Where Does the Eight Billion Dollars Go?

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary

Officials in Ottawa recently announced that First Nations can expect an additional $800 million in the upcoming budget. That brings the total amount First Nations will receive to $8 billion. To put that into perspective, the spending comes to $80,000 per household on Indian reserves. Why are native Canadians still the poorest group in the land with so many resources dedicated to their welfare? That’s a complicated story.

As far as cash is concerned, the average reserve resident will receive next to nothing from the band councils that control the purse strings. The leaders will continue to collect hefty salaries and generous travel allowances. Much of the $8 billion goes towards education, social services, health, policing, public works and housing, all programs that ultimately benefit reserve dwellers. But the value of these services for individuals and families is eroded by the enormous overheads attached to them.

One portfolio that absorbs much of the money is economic development, but for First Nations people the dream of owning a business is problematic. Many First Nation leaders use the economic development office as a way of rewarding those faithful to them. People know that to fall out of favor with certain leaders means the end of their business aspirations.

The current system of awarding development funds compounds the problem of political interference. Councils expect the economic development officer to develop business plans with little or no input by the recipient. Once the funding is approved, his or her relationship with the economic development officer, who is bogged down by many other projects requested by council, usually ends. This lack of follow-up explains the disaster and that has befallen many First Nation entrepreneurs. The simple answer? Operate this source of funding as the banks and other agencies that provide grants do, by providing continued support services to the client.

Part of the source of the problem, if not the main one, is that many aboriginal leaders have only limited education and business experience themselves. As it now stands, some elected leaders have little or no high school education and in some cases little grasp of the English language. Not to put these people down, but allowing them to operate a band office that receives millions of dollars from Ottawa to run businesses is a recipe for mismanagement and waste. The people of these First Nations pay the price.

How do you convince leaders of the importance of investment follow-up if they know little about its impact? If the rules governing band elections included a requirement that council candidates have at least a grade 12 diploma, many problems of this sort would be alleviated.

The lack of education also contributes to the human rights abuses that are rampant on some reserves. Human rights policies must be included in the band’s governance structure, along with a human rights officer with the teeth to perform effectively. A regional officer should be in place to support the on-reserve officer and both must be independent of any political organization. This would go a long way towards addressing the “my way or the highway” approach has caused many deep divisions in aboriginal country.

Another basic reform involves the poor method of selecting a Grand Chief. Once powerful and respected, this office is no longer either in today’s context of money and power. The rules for accountability, developed with the help of the Indian industry in cities, make leaders a power unto themselves. Candidates for Grand Chief are selected from their ranks, and the average band member is not consulted at all.

Band chiefs are currently the only ones allowed to vote in a Grand Chief, placing the office at the mercy of the few that elect them. The average person on any reserve will tell you that, if you are having leadership problems, the last place you would seek help is from the Grand Chief. In northern Manitoba, with 32 first Nations representing 50,000 people, only 32 of them get the privilege of voting for the Grand Chief.

Many First Nations people therefore have little interest in these elections and do not believe that the Grand Chief represents them. If that individual were directly elected, not only would respect and support be restored to the office, the incumbent would be empowered with the independence to evaluate band performance objectively and to act effectively to address chronic leadership problems.

Eight billion dollars is a lot of money, more than enough to assure a healthy level of prosperity for First Nations people. It will not achieve that goal in the absence of fundamental reform to the system that administers it.