Building Success within First Nations Communities

The commitment of an enterprise to enhance the lives and prosperity of local citizens is the mark of an organization that truly cares about the well-being of the people and the communities it serves.  Founded on the basis of integrity, enhanced quality of life and strong business practices, The Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA) was formed 20 years ago with a primary mandate of improving the lives of First Nations people through the creation of economic development opportunities within the gaming industry.

The seeds were first planted in June, 1995 when The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations created SIGA, which was followed by its January, 1996 incorporation under The Non-profit Corporation Act of Saskatchewan as a charitable organization. The Province, through the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority, regulates SIGA, which in turn operates six casinos: Northern Lights Casino in Prince Albert; Gold Eagle Casino in North Battleford; Bear Claw Casino and Hotel in White Bear First Nations; Painted Hand Casino in Yorkton; Dakota Dunes Casino in Whitecap First Nation; and Living Sky Casino in Swift Current.

The Canadian Business Journal recently had an opportunity to speak with SIGA President and CEO Zane Hansen, who has served as the leader of the Saskatoon-based non-profit corporation since January 2006.

“As a First Nations person from Saskatchewan I had always observed SIGA as it started out here in the province,” Hansen begins. “What resonates with me and our employees is supporting the FSIN for the purpose the company was founded upon and represents.”

A particularly notable aspect of attraction for Hansen from the very outset was a fantastic opportunity to be part of a wholly-owned First Nations organization that could operate at a significant scale and demonstrate to the non-First Nations business community just what First Nations people can do in terms of running a successful operation.

Amidst the early formative years was the inherent need for SIGA to establish a robust foothold while overcoming numerous barriers in an industry that is known to be top-heavy with regulatory compliance matters. Hansen credits many people for moving the initiative forward, including the political leaders from 20 to 25 years ago who cut through substantial bureaucratic red tape and recognized the bigger picture and meaningful vision of the FSIN. Hansen also gained tremendous inspiration from south of the border and what was being provided to their tribal partners through casino entertainment. By extension, SIGA saw it as an opportunity that could be replicated in Saskatchewan.

“As we built the industry we then wanted to see how we could maximize the benefits of the resources at our control,” he says.

Daily Operations

Two decades after its successful launch, SIGA continues to expand at an impressive rate of growth. The organization currently employs about 1,900 people, of whom 66% are First Nations people.

“It’s a key feature of the company we are very proud of,” Hansen remarks. “Right from Day One we took on the challenge.  And all of our leaders and management came into place, we developed our own capacities and we just grew organically as the market grew in the province.”

Whether it is First Nations or non-First Nations gaming developments, it is quite often the case that advisor-type companies are brought in to run the daily operations of the enterprise. SIGA consciously chose not to go down that oft-taken path, instead opting to provide opportunities for local people in the community, the result of which has been a tremendous success story. The people simply needed to be given a chance to prove their capabilities, and that trust shown by SIGA has paid off.

“When you look throughout our company as you go up through the ranks, the First Nations percentage holds a very strong average. We are also very proud that women represent over 45% of our management team.” Hansen mentions.

One of the key strengths of SIGA is having possession of exclusive licences to operate the casinos alongside the province. In terms of all the partners, beneficiaries and government people, Hansen spends a significant amount of time interacting with those key stakeholders, keeping them apprised on the latest news and trends within the gaming industry, and what is required to maintain that competitive advantage moving forward.

“There is a lot of ongoing work with stakeholders in our environment from government people on the regulatory side and with the many partners we have in our business and beneficiaries,” he confirms. “We probably have as much impact with the resources that we acquire, manage and hand out at the end of the year as any company. We are 100% non-profit business operating in an industry that is highly regulated.”

In observing the employees in action, it is easy to see how a great deal of SIGA’s success on a long-term basis is directly attributable to an excellent level of hospitality and service. Any gaming company has the ability to put up a casino and fill it with the right kind of product, but the driver of sustained, long-term success is excellent customer service. Hansen is quick to point out that the professionalism and dedication shown by the employees at SIGA has been paramount to the overall success of the corporation.

“I couldn’t be more pleased and proud of our employees. That’s an area where our employees have always excelled – putting the customers’ needs first.  It’s one of the real joys of being in this company and having a fairly wide view of it,” Hanson says. “We’re now seeing people 15 to 20 years into the company having a significant, stable impact on raising their families and talking about things like mortgages and homes and kids in university – discussions that we likely didn’t have 20 years ago.”


Employing hard-working, dedicated people who want to make a difference is at the core of their success, but in addition to that key element there is a tremendous amount of thought and planning that goes into the learning and development process for each team member. Hansen says each individual is enrolled in what is called a core training program, which includes all aspects of proper gaming procedures and protocol. Beyond that, the management team ensures each employee is familiar with the technical aspects of the role. Significant time is also spent on leadership and management development for those employees who have shown an aptitude for taking on added responsibilities leading to advancement opportunities.

“I would say we put more resources into our employees for learning and development skills than a lot of companies would. It’s part of our mandate. If we can develop people it serves us and the First Nations community very well,” Hansen states.

Providing employee incentives also generates a much healthier and happier workplace environment, such as the knowledge that hard work will lead to advancement within the company. At SIGA there are numerous examples of employees who have started on the ground floor and successfully moved their way up through the ranks. This is especially true with the operations team, where Hansen has members who began on the front line and have deservedly worked their way up to supervisory roles and wider management responsibilities such as running entire business units.

“That is always an open path. We very much like to develop our folks from within,” Hansen tells us. “We are quite pleased to have been serving our mandate to create opportunities and invest back in people.

We’ve got a lot of partnerships with our First Nations organizations to support our employees through economic development.”

Supporting Communities

To date, more than $600 million has been generated by SIGA for an assortment of beneficiaries.

“We are a non-profit so if you look at a dollar of revenue we run at about a 35% margin. So even within our 65% cost base we are supporting First Nations development with many partners on our project developments. We support through our payroll and having a good productive employee base. We invest more than $1 million annually in community initiatives across the province,” Hansen reveals.

At SIGA, there is a very active employee base. Within the company’s community volunteer program more than 20% of the staff is now volunteering in a fairly new program, sponsored by the company.

There is also significant investment into a First Nations scholarship program in which a partnership has developed with a fellow institution, the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies.

“Out of our profits, we’ve had four years now where our net income has eclipsed the $80 million mark. We’ve really taken things to the next level in that way,” Hansen says.

Fifty per cent of the profits generated goes straight to the First Nations’ Trust and is distributed to the 74 First Nations communities in Saskatchewan. That critical funding provides them with much-needed resources to meet the many demands they face as independent communities.  Twenty five per cent of the profits are earmarked for community development corporations, which are set up in each market where SIGA’s casinos are located. They are a granting organization that supports a very wide range of initiatives, both First Nation and non-First Nation. The remaining 25% is deposited into the provincial general revenue fund.

“We look to generate as much as we can at a responsible and healthy level of activity and then out of the resources that we bring in, operate as efficiently as possible and turn over as much as we can. Our employees are very engaging with that spirit of service,” remarks Hansen.

Expansion Plans

Gaming is such a unique industry, like a few others in the country. There is a stringent level of regulatory control, but given the cash-flow intensive nature of it and how the wider society participates, it’s more than proven to be very much needed as is evidenced by the positive economic results it has had on countless communities from coast to coast.

“We’ve been able to really develop the gaming markets quite well when we compare ourselves to others across the country,” Hansen adds. “If anything, what drives us is our sense of purpose. If we can continue to grow and widen our footprint that is definitely something we want to do. Overall we’ve been very pleased with the footprint we’ve been able to have in gaming here in Saskatchewan.”

As a company, SIGA has been extremely successful in growing its performance for the public and its stakeholders. As is the case with most casinos in Canada, SIGA serves regional markets. Studies clearly indicate SIGA has the ability to develop a market as good as any other entity. Despite holding an impressive footprint throughout Saskatchewan, Hansen and his executive team knows there is still lots of room for potential development and it is their intention to aggressively pursue such opportunities.

“We’re always looking for opportunity where we can generate a return to give back to our shareholders,” he says. “We are seeing, after 20 years now, some added maturity in the last three or four years. You really have to look at how you maintain your customer base and stay relevant with them and also become more efficient at the same time.”

Vision for the Future

Maintaining relevance with customers and exceeding their expectations is an element that Hansen knows must always be kept at the forefront in the minds of each and every employee at SIGA. The entire team takes their responsibilities very seriously and remain committed to delivering the best possible gaming experience to the people in the province of Saskatchewan.

“We believe very strongly in the benefits and sense of purpose our company was founded on,” he emphasizes. “If we can expand that and perhaps further consolidate the gaming industry here in Saskatchewan there are other casino operations we are interested in and we would definitely look at those to make the industry a bit more streamlined and efficient while further establishing the First Nations presence in gaming.”

There is also resplendent emphasis on staying current with updated technology. Hansen reveals there has been a noticeable technological shift on the gaming floor over the past few years and because of that, he and his executive team have placed a high priority on reinvestment initiatives, whether it’s product-related or new technologies to manage the casino operations. It was about two years ago when SIGA transitioned to a new casino operating system whereby each of the casinos are now run on one network.

“It was a huge investment, a big undertaking, and it was very successful. The vendor that did it for us was really quite impressed and likes to utilize us in testimonials as to how companies can go about doing that,” Hansen notes.

In addition to the obvious elements such as the casino gaming floor with slots machines and card tables, SIGA has made a concerted effort to develop a diversified entertainment package that will appeal to just about everyone. As part of the overall experience the company has added restaurants, lounges, nightclubs, meeting and banquet rooms, entertainment venues – where well-known musical acts and comedians perform – and also large multipurpose rooms capable of holding symposiums and conferences.

“We like to take our customer experience beyond gaming,” Hansen says. “Our food and beverage and entertainment area of the company has been consistently growing at a good pace over the past few years.

We’ve really supported that with the facility investments we’ve been making with our new properties.”

A prime example of how SIGA has expanded its entertainment experience would be at the new Living Sky Casino in Swift Current where the event centre, or multipurpose room, is a fully functioning performing arts facility with 50-foot slide towers for the curtain drops. It’s equipped with raised seating that can be converted to banquet seating making it a fantastic facility that integrates well for a lot of uses within the community.

The wide range of diversified entertainment available at each of SIGA’s casinos is one of the main attractions that help to draw people in; excellent customer service is what keeps them coming back.