First Nations & Métis Engagement – Where Are We Now?

By: SaskCulture Staff January, 2013

Cultural Areas


For the past 15 years, SaskCulture has been working with its community partners to increase participation and engagement of First Nations and Métis peoples in cultural activity. Today, thanks to the dedication of many talented and creative cultural leaders, and continued investment from the Culture Section of Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund, progress can be demonstrated. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to do.

According to Rose Gilks, general manager, SaskCulture, “Early on, our efforts began by listening to the needs expressed by cultural leaders from the First Nations and Métis communities in Saskatchewan.  We wanted to support programs and services that were of interest to First Nations and Métis peoples – specifically, programs their communities had a role in creating.”  SaskCulture began by hiring expertise.  A First Nations and Métis Coordinator was hired in 2004, who helped create the first SaskCulture First Nations and Métis Advisory Circle. This Circle, made up of both First Nations and Métis cultural community leaders, advised SaskCulture on areas of change required in the system to increase Aboriginal participation.

Early on, the Circle wondered whether existing cultural organizations and the cultural network at large, which is predominantly non-Aboriginal,  would understand ‘us’, ‘our issues’ and ‘would they care’?  One Advisory Circle member made the comment, “We lost control of our communities, we lost control of our education, we lost control of our families, are we to lose control of our very own culture?”

Damon Badger Heit, SaskCulture’s current First Nations and Métis Funding Coordinator, originally joined SaskCulture as part of the First Nations and Métis Advisory Circle.  He remembers back to when the main focus was getting funding out to the community.  “It was important for the community to develop their own cultural programs, and to develop their own cultural leadership.”

While all funding programs were promoted as opportunities to support First Nations and Métis cultural experiences, two new funding programs– the Aboriginal Arts and Culture Leadership Grant and the Métis Cultural Development Fund – were developed to specifically focus on this area.  In between 2000-2005, an average of 16 First Nations and/or Métis activities were supported each year, at approximately $60,000 per year.  Today, there are an average of 60 First Nations and/or Métis activities supported, at approximately $600,000 per year. The majority of this growth has been in support of new applicants, which include First Nations Bands/Schools, Tribal Councils, Friendship Centres and emerging cultural organizations, who have not accessed SaskCulture funding previously.

When you include all the other funding from the Culture Section of the Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund, SaskCulture is providing just over $1.7 million a year to First Nations and Métis cultural initiatives. This is a 89 per cent increase from just under $900,000 in 2011.

In order to fund activities, SaskCulture needed to reach out to the community and encourage First Nations and Métis leaders, and in some cases, partnerships with non-Aboriginal leaders, to access these funding opportunities.  These efforts also included building new partnerships.  The partnership developed with Gabriel Dumont Institute to offer the Métis Cultural Development Fund, has been very successful in encouraging members of the Métis community to pursue funding opportunities.  The Aboriginal Arts and Cultural Leadership program, originally developed by Saskatchewan Arts Board for the 2005 Centennial, has been instrumental in supporting development opportunities for young cultural leaders. 

As well, SaskCulture has continued to engage First Nations and Métis cultural leaders through the cultural network.  Through its connections, SaskCulture has had at least two board members of First Nations and/or Métis ancestry as part of its Board of Directors for the past 10-12 years.  As well, over 40 per cent of SaskCulture’s current jury adjudicator pool is of Aboriginal ancestry.  As for the cultural network, there are an increasing amount of First Nations and Métis peoples serving on the boards of lottery-funded cultural organizations.  As of July 2013, there were 508 individuals out of 2,626 board and committee members (19.3%) compared to 281 out of 1,837 board and committee members (15.3%) in 2011.

SaskCulture has worked at encouraging increased inclusiveness among the cultural network.  Several annual gatherings have included components designed to inform and educate cultural leaders on the diversity of First Nations and Métis cultures and on opportunities for building partnerships into the future.

While growth is evident, there are still areas where more work is needed. Work to build inclusiveness is never a one-time effort: it requires deliberate action and ongoing attention to achieve overarching systemic change.