Tom McKenzie has had a long and storied career with Kitsaki Management that dates back to its beginning in 1981. McKenzie, Kitsaki’s lands claims co-ordinator, has been a key figure with the Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLRIB) in Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE) and its Loss of Use claim that is nearing completion.
McKenzie was one of the first band members to graduate from the LLRIB teacher training program and then get his Bachelor of Education degree in 1981. “It was quite an adventure and worthwhile,” he said.
McKenzie, who is from Stanley Mission. began the teacher training program and was in the first graduating class of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (now First Nations University of Canada) in 1981.
“Many of my classmates went on to get their degrees and teach in the band schools,” he said.
1981 was a momentous year for McKenzie. After graduating he spent the summer of 1981 fighting fires and then was elected to council for the first time. At that time council was not a full-time job. During the 1970s the LLRIB had taken local control of their schools so he worked as a curriculum developer working with Cree language and culture development.
Kitsaki Development Corporation was incorporated that year and McKenzie began his association by being on the board of directors. At that time Kitsaki began to start developing an economy for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.
Constitutional talks were ongoing in the early 1980s and McKenzie attended a number of conferences in Ottawa dealing with self government and constitutional rights. During that time former LLRIB chief Myles Venne and council and Senator Angus Mirasty worked hard to get treaty and Aboriginal rights enshrined in the constitution.
In 1983 McKenzie was elected chief and held that position until 1985. He continued to attend constitutional conferences, but he said, “progress was very slow.” McKenzie was chief in 1985 when a study was begun on LLRIB’s TLE. From that time on McKenzie has continued working on TLE.
In 1986 a lands claim committee was established, and McKenzie was appointed to sit on it.
He also became Kitsaki’s operations manager in 1987. It was around this time that two of Kitsaki entities began, Northern Resource Trucking and First Nations Insurance Services, which brought in operational funds.
McKenzie went back to teaching and also was heavily involved investigating self government.
In the mid 1980s the federal government had a self government proposal that McKenzie was asked to investigate. He recommended not going into it because it did not meet the recommendations of the 1983 report on self government. “But It was a learning experience and it provided us with a deeper understanding of self government,” he said.
He was part of the team that went to trial in 1997-98 for Treaty Land Entitlement, Ammunition and Twine, and Candle Lake and La Ronge school lands. They spent 47 days in court and LLRIB won an Ammunition and Twine settlement.
They also won a TLE settlement that unfortunately was overturned on appeal. But the appeal court did say there might be a claim for loss of use. The Saskatchewan court of appeal determined that since the band didn’t receive all their land until 1968, they were entitled to loss of use compensation. McKenzie has spent many years working on the claim.
The ammunition and twine settlement resulted in a mix of land and cash. The land was the new reserve for the whole band membership called Kiskinwuhumatowin in downtown La Ronge.
“The loss of use claim took a while to be negotiated and to be accepted,” he said. “In the end we did come to an agreement in principal. The agreement still has to be ratified by the band membership. “I’ve had lots of support and teamwork throughout,” he said. McKenzie said the land claim required continuity through several councils and Kitsaki was instrumental in that continuity.
He said these types of agreements, having to do with treaty rights, take a lot of time and patience to be done properly. “It is for future generations that you work on Treaty rights,” he said because the treaties are to last as long as the sun shines, the river flows, and the grass grows.
McKenzie has also kept upgrading his education in many ways. He took courses at the University of British Columbia for principal training and at Banff School of Advanced Management where he learned about finance, law, organizations, micro and macro economics. Other seminars included environmental conflict resolution, negotiation and self government.
“It is necessary to keep up to date and improve your skills and knowledge,” he said, adding, “It prepared me for my work at Kitsaki and with LLRIB.”
McKenzie was an early proponent of self government and he has worked in a number of capacities on the self government file. He has represented the LLRIB in negotiations on self government. In 2003 there was a tri-partite agreement in principle regarding a self government agreement, but it has never been ratified to this day. “Eventually self government has to come about,” he said. “It is moving in that direction across Canada. We are moving toward self government even though it is slow.”
Besides his work, McKenzie has a keen knowledge of petroglyphs and red ochre, Cree syllabics, and burbot fishing. He said you can learn a lot from the rock painting and the stories our ancestors tell.
He and his wife Betsy have been blessed with six children, four boys and two girls and 10 grandchildren. Their support has been a true blessing.
McKenzie still does a lot of fishing and some hunting at the north end of Lac La Ronge toward the Churchill River where he grew up.
They also spend time at Deception Lake — his wife’s trap line for a summer retreat. “We’ve spent many summers and some winters out there fishing and hunting,” he said.
He has also been an avid badminton player for decades, both coaching and playing.
He helped start a club in Stanley Mission and coached badminton at the Saskatchewan Games three times. He has also competed at a number of North American Indigenous Games winning a number of medals over the years, including a silver in doubles competition with his son John.
“That was the best medal I ever got,” he said.