Memorable Manitobans: Francis Flett (1949-2006)
Born at Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) on 15 June 1949 to Martha Ballantyne and George Angus Flett, he worked as a young man for River Sawmill (now Tolko Industries), for the Canadian Pacific Railway on Extra Gangs, and as an OCN Constable. He later worked for Awasis Agency as a Child and Family Services worker, and served on the OCN Council for 14 years. He became Chief of Opaskwayak Cree Nation in 1992, holding three terms before moving on to become Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak for two terms. He was then elected to the Assembly of First Nation Chiefs, serving as Regional Chief of Manitoba. He eventually returned to OCN and was re-elected Chief in 2005.
As OCN chief, he negotiated the first-ever gaming agreement for a First Nation in Canada. The agreement was signed in 1990 and established The Pas Indian Band Gaming Commission, now the Opaskwayak Cree Nation Gaming Commission, allowing the First Nation to have direct control of licensed gambling on reserve. Two years later, the OCN also became the first First Nation in the country to sign an agreement for the licensing of video lottery terminals on reserve. He played a lead role in negotiating the First Nations Land Management Agreement, signed in 1996 between the federal government and 14 First Nations from across the country, including OCN, which allowed First Nations to opt out of the sections of the Indian Act dealing with land administration, choosing instead to establish their own systems for management of lands and resources. In 2002, the initiative was opened up, allowing more First Nations from across the country to gain more control over management of their lands. Flett was also a key player in the negotiation of the Treaty Land Entitlement agreement in Manitoba, signed at OCN in 1997, under which 20 Manitoba First Nations received compensation for the land they were entitled to under treaty but did not receive.
On the economic development front, Flett helped to develop the Kikiwak Inn. Opened in 1996, the 60-room hotel is the only three-and-a-half star Canada Select hotel in northern Manitoba. Wanting to provide opportunities for northern youth, he worked to bring the OCN Blizzards Junior A hockey team to the community in 1996. Over the years, a number of young players have been given an opportunity to develop their skills on the ice at OCN, including Jordin Tootoo, who played for the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators.
As Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. (MKO), which represents 26 First Nation communities in northern Manitoba, he signed an agreement with the provincial and federal governments that allowed member First Nations to develop their own police forces or enter into an agreement with the RCMP for police services. He also worked to negotiate a memorandum of understanding between the Manitoba government, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and the MKO that paved the way for First Nation involvement in establishment and management of protected areas in the province. He helped to develop a child welfare agreement that gave Manitoba First Nations jurisdiction over the care of their children, regardless of where in the province they live. The specific agreement dealing with the MKO member communities was signed in July 2000, and paved the way for First Nation agencies in northern Manitoba to deliver services under the Child and Family Services Act, as well as adoption services under the Adoption Act. Two other issues that Flett avidly pursued were the rights of Indigenous people regarding Treaty status and addressing the diabetes epidemic within the First Nations populations.
In 1971, he married Judith Rubilia Cochrane, with whom he went on to have nine children, although they often cared for other children of the community in their home as well. He enjoyed playing sports such as hockey, canoeing, and soccer, and would often take his family on trapping expeditions. Although having received only a grade five education, he valued education highly and encouraged his family and community members to do whatever it took to achieve their potential. Early in his political career, he was often known to carry a small dictionary with him.
He was praised for his devotion to his community, his unflinching determination in resolving challenging issues, his sense of humility, his respect and compassion for others, and a sense of humour that eased tensions in difficult meetings.
He died at Winnipeg on 9 March 2006, and was buried in the Emmanuel Cemetery.
Obituary, Winnipeg Free Press, 5 April 2006.
“Francis Flett—Tireless defender of the rights of his people in Manitoba’s North,” Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA).
This page was prepared by Lois Braun.
Page revised: 10 November 2022