A Powerful Idea for Empowering Aboriginals

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

Canada’s most persistent blight is arguably the poverty of the First Nations. A world-class disgrace, people as diverse as the Pope and Nelson Mandela have indicted it. The transition to native self-government has done little to help, beyond the creation of a new elite inside the destitute majority. The exodus of natives to cities makes sense; they face unemployment rates of 50% that pale against reserve rates as high as 90%.

What can we do? Part of the answer lies in an important paper excerpted last month in Inroads (Queen’s University in Kingston) by Jean Allard, considered by many in the academic community to be the journal of the thinking “left”. Its importance lies not just in the utility of its conclusion – a quite radical approach to attacking native poverty – but in its source. A policy consensus with any chance of success must come from within the First Nations, not without.

A veteran of Métis and aboriginal politics, Allard served as a Member of the Manitoba Legislature in Ed Schreyer’s first term in 1969 and was reputed to be the Premier’s fair-haired boy. He disagreed with the government’s direction and stood down after one term. His most memorable flirtation with activism – he chained himself to Louis Riel’s stylized statue in 1996 to protest its replacement with a conventional one – diverts from a quiet, lifetime record of working behind the scenes. A lawyer, businessman and scholar, Allard has assembled a wealth of knowledge.

One result is The Rebirth of Big Bear’s People. The Treaties: A New Foundation for Status Indian Rights in the 21st Century. Allard optimistically describes a spiritual rebirth within Prairie tribes. Half Cree and half Ojibway, Big Bear was the last chief to sign the numbered treaties with the federal government, in 1882. Fearful of the loss of freedom implicit in reserves, Big Bear held out for four years and sought a spiritual answer. His band dwindled from about 3,000 people – 800 hogans – to a mere 114, the rest starved into submission by the collapse of the buffalo hunt and the withholding of emergency rations.

From this slice of history Allard draws two conclusions. The hierarchical, top-down structure implicit in the Indian Act, now moving over to bands and chiefs, contradicts the spirit and the history of aboriginals. Eerily prescient about its effects, Big Bear predicted the feeling of powerlessness and despair so endemic on reserves. But his tribe conformed with an historic right truncated by reserves – to vote with their feet, and seek better leaders.

Allards redocuments the well-known litany of social and economic dysfunction on reserves. His compelling chapter on Leona Freed, a disenfranchised Sioux from south of Portage la Prairie, illustrates one aspect. Freed and her band of rebels had the temerity to canvas a reserve door-to-door and ask embarassing questions like, “How many people really live in this house?” Comparing that ground census with official lists opened a window into a system riddled with official lies and corruption. Allard’s deconstruction of the problem? Just as it was in the interests of bureaucrats at the Department of Indian Affairs and Northen Development (DIAND) to have poor natives to help, it now serves the aboriginal elite to keep its needy client base intact.

That sounds cyncial, but Allard’s documentation speaks for itself. In 1969 Jean Chrétien, then DIAND’s Minister, tabled a White Paper that called for the repeal of the Indian Act and the end of government responsibility for natives as a special group. Crying assimilation, the chiefs responded with the Red Paper, penned by Alberta’s Harold Cardinal. Under its largely adopted framework for self-government, federal native spending mushroomed from $262 million in 1969 to more than $6.3 billion in 1999, a staggering 2680% increase. The result, Allard trenchantly notes, is about what you might expect when weak lines of accountability attach to such sums.

“[A] vast, absorbent layer of consultants, program officials and administrators, and professionals of all kinds . . . soak up much of the money that filtered down through the system . . . ,” Allard says. Trouble is, “Reserves are one-dimensional systems.” Their structures contain no counterbalancing forces, as do non-native social orders in Canada, so that all problems are attacked through “the single field of politics . . . . The ruling elite exercises total control while the impoverished class is voiceless and powerless.” Cardinal himself saw the problem and “walked away in disgust and despair,” Allard writes.

His solution? To decentralize a good part of the money, and he applies an interesting inflator to it. The treaties conferred both land and treaty money, a paltry $5 still distributed in annual pow-wows. Then worth about a dollar an acre, today its market value approaches $1,000 an acre. Apply that multiplier to cash, and each native would receive about $5,000 a year. Send it to them directly, Allard recommends. If individuals received $400 a month – redirecting about half of native spending, leaving the rest intact to fund government services – the problem of native poverty would largely go away. This personal empowerment would create direct accountability for chiefs and band councils, who would lose their client base if they failed to act responsibly.

Allard does not deal with another root cause of native poverty, the reserve prohibition on individual ownership of property, and the exclusion of residents from the traditional banking system. Fearful of its threat to native communality, Allard does not agree with the concept of dispersing property ownership.

Few have had as much experience as Allard in dealing with the shocking state of Canada’s first settlers. The pool of natives who share his perspective is growing. His paper should be required reading for all who seek a way out of native poverty.


Executive Summary

  • A paper written by Jean Allard a lawyer, businessman and long-time activist in Manitoba’s aboriginal and Métis community who served as a Member of Manitoba’s Legislative Assembly from the constituency of Rupertsland in 1969 cuts through the cant of aboriginal politics and offers a solution for aboriginal poverty.
  • Big Bear was the last major Prairie Chief to sign the numbered treaties that established the reserve system. His starving people mostly deserted him while he agonized over the loss of freedom entailed in the treaties.
  • Big Bear’s legacy is generating a spiritual revival among natives, and points the way to a system with renewed accountability and individual choice.
  • The drive towards native self-government has simply changed one oppression for another. As it was once in the interests of agents of the federal government to keep Indians in poverty, unaccountable band councils now perform that task.
  • The vast expansion of funds directed at aboriginals has not benefited the wider community. Rather the resources have enriched a new aboriginal elite, as unaccountable as their bureaucratic predecessors, and have not prevented the mass migration of native populations to cities.
  • Allard would recalculate the payment of treaty money to reflect current value and redirect about half of the current cash flow into the pockets of individuals and families.
  • Although Allard stops short of decentralizing the reserve system by including individual property titles, his proposed reform heads in the direction of greater personal autonomy and less power for collective leaders.

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