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Indigenous gaming advocate earns provincial tourism award

Bernie Shepherd will go down in history for having the idea of opening a casino on the reserve to create jobs for the Indigenous people.
Bernie Shepherd from the White Bear First Nations receives the Tourism Builder Award in Saskatoon.

WHITE BEAR FIRST NATIONS - Bernie Shepherd had an exciting week when he was presented with  the 2023 Tourism Builder Award by Hospitality Saskatchewan.

Shepherd had no idea that he had actually won the award, along with Hugh Vassos, and Morris and Sue McLachlan.

He thought the winner would be announced on Sept. 26, but instead all three were awarded the honour.

Born in White Bear, Shepherd's family remained for five years and then moved to Steelman. After a while there, they moved to Whitewood and then Regina, where he grew up.

Shepherd feels very fortunate to have escaped the residential schools, but not all his family was that lucky.

Shepherd is the former chief of White Bear and council member of the First Nations.

He will go down in history for having the idea of opening a casino on the reserve to create jobs for the Indigenous people.

The casino was in a two-story log clubhouse and while staff quietly cashed out at the end of their shift, the RCMP was closing in.

On March 22, 1993, less than a month after the casino opened, the RCMP came into the building with dogs, helicopters and guns.

The place was trashed, money flow ceased and a few councillors were detained.

This act left the people of the area shocked, regardless of whether they were band members.

The band was so angry they wanted to retaliate, but Shepherd asked for 48 hours to deal with issues and that made the difference.

It boiled down to law and jurisdiction, so they hired historians, lawyers and consultants so they could go down the path of opening a casino.

It was not a cut-and-dry situation, but one they were willing to fight for, as they felt this was their right.

In the 1980s, the rise of the American Indian Casino movement began in the U.S., and it was slowly moving up to Canada. Provincial governments and First Nations communities started to investigate.

This took some time, but Shepherd was not going to back down on what he felt was right for the First Nations people and their land.

Thirty years ago the court ruled in favour of White Bear. It never made it to the Supreme Court of Canada, which surprised many.

On Nov. 11, 1996, the Bear Claw Casino and Hotel opened north of Carlyle.

This grand building employees 150-200 people at any given time. The Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority's mandate is 75 per cent of its employees must be Indigenous.

The casino has a lounge, restaurant and 35 hotel rooms, along with parking for 10 RVs. It has 132 slot machines and four gaming tables. They show support for the Saskatchewan Roughriders through a spin on the Rider Nation Wheel.

Due to Shepherd's leadership and determination, it drove the establishment to network the casinos for Indigenous people.

The Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority, which took over in 2010, employs 1,600 people.

Shepherd has been married to Lila for 42 years and has three adult children, Natalie, Shaylee and Heather. They also have three grandchildren, Brooklynn, Atarah and Hosanna.

He has many children that he considers his adopted ones, and he is a father figure to many and he loves that part.

“I am honoured to receive this award,” said Shepherd, “especially with the people I was on stage with, as they are longtime friends.”

“The gap is getting smaller,” he said, “as only the Creator knows what is in store for us.”