The first students in a program unique in Canada will graduate today to become leaders in the rapidly developing field of First Nations taxation and development.
The program at Thompson Rivers University arises from lawmaking in the House of Commons started more than two decades ago by former Tk'emlups Indian Band chief Manny Jules, the mover behind what is known as the Kamloops Amendment to the Indian Act.
That change in law gave First Nations bands taxation authority, similar to a municipality. Tk'emlups Indian Band became a national leader in using reserve lands for residential and commercial development.
But Andre Ledressay, an economist and expert in First Nations taxation living in Kamloops, said the human resources and education in Canada to take advantage of the rapidly expanding field is only beginning.
Ledressay teaches the course to students from across Canada, both online and on campus.
The first 11 graduating students from the Tulo Centre of Indigenous Economics housed at TRU celebrate the event this evening at a ceremony in conjunction with the university's fall convocation.
"I've been walking on Cloud 9," said Nicole Casimel, a First Nations woman who grew up in Fraser Lake and now works for the Little Shuswap Indian Band.
Casimel started the program in 2008, soon after she became the lands, taxation and housing clerk for the band.
Casimel, who worked in accounts payable previously, soon learned the taxman, or taxwoman in this case, is not the most popular administrator. She said certificate program at TRU gave her the confidence, growing out of knowledge in tax law and administration.
"You realize you're actually government and you're responsible for the taxation and financial base of the reserve," she said.
Ledressay said Casimel's enthusiasm is matched by opportunities for graduates. While B.C. Interior Indian bands, including Tk'emlups and Westbank Indian Band, are experienced in land development and taxation, other parts of Canada are untested.
"We're getting First Nations from Manitoba who are really interested," said Ledressay, a leader in Canada on First Nations economics and taxation.
"They're setting out with property tax potential and land development potential. It's really just beginning."
While First Nations may assume powers of taxation and development, similar to a municipality, there are important legal differences that administrators must understand. Until this program was developed, Ledressay said professionals working for First Nations had to learn it on their own.
The adjunct professor credited Jules and former TRU president Roger Barnsley for making the program happen.
All the initial graduates are already professionals working for First Nations bands, who took a combination of online and on-campus learning. But Ledressay said the next cohort will include students not yet working who hope to make it a career.
Casimel will graduate with a certificate in First Nations tax administration and is nearing a second certificate in First Nations applied economics.
There are also long-term plans for a bachelor's degree program now under development.
Derek Cook, a political science professor at TRU, said he expressed concerns to the university several years ago that the program wasn't reviewed by the arts department and represents a right-wing philosophical view of free markets and development.
"It presents one side of the (economics) argument and not others," Cook said. "Usually academics say 'on one handâ' Here, we only have the right hand, shall we say."
Ledressay dismissed the criticism, calling it "an academic bun fight."
He said the program is a skills-based and not a humanities education.
Cook said while he continues to have the concerns, he is satisfied that a four-year degree program under development will be reviewed by arts faculty and include traditional academic principles expressing a wide range of philosophy in economics.
Casimir hopes to continue education in the program. She added that one of the most valuable outcomes is networking with the rest of the graduating class, who become a resource for questions and tackling problems in the future.
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