crossed the frozen, empty golf course at 4 a.m., approaching the two-storey log clubhouse.
Concealed by camouflage clothing and balaclavas, about 30 officers — some part of a heavily-armed tactical unit — descended on the band-owned building for a pre-dawn, surprise raid.
Less than a dozen casino employees inside were quietly cashing out at the end of their shifts.
The date: March 22, 1993. The cops’ mission: Shut down the Bear Claw Casino, less than a month after its doors opened without a provincial licence. It left people in the Carlyle and Kenosee areas (band members or not) shocked and angry.
Some contemplated violent payback.
“They just invaded and they totally destroyed everything that was there,” charged a casino staffer, quoted on the front page of that day's Leader-Post. “They used excessive force they didn’t need to use."
Shepherd’s account all these years later confirms as much.
“They smashed up all of our table games; ripped up the cloth and everything else like that so we couldn’t re-use them,” he says. “They came in with their guns, helicopter, dogs; pointing guns at our employees. They took a couple of my council members into Carlyle (detention) cells. They blockaded the road on our reserve.”
A day after the raid, then-RCMP Supt. Murray Johnston disputed reports of excessive force and declined to discuss police tactics or equipment, halting his news conference after 15 minutes.
The White Bear chief told Leader-Post reporter Trevor Sutter the Mounties took all 115 slot machines. Gaming coins lay scattered in the snow.
Grant Lonechild, an unarmed security guard, said, “We were scared … we didn’t know what to think … some of us thought we were being robbed.”
He told Sutter the Mounties confined everyone to a second-floor room before seizing the slot machines, the books and $90,000.
“Our community that day was furious and mad about the way it was done,” Shepherd recalls. They had expected stern visits from the Mounties; not military-style tactics.
He says during meetings with the province in February that year, a colleague of then-justice minister Bob Mitchell relayed to him, via Mitchell, “‘when you open your casino on the weekend that there won’t be any RCMP raid.’”
It felt like a betrayal.
In the hours after the March 22 raid, Shepherd returned from a community meeting in nearby Kenosee to find a final copy of a band council resolution awaiting a vote.
"We the Chief and council pass this band council resolution to set aside $50,000 for guns and ammunition," read the resolution on his desk.
“That was a wow moment for me, like our community was angry," Shepherd recalls.
"And they were ready to fight on this.”
One month earlier, White Bear elders had marked the opening of the Bear Claw Casino with a ceremonial prayer and a nod to self-reliance.
“A person is not going to work if you keep giving him welfare,” elder Bill Standingready told the Leader-Post’s Sutter. “We want to work and we want to be self-sufficient … We’ve lived off white man’s money for too long.”
The casino hired 178 employees.
When the two-storey, makeshift casino opened on Feb. 26, 1993 in the golf clubhouse, band leadership knew they were running afoul of the province's laws. But they hoped their argument for inherent rights to on-reserve sovereignty would be tested in court. They had been in formal and informal talks with the province in the months prior, but those abruptly stopped just after mid-February.
The community’s leaders hoped the province would allow the casino to operate on an interim basis, without intervention, while the courts resolved the legal dispute.
The issue boiled down to the law and jurisdiction.
In the late 1980s as the Saskatchewan government was moving to permit electronic gaming, Shepherd and his family had started travelling to Albuquerque, N.M.
“A lot of tribes down there had casinos,” he says. “Around the 1990s that was the same conversation that was going on in Canada … it opened up a dialogue on our First Nation.”
White Bear leadership figured, “there's no reason why we can't do it. So we started to pour a bunch of money into research. We hired historians, consultants, lawyers — everything about going down this whole path of opening up a casino.”
Under the Criminal Code, provincial governments have jurisdiction over gambling operations.
But White Bear's leaders believed — as an original Treaty 4 adhesion signatory in 1875 — its casino aspirations had only to do with Crown land and therefore only Ottawa. The band created its own gaming commission, which licensed its casino.
Yale Belanger wrote the book on Indigenous gambling in Canada.
In Gambling with the Future the University of Lethbridge professor documents the history of political and legal battles First Nations fought, province by province, to build their own gaming institutions.
“Beginning in the 1980s with the rise of the American Indian casino movement in the United States, we see similar ideas starting to infiltrate up into Canada. Most provincial governments and certainly First Nations started to at least investigate,” Belanger says.
By the time the Roy Romanow-led NDP won the 1991 provincial election, the FSIN (then called the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations) and the province had “fairly firm data” suggesting “casinos and gambling could be beneficial to improving First Nations’ economic outcomes,” he says.
In that sense, Shepherd’s and White Bear’s casino interest wasn’t unique.
But Shepherd contends White Bear and the FSIN “were going on two different paths,” with “totally different agendas.”
Emphasizing White Bear’s claim to on-reserve autonomy, he says “First Nations were the ones that signed treaties. First Nations were the ones that have constitutional rights. So (First Nation) communities are the ones that have jurisdiction in these areas … the FSIN only has delegated authority.”
Belanger highlights how, in 1993, the societal-wide understanding of “what Aboriginal rights were,” was “much lower” compared with today.
“Who has the right to organize gambling in the province? The Criminal Code says it’s a provincial responsibility. Do Indigenous people have inherent rights?
“Provincial officials interpreted the lack of jurisprudence and the lack of policy as suggesting ‘no they didn’t.’
“Because of these legal interpretations that were made within the context of the times, Indigenous peoples were viewed as special interest groups, perhaps political special interest groups,” he explains. The province “made it very clear they did not believe (Bear Claw Casino) was a legal operation, and they sent in the RCMP to shut it down.”
“All these forces (were) developing at the same time.”
Just as First Nations were ready to take a gamble, so too was the Saskatchewan government.
In early 1993, the province was already in the second phase of a two-year video lottery terminal (VLT) rollout.
The province had chosen 74 bars and hotels in the southeast to host 200-plus VLTs. It projected once all 3,500 machines were running, yearly revenue would hit $30 million.
Business owners regretted seeing their regular clients heading east for Winnipeg’s Crystal Casino at Hotel Fort Garry, opened a few years prior.
Then in late 1993, speculation swirled about a possible new casino for Regina's old, empty train station — a heritage building in need of a purpose as it fell into disrepair. One city councillor dubbed it "a logical site."
The city’s Market Square (forerunner of the Regina Downtown Business Improvement District) prepared to host the mayor of New Orleans, LA., to “describe how legal gambling is sparking that city’s economy,” reporter Mike O’Brien wrote.
The Exhibition Association had long operated the Buffalo Buck Casino on the city's exhibition grounds, since 1969’s Buffalo Days.
In the early 1990s, the province only allowed exhibition associations to run gambling venues: Saskatoon's and Regina's opened year-round; smaller ventures kept partial hours, like Yorkton’s, open all of 12 days per year, or Prince Albert’s one-week-per-month joint. Bear Claw couldn't get a provincial licence in 1993 because it wasn't an exhibition association.
In mid-November 1994, the Saskatchewan Gaming Corporation (SGC) announced the Dominion Consortium had beat out local staple Harvard Developments for the right to build Casino Regina at Union Station.
When crews started retrofitting it in early 1995, Dominion officials hoped to have it open for Grey Cup week that fall.
The old Buffalo Buck rebranded and renovated to Silver Sage later that year. But its newfound sheen couldn’t steal enough attention from a looming downtown draw — it folded its hand two years later.
Regina’s shiny new attraction was a few months late: The government-run gambling parlour opened on Jan. 26, 1996, over budget by $17 million.
The glitzy new façade and interior cost $37 million — $25 million for the building and construction and $12 million for equipment, all paid by the province. It was a slow burn, with anticipated profits in the first six months half of what was expected. The casino even began doling out $99 in free gaming chips to attract interest in table games.
The province's first large-scale, government-owned casino did flourish, giving way to Casino Moose Jaw in 2002. They operate through SaskGaming, a Crown corporation, but with First Nations agreements to ensure a share of the jobs and profits.
Bernard Shepherd is grateful for that tiny slice of time in 1993.
As his councillors at White Bear First Nation showed him a resolution calling for a pile of cash for guns and ammo, he asked them for those few extra hours.
“They said, 'OK chief, you’ve got 48 hours.'
“(It) was probably the most important part of this whole situation of how we reacted, because what came out of (it) was total support from our communities,” he says.
Phone calls and faxes from First Nations across Canada flooded the community. “I still have a lot of those faxes and communiqués … they supported us.”
Non-Indigenous people in nearby Kenosee and Carlyle told his community how upset they were by the RCMP’s raid, underscoring violent payback wasn’t the way to go. Businesses in the area liked what the unregulated casino was doing to the local economy.
Testifying at a trial in 1993 stemming from the raid, King’s Department Store co-owner Lyndon King told court he saw financial boosts in Carlyle, Redvers and Wawota and in the region’s tourism industry.
“I was actually impressed by how many Americans were around,” King said, according to the court's judgment. “People out of Manitoba, people out of Alberta. There's even a few people out of Ontario passing through and heard about it, decided to stay a couple extra days.”
King also noticed a difference in how his Indigenous customers interacted with staff. “They're proud too, you know, that they've earned the money.”
Shepherd remembers how support like that “calmed down our members, to see that support for us and how we were doing this."
He believes the RCMP’s military tactics worked to White Bears’ advantage. “That angered a lot of people in how they did that, especially knowing that we wanted it to be done peacefully.”
The $50,000 resolution was trashed.
The Mounties laid criminal charges a week after the raid against Shepherd, councillor Brian Standingready, the casino’s manager, the band’s American partners and two White Bear corporations.
By December that year, most charges had been stayed, including those against Shepherd. In October 1994 Judge Wallace Goliath dismissed all charges against White Bear’s American partners and the band’s corporations tasked with bringing the slot machines to the reserve.
The judge said the province had failed to prove Bear Claw’s operators acted with criminal intent, because they honestly believed they had an inherent right to self-sovereignty on their land.
But Goliath left the validity of White Bear’s constitutional claims to self-governance unresolved.
Crown lawyers appealed, but by February 1995 Casino Regina had started its retrofit, and the province and the FSIN had a gaming framework worked out. It allowed FSIN to set-up four Indigenous-led casinos, among them Bear Claw.
Then-FSIN Chief Blaine Favel gave Shepherd a special thanks for “leading the fight to establish casinos on reserves,” the StarPhoenix reported. Later that year, SIGA formed, signing a casino operating agreement with the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority.
By the end of 1995, SIGA was ready to open the four casinos: Bear Claw, Yorkton’s Painted Hand, Prince Albert’s Northern Lights, and North Battelford’s Gold Eagle.
All four opened in 1996, with Bear Claw re-opening that November.
Now, 25 years later, three more casinos operate under SIGA: Dakota Dunes at Whitecap Dakota Nation near Saskatoon, the Gold Horse near Lloydminster and Living Sky in Swift Current.
Belanger says the historical facts don’t support the notion that Shepherd forced the province’s hand in going all in on gambling.
But the University of Lethbridge professor confirms the chief was one of a few key players in a continent-wide dialogue about First Nations gambling happening in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
He also says the 1993 RCMP raid forced then-premier Romanow to “take a step back and rethink the idea of reserve casinos.” That eventually led to the formation of SIGA and its casinos three years later.
Also unique to Saskatchewan’s context is SIGA, Belanger says — nothing else like it exists in North America.
“It was the first (in Canada) and remains the only one that has any substantial input into provincial gambling operations,” he says. Even in the U.S. “we don’t see similar state entities” with regulatory oversight and authority. “SIGA is onto itself and is a unique organization.”
Its impacts in the province are fairly clear: $270 million in revenue for fiscal 2019-20; profits usually in the $80 million range; half of all profits distributed to First Nations communities; 1,695 employees, the majority of who are First Nation, across seven casinos.
Looking back, Shepherd views himself and his community as pioneers in starting First Nations-led gaming in Canada. “I can say that for a fact, because when you look across Canada at the time in 1993, there was no Indian casino there. But there was a lot of talk of casinos.”
Despite SIGA’s and the FSIN’s gains, he says First Nations people need to keep pushing for self-sovereignty, especially as provincial governments try to regulate them.
“The province has never been supportive of anything First Nations did,” he says.
Battle lines are already being drawn for the next jurisdictional fight.
With legalized pot, Muscowpetung, Peepeekisis, Pheasant Rump and Zagime First Nations now run cannabis dispensaries on their lands absent provincial licences.
Speaking with the Leader-Post last February, Peepeekisis headman Colin Stonechild, echoing Shepherd, stated: "We stand behind our laws and we stand behind our sovereign right to be able to govern ourselves.”