Creating Self-Government That Works

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

The problems of native self-government garnered recent attention when the Department of Indian and Northern Development (DIAND) announced that 10 of Manitoba’s 62 bands have been stripped of all control over their finances. About 80 reserve communities across the Prairies have been forced into emergency “remedial management” plans.

Straitened circumstances for aboriginals and the negative press attention they attract are familiar. What are not widely appreciated, however, are the reasons for the perceived failure of First Nations to cope with self-government. Scholarly attention to those causal factors is quickly expanding. The most important academic work has been collected over the last 15 years at the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, led by Joseph Kalt of Harvard University and Stephen Cornell and Manley Begay of the University of Arizona.

The project’s conclusions are eye opening. By sending researchers out to hundreds of reserves to assess their economic health, it assembled an intimate knowledge of the connection between reserve governance and prosperity. Its main finding? The most successful reserves have effective sovereignty over their own affairs.

That sounds like Canada’s policy, but the devil is in the details. When the Harvard Project describes successful self-government, they mean de facto sovereignty, not just its pretence. The Choctaw in Mississippi and the White Mountain Apache in Arizona are the best examples. Those autonomous tribes not only enjoy full employment, they import thousands of non-natives to staff their enterprises. The Harvard group identified five conditions for successful tribal self-government.

The first, no-brainer, is stable institutions and policies. Before they capitalize development, internal or external investors need to expect predictable treatment and a minimum of political interference. DIAND’s Minister, Robert Nault, has proposed legal changes to force free and fair band elections, mandate high accounting standards and reform land management. All that will help.

The second element of success is a system of fair and effective dispute resolution. A strong, genuinely independent judicial system is a rarity on Canadian reserves, many of which lack even the rudiments of personal safety. The Harvard Project found 67 reservations in the United States with acceptable legal standards and all of them outperform the rest in economic terms. Investment in legal infrastructure pays off.

Next, natives have to separate the management of their businesses from politics. Harvard surveyed 125 tribally owned companies on 30 reserves, and bands who insulated them from political interference were four times more likely to be profitable. Typically, the separation means corporate charters that put managing boards beyond the direct control of tribal councils or chiefs.

The fourth element is more difficult to achieve. The experience of native rule – now putatively transferred from the federal government to the bands – has been that of single-layer government. One level delivers all the services that the rest of Canadians receive from three levels. Acquiring a bureaucracy competent to administer all that is a tough task for many cities, never mind small reserve communities. Training an effective civil service is Harvard’s recommendation, but that may not be realistic. Perhaps a contract form of government makes more sense. It’s a well-developed model of municipal government from southern California, with a small group of professionals tendering services to the best bid.

The Harvard Project’s last requirement is most relevant to Manitoba. Government that works well must have a “cultural match” with native traditions and custom. But not all tribes have the same heritage. The reservation system brought total government, with all power centralized in the hands of Ottawa mandarins. With self-government, the same scope of control descended to band councils. That worked for some but not the Sioux, who have co-existed for hundreds of years in a highly decentralized and individualistic form. Needless to say some Sioux bands in southern Manitoba, stifled by a rigid collectivist framework, are the very ones in trouble.

National Review’s last issue of 2002 looked at one of the poorest Sioux Nations, also studied by the Harvard folks, the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. They share our natives’ lack of individual control over land and their inability to leverage assets in the credit market. The absence of commercial codes of conduct means that outside investment is foolish. To quote Terry Anderson of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, “When you drive around Indian country, you can just tell which pieces of land are privately owned and which ones are held in trust. The private lands are the ones that you can see being put to productive use.”

The intellectual groundwork that might counter and reverse native poverty, a huge challenge for Manitoba, is clearly underway. These ideas deserve the fast track, mainly because inaction means losing more generations of aboriginals to poverty, jails and worse.

Kalt and Cornell write, “[T]hose tribes that build governing institutions capable of the effective exercise of sovereignty are the ones that are most likely to achieve long-term, self-determined economic prosperity.” Thankfully, some of Manitoba’s chiefs have attended Harvard’s workshops. We have a lot to do.

Read related 4 page Frontier Backgrounder– Harvard Project on Self-Government-Implications for Aboriginal Self-Government in Canada