By Paul Dillon
There is a legend told in Lakota and Dakota tribal circles about the White Buffalo. The buffalo has all but disappeared from the traditional hunting grounds of the two tribes, pushed to the verge of extinction by the rifles of early white settlers moving west to the Rocky Mountains.
Legend has it the return of the White Buffalo will usher in a new era of affluence for the tribes. It represents a return to prosperity, food after the famine, and the bounty of the Creator.
Two centuries after the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo began, the White Buffalo has reappeared, bringing with it an abundance of spiritual and material riches. What the elders of the tribes could not have foreseen was the unlikely form the animal would assume, that of spinning wheels, tumbling dice and slot machines.
The Mystic Lake Casino in Minnesota attracted eight million visitors last year, herds of mostly non-native junketeers who laid a staggering $900 million (U.S.) at the feet of beast. It has made the tribe one of the wealthiest in the country and bankrolled construction of cultural, health and educational facilities on the reserve. It stands as a symbol of what some Canadian aboriginal groups believe is their ticket out of the vicious cycle of unemployment, poverty and abuse that dogs native reserves.
Nowhere is the issue of native gaming more contentious than in B.C. where the province’s 196 bands find themselves fractured along cultural, linguistic and socio-economic lines. Many are taking a leadership role in the fight for native self-government, pushing the envelope in treaty negotiations. But regardless of their internal politics, most are taking a long hard look at the gaming issue, and state-side native success stories like Mystic Lake have grown to almost mythic proportions.
"It is pretty incredible what has happened in Minnesota; each member is being made a millionaire," says Marion Meadmore, a former Mystic Lake resident and past president of the National First Nations Gaming Commission in Winnipeg.
"There has been no down side. It has created a lot of jobs for the reservations and surrounding districts. Now, with the time and the money, they’ve got the energy to apply themselves to what is really important, to trace their traditions, the language and the cultural aspects of the tribes that were lost. It's nice to have money."
It is nice to have money. Money allows you to plan for the future. It makes you self-sufficient, and when combined with the inherent belief of your right to self-government and self-determination, money also provides the means to pursue independence.
"From a self-determination standpoint this type of activity has been the only activity that has worked in native communities," says Don Crofut, president of the Dreamcatcher Gaming Group, a Minnesota-based native gaming management company. "It has addressed economic problems and allowed a flourishing of culture and strengthened native government. It allows the empowering of our people to meet the needs of our people. The result is tribal government becomes increasingly self-reliant. Now, from the tribal government standpoint, the (federal/state) government has certain roles but history will show that those roles have greater success when it is the tribal government making the decisions."
The Mount Currie band, like most B.C. bands has long asserted its right to nationhood. Members have repeatedly and thus far unsuccessfully challenged the court’s jurisdiction on reserve lands and the memory of the Duffey Lake road blockade is seared into the minds of area residents, both native and non-native.
Some, like band chief Allen Stager and his largely pro-gaming council, believe a casino will act as an economic engine, tackling a debilitating unemployment rate — native gaming in the U.S. has created some 65,000 new jobs, half of which are held by natives — and attracting new investment and tourism dollars to bolster the sluggish local economy.
"We want to get involved because it’s the fastest way to generate the money for us to be able to look after ourselves, so we won’t need handouts from the government," says Leonard Adolph, an original member of the Mount Currie gaming research committee. "That is my vision."
SOME KIND OF KICKER
Whether its horse races, bingo, charitable casinos or state-sanctioned lotteries, gaming is big business in this province. In 1993 alone, British Columbians spent an estimated $1.5 billion to fuel their habit. The total gaming "win" (amount spent minus prize money) was $622 million.
In October Premier Mike Harcourt released a review of the province’s gaming policies. Attention focused on the decision to prohibit Las Vegas-style casinos, scuttling the proposed $750 million Seaport Centre casino and convention facility in downtown Vancouver, but the report also recognizes that "First Nations have sought a greater role in gaming...(and) the government supports these objectives."
For the past 16 months, government negotiators and representatives of the First Nations Summit have met to try and hammer out a policy that will allow B.C. bands access to the lucrative gaming market. That in itself is problematic.
"First Nations Summit has no authority to negotiate for all B.C. natives," says Leo Lee, the economic development officer in D’Arcy. "The Summit was formed as an ad hoc group to facilitate the treaty-making process. Now they are trying to make themselves out to be something they are not. They do not have the manpower or the mandate to address this issue. No one group does. That is the fragmented nature of Indian politics in this province."
The Mount Currie band council, like many others in the province belongs to the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs and does not acknowledge the authority of the Summit. Chief Stager says the band will not build an illegal casino, what remains to be seen is whether the Summit can come to some sort of settlement which is acceptable to non-members as well.
"We’re not going to do anything illegal," Stager says. "Right now we’re doing our homework so that when there is a decision we’re ready to go right away."
Although the specifics of those troubled discussions remain privileged, most aspects of the relationship between the B.C. Gaming Policy branch and the First Nations Summit are on the table. Of particular interest to certain gaming advocates is the way profits and employment benefits will be shared.
Revenues from charitable gaming in B.C., which reached $116 million last year, were split three ways: 50 per cent went to the charitable and religious organizations that provided the volunteer employees, the management companies received 40 per cent, and the government, a 10 per cent cut. The $3 million (2.6 per cent) which ended up with aboriginal organizations as charitable gaming licensees represents the total native revenues from gaming. That amount might have been significantly higher, but none of the province’s 18 charitable casinos are located on reserve lands.
"The intent here is clearly not to have them accept 2.5 per cent," says Gaming Policy Project Assistant Director Nancy Carter. "It is seen by some as economic opportunity to build self-sustaining communities. We see that as a real positive and if that is what they chose to do they’ll be looking at increased access to revenues and in opportunities to have these facilities on their lands."
What the government is really concerned about, says a First Nations Summit spokesperson, is whether the courts will rule they cannot regulate gaming on First Nations reserves.
"They’re in an odd position because the government might lose control, so they’re trying to create some degree of jurisdiction and control... before certainty is created by a court ruling that might take it out of their hands entirely," says Sharon Bowcott, who sits on the B.C. First Nations Gaming Committee.
A wide variety of gaming experiences are available but perhaps the most useful Canadian aboriginal model was unveiled recently in Saskatchewan.
The NDP government there has loosened gaming restrictions by allowing casinos on four reserves. The province will regulate the industry and receive a 25 per cent share of the profits. No government grants or loans will be offered, but the allure of the big money to be made off casinos virtually guarantees band councils will be beating potential suitors off their stoops.
That is part of the problem.
Simon Fraser University criminology professor Colin Campbell says: "If gambling does represent the return of the buffalo, natives must get in on organized gambling before it is hunted or fished out of existence like the non-natives did to the buffalo."
The fact is, gaming "experts", consultants with questionable intentions and money men, are circling like vultures above the kill.
Dreamcatcher president Corfut admits that despite strict controls at three levels of government in the United States, there are sharks in the gaming waters. Unlike the U.S., there is no central registry for industry players in Canada and that, say some observers, is reason for concern.
"You’ve got everything in this industry from soup to nuts," says one prominent San Franciso gaming consultant. "It’s a coming industry up there and there are bound to be problems with some of the people coming forward. I think basically Canadians are looking for people with familiarity with the industry because there is no real industry in Canada and that could be a real problem in the short term."
So, what happens when you mix a fast-talking consultant with a native band looking to cash in on gaming?
For the past two years, California businessman John Morrison, with the financial backing of some heavy hitting American interests including a member of the Whitney family (owners of the Minnesota Vikings), has been pursuing casino ventures throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The Mount Currie band is currently negotiating an agreement with the Eastern Cherokee entrepreneur and his two companies, First American Consulting Corporation and First American Casino Corporation. Although he has no official status as a Mount Currie band advisor, Morrison told Pique Newsmagazine he is pursuing the matter on their behalf.
"I don’t represent Mount Currie but I work with them like I work with several other tribes," Morrison said from his home in the hills above San Jose. "There have been several legitimate offers on the table (for Mount Currie), but the government has not given them permission to do it. They don’t have the sovereignty to do it on their own. If that were the case there would be a casino there today, and if any tribe could use that help it’s Mount Currie."
To that end, he has organized trips for Mount Currie band councillors and members of its three-year-old gaming commission to the Lummi Casino in upstate Washington. He also arranged a meeting in Las Vegas between representatives of the Squamish Nation and Mirage Resorts president Steve Wynn. It was this last encounter which insiders say caused a serious rift between North Vancouver members of the Squamish Nation’s economic development committee and Stawamus representatives who a support a casino complex in Squamish.
In early December, Morrison was involved in a controversial casino project that resulted in a high-profile game of brinkmanship with Oliver RCMP.
The Osoyoos band wants to open up a resort-style casino, something the government’s October policy paper prohibits. On Dec. 7, the band raised the ante by threatening to open an illegal casino the same weekend Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Ovide Mercredi was scheduled to address the band on the issue of native-gaming.
Several sources close to the Osoyoos band, who have insisted on anonymity, describe Morrison as an excellent pitchman, extremely well organized and charismatic.
The characterizations don’t end there.
"To call him a used car salesman wouldn’t be an unfair description," said a man who attended an information lecture Morrison conducted in Oliver. "He made a strong case for the band’s casino hopes and their attempts to gain sovereignty."
A former associate of Morrison's with the Colville (Washington) tribe, where he served as president of the Tribal Enterprise Corporation, remembers him as a passionate advocate of native economic development.
"John has a certain militant streak in him, he has a burning desire for Indian causes," the man said. "But, he worked so hard that when things didn't go his way, when the pace wasn't fast enough for him, he lashed out at people around him. It got to a point here that his underlings were scared of him and those who were above him were completely alienated."
Said another senior Osoyoos official who has dealt with Morrison: "He’s a very smooth talker, he’s extremely intelligent and seems to know his stuff. If you listen to him you’re going to be on his side. He can talk up a great story and it sure seemed like every time they (the band) wanted to back off it appeared he would get them fired up again."
The importance of this last comment brings into sharper focus the role Morrison, the former CEO of several large American companies, is believed to have played in this affair. The mood on the reserve was sufficiently tense last fall for the band council to pass a motion banning the RCMP from the reserve. Virtually overnight, a relatively prosperous band with no prior history of civil disobedience was threatening a confrontation with both the government and neighbouring RCMP.
In the end the band settled on an "open house" where several VLTs were displayed but no money exchanged hands. Most observers contacted by Pique Newsmagazine believe the incident was nothing more than a sophisticated public-relations exercise, played out before numerous members of the press and the highest profile aboriginal official in the country. Police said there was no sign of slot-machines on the reserve, and it is likely the band never intended to openly challenge police jurisdiction in that area.
Mount Currie may be the ideal location for a casino. The scenery is magnificent, there’s an airport nearby, a large, unemployed workforce and more importantly, it is located 45 kilometres from a four-season resort boasting an infrastructure worth in excess of $2 billion. There also appears to be broad support for a casino on the reserve. Seventy per cent of the band’s 900 voting members cast ballots in a referendum 18 months ago. The results were split 60-40 in favour of a casino.
"The band council and the chief are answerable to the people so it’s important to keep them informed," says Adolph, who does not hold a council seat. "At all the information meetings we’ve held the feeling is for us to keep on going."
The Vancouver lawyer who until recently acted as the intermediary between Howe Street investor Murray Pezim and a number of B.C. bands interested in gaming believes that a properly managed casino is a window of opportunity for Mount Currie.
"I can tell you that I would love to be an advisor to Mount Currie on a casino deal, I’d love to work with them," said Bernie Malach, who now represents the Coquitlam band in its joint venture with a Las Vegas casino management company.
"I firmly believe that aboriginal gaming is coming to B.C. and our job is to try and have it happen in a fashion that lets it do the most good. The problem is that aboriginal people need working capital and most of the bands don’t have it."
The reserve has been the site of numerous casino proposals in the past. The most notorious project involved a complicated alliance of wealthy Vancouver businessmen including Pezim, who owns hundreds of acres of prime real estate in the Pemberton area, and Harry Moll in what was widely regarded as a sophisticated manipulation of stock in Venture Pacific Inc. Stock in the company rocketed from 54 cents to $71/8 over three months in the fall of 1993 buoyed by news the Arizona-based firm was forming a joint development agreement with Vancouver-based Prime Air, which has a permit to develop the Pemberton airport’s proposed international terminal. That deal never materialized.
The band has met with a number of Asian backers, at one point there was the offer of a million dollars start-up money, and even the possibility of a joint venture agreement between the largest casino operator in the world, Casino Austria, a prominent Canadian hotel chain and the band. All have been rejected.
That situation is about to change and Morrison’s First American Casino Corp. may be the catalyst.
"I always thought of Canada as a just country so you can imagine how shocked and surprised I was when I came here for the first time and saw just how far your governments are from acknowledging the rights of your first people. The differences are in an order of magnitude, you’re light years away from the United States," he said. "Our company is prepared to go in and finance a casino up to several hundred million dollars. We want to make Mount Currie and others a test case."
Whistler mayor Ted Nebbeling recalls Morrison’s commitment to the Mount Currie band slightly differently.
"He presented himself as the saint of aboriginal organizations who was going to help them get out of the doldrums, a totally altruistic (venture)," said Nebbeling of a meeting between himself, former Mount Currie band chief Katherine Wallace and Morrison last year. "I was worried what would happen to the band if the business failed. I asked if they were truly altruistic if they were ready to provide the initial $5.5 million investment and sign off the collateral so Mount Currie wouldn’t get stuck with the bill. Three minutes later he picked up his papers and left. I’m fearful that people have been thrown some sand in the eyes."
Robert Fine, president of the Sea to Sky Economic Development Commission has similar concerns.
"I’ve had a long time interest in the whole issue of gambling," Fine says. "All the research I’ve heard says that gambling is cyclical, that since the 1900s the history has been one of boom and bust. My concern is that a number of these places (casinos) are going to lose their shirts, and if that’s the only area where you’ve attempted to generate any working capital, what happens afterwards? Who’s there to pick up the pieces after the balloon bursts?"
Stager says protecting the band against that liability is a non-negotiable part of the discussions currently going on between Morrison and the band.
"I know all about that and there’s no way we’re going to get caught with it. That’s not going to happen," he says. "We don’t want to be liable, we can’t afford it."
The Gaming Policy branch of the provincial government hopes to have a position paper ready by May. Whether the Mount Currie band will support it or not remains to be seen, but it appears Whistler’s neighbour to the north is willing to seize the White Buffalo and all that it represents.