The Tragic Death of Bill C-7

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

From coast to coast, First Nations peoples had hoped that federal Bill C-7, the proposed First Nations Governance Act, would give them tools to hold band councils accountable. Paul Martin disappointed them last summer, when he withdrew support for the bill in its present form. When Parliament prorogued, the Act expired. It is the fiduciary responsibility of the new government to re-introduce it, or at least provide an alternative.

The accountability problem is of a scope beyond imagining. The use of raw government power to trash the rights of reserve residents is commonplace, and takes forms that would not be tolerated by other Canadians. In the current process, complaints to authorities and documented proof of wrongdoing go largely ignored.

On many First Nations, anyone who dares question the actions of incumbent leaders runs the risk of being “BCR’d.” That stands for “band council resolution,” an edict forcing you off the reserve. If you refusal to comply, the council invokes its police powers, augmented by the ultimate sanction, the RCMP.

I personally witnessed this on a reserve in northern Manitoba five years ago, and the eviction process was recorded on videotape. This family had asked leaders some unwelcome questions. On a flimsy pretext, a small amount of marijuana, the band council passed a resolution to evict them. Other Canadians might expect this minor crime to bring a fine or a short jail term. The consequences for this family were horrendous.

Band constables and the RCMP apprehended the husband and dropped him off in a distant city, with orders not to return. When his wife refused to leave, the council ordered Child and Family Services to step in. They declared her children “at risk” and instructed social workers to take them away.

The RCMP claimed they were just keeping the peace, but when the wife refused to open the door, an RCMP officer ripped the screen off a window to gain entry. A BCR is not valid unless the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs signs the document; in this case, he did not. The RCMP dodged this illegality by invoking the welfare of the children, yet the officer in charge repeatedly assured the woman that she could retain custody if she left. In other words, the children were not at all seriously considered at risk.

The mother reluctantly bowed to this ultimatum and the social workers took her and the children away. Band constables dumped the family’s belongings on the ground outside. The home was given to another family to ensure they did not return.

Sadly, Indian and Northern Affairs has promoted this band as a model for other First Nations communities. The eviction illustrates why many say their reserves are run like banana republics. Band members branded as trouble-makers suffer a litany of abuses, are blacklisted from employment, refused housing, and denied education, healthcare or social assistance. They are removed from the band list and no longer recognized as members.

Is this legal? No, but redress is nearly impossible. Indian Affairs tends to ignore such problems. The courts? You may obtain legal assistance, but the council has money to hire the best lawyers available. In theory, you can ask the Grand Chief to intervene, but the chiefs elect him and he seldom criticizes them.

The Governance Act contained rules for fair, democratic elections. Currently, these exercises are a myriad of fraud and manipulation. In one such election I followed closely, bribery was rampant. The voters’ list had 392 people missing from it and the whereabouts of the ballot box containing votes from band members living off reserve. With no scrutineers present, the electoral officer, appointed by the chief, finally brought the missing box, containing 400 ballots, back to the reserve. He mixed them in with community ballots, to avoid discovery of their content.

The appeal process was just as compromised. Four of the five assigned to perform that function were direct relations of those who appointed them. The questionable election officer chaired the meetings, with the Chief’s lawyer providing advice.

Over the years, citizens of First Nations have written thousands of complaints about these problems – to government offices, to the press, to anyone who would listen. Designed as an interim response, the Act was an olive branch to these grassroots protestors, who finally saw a chance for good government. Last summer, now former DIAND Minister Robert Nault added provisions calling for an ombudsman’s office and a governance institute. Both might provide minimal safeguards of citizens’ rights and protections, enforcement of which is non-existent on many First Nations.

These people have been let down many times in the past. Few Canadians outside reserves are exposed to such flagrant violations of their rights as the family whose home was illegally invaded with the assistance of the Crown. Nor would they tolerate the electoral disorder common in First Nations communities.

The federal government has a moral duty to prevent such events. If the Governance Act is not acceptable, let’s act quickly to write an adequate replacement.