Northern First Nation Takes Steps To Improve Accountability

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary

On many reservations, the lack of accountability has been a long-standing issue. Fortunately, the problem does not apply to all First Nations band offices. Many go out of their way to provide timely information to their members. The Opaskwayak Cree Nation, located near The Pas, is one of them.

Widely recognized as one of the most progressive aboriginal communities, Opaskwayak has built and owns one of the largest shopping malls in northern Manitoba. It sports a large and very modern motel, the Kikiwak Inn, named after a Cree word meaning “your home away from home,” with fine dining, a lounge, and meeting and banquet facilities. Manitoba’s first aboriginal casino also sits on their lands. Their own people operate and staff a modern day school, and a new post-secondary school with a trades component will be constructed in the spring of 2004. In the reserve arena, The Pas residents and band members cheer together for the OCN Blizzard Junior A hockey team, one of the best and most formidable MJHL hockey franchises in the province.

Not coincidentally, Opaskwayak is also a leader on the issue of accountability. On January 13, 14 and 15, 2004, the band hosted open meetings at the Kikiwak Inn, with tables for the different entities that make up the Nation and for band council members. The set-up was analogous to a career fair, where people go directly to tables of interest to ask questions. At one, the band’s financial audit and condensed statements were available to members. The education table offered program reports and policies, as well as what was really important to many, the design of the planned new school, how big will it be, the costs, the construction schedule and employment opportunities. Housing was another big topic, including how many units were available each year, how to apply for a house and who decides who gets a house.

How did the public forum originate? The members of the band staff came up with the idea. They decided to use this venue, rather than a regular band meeting, to make every department of the band available to answer questions. Some wanted a public forum in order to make political statements or to have leaders respond to a wider audience. Such meetings are well and good, but often they become unruly and accusations fly back and forth. Many young people took in the forum, with school classes given assignments such as, “Name five members of council,” or “How much money is generated by OCN revenues?” and “How much money does it take to keep OCN in business?”

Edwin Jebb, the OCN’s director of education, summed up the forum with these words: “We feel that what the failed Governance Act, Bill C-7, was calling for, we here at OCN had already implemented, [including] much of what the former Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Robert Nault was trying to do in the areas of accountability and transparency for First Nations.” He went on to say, “We still have to legalize this type of process within the band structure. . . .What we have yet to do is develop our own laws and rules regarding these issues.”

Unfortunately, the Chief was in Winnipeg and did not attend. Some First Nations people worry that their Chiefs appear to spend enormous amounts of time in the city, and are becoming a little too cozy with the enormous Indian industry there. Many believe that it works mainly to protect the best interests of incumbent leaders, who in turn generate a lot of revenue for its coffers. Revenue that should be going to where it is needed most, the people on reservations.

For many First Nations, Opaskwayak is a model for what they would like to see on their reserves. For them, accountability, transparency and fair elections are something they can only dream about. The federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs rarely answers the call to audit First Nations books, even after band members provide evidence of wrongdoing and fraud. When they have publicly stated in the past that they would be auditing a certain First Nation, the band office mysteriously burns to the ground. With no records to audit, it is business as usual at the temporary band office. The RCMP do their best to find those responsible, with little or no success. The last band office consumed by flames was near Ashern, Manitoba. They were about to be audited by Indian Affairs.

Many other aboriginal communities are not ready to follow in the steps of OCN. What is the answer? The federal government must re-introduce the First Nations Governance Act, as a positive first step to reinforce First Nations accountability and transparency in financial matters and elections. These areas are still a huge concern and many feel that government intervention is currently the only answer available to them.

Many First Nations officials claim there is no problem with accountability in their respective bands, but those who live on reservations tell a very different story. A band member seeking financial information may be viewed as a trouble-maker and simply denied information.

It is to the credit of the staff at Opaskwayak that they are taking a more positive direction.

Don Sandberg is a band member of the Norway House Cree First Nation and the Aboriginal Policy Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.