Australian Aboriginal Reform

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

A report from Australia shows how that country’s hard-line government is dealing with ineffective aboriginal funding policies. Canadian reforms pale in comparison.

The headline on the story, by Nick Squires, a reporter based in Sydney, reads, “’Corrupt’ aboriginal group is abolished.” Squires’ article relates the following:

“The leading aboriginal organization in Australia, which has handed out billions of pounds in public money over 14 years, is to be abolished. Despite its annual budget of 3,600 million, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander commission has failed to improve the lives of ordinary aborigines, the Government said yesterday. It was set up in 1990 as a virtual parallel government to dispense welfare payments, create jobs and improve health, housing and education.

“But it has been mired in allegations of nepotism, corruption and mismanagement.

“Most of Australia’s 400,000 aboriginal communities suffer from grinding poverty, poor health and high rates of unemployment, imprisonment and domestic violence. Similar issues affect Torres Strait Islanders, who inhabit the tropical Islands scattered between the tip of Queensland and Papua New Guinea.

“John Howard, the Prime Minister, said the Commission’s responsibilities would be handed back to the federal government.”

This story should be a wake-up call for all aboriginal leaders in Canada. The alarm bells should be ringing, the red lights flashing and every aboriginal leader should be ready to man the lifeboats. For far too long, Canadians have been besieged by stories coming out of Indian country on the corruption, nepotism and mismanagement of federal dollars by aboriginal leaders and their organizations. How do our problems compare to Australia? The situations virtually mirror each other.

Let’s look at one First Nation in Northern Manitoba as an example of how transfer programs from the federal government to this band have worked out. This community has been touted as a model for other First Nations, but in terms of how tax dollars are managed by aboriginals, it is far from ideal.

The band has embarked on many community improvements over the last decade, and as a direct result is now strapped with $52 million in long-term debt and $16 million in short-term debt, an exorbitant load. The Chief’s attitude was, “Build it and they will come.” The people are still waiting for outside spenders to respond. This band’s debt is more than the allowable limit set by the federal government. Once a First Nation goes over the limit, it is supposed to be put under third-party management until the debt is reduced.

But so far, this band has escaped that fate. Why are certain reserves allowed to breach the rule, while other bands are not? It is a long-established practice that certain Chiefs who are willing to do the government’s bidding receive special treatment. For lack of a better term, the people call these Chiefs “modern-day Indian scouts.” That phrase refers to the time when the government was using the assistance of Indian scouts to round up aboriginals and relocate them on reserves. Much to their dismay, these scouts found themselves also loaded onto the last wagons leaving for the reservation. Ludicrous as the term may sound, background checking into the Chiefs’ subsequent behaviour demonstrates its validity.

This Northern Manitoba band appears to be using program funding to pay down its huge debt load. As a direct result, services formerly managed by the government have been drastically reduced.

For instance, medical patients used to have the option of travelling to Winnipeg for treatment in a government plane, travel time 1.5 hours. Since the band took over this service, most patients are loaded onto the band bus for a 10- to 12-hour ride over some of the roughest roads one can imagine. This, despite the fact that one of the first things the band council did with part of their transfer money was the purchase an 8-seat Navaho aircraft to fly patients to the city. Said to be owned by a band councillor with a pilot’s licence, at first it often flew patients to the city. Today, no one knows where this aircraft is located.

Following an agreement with the University of Manitoba, the band opened a dental office. Students from the University’s dental program, under the supervision of an instructor, perform dental procedures on band members. Although the government is billed full fare for these services, many of the patients claim they are treated like guinea pigs for these students.

The pharmacy, run for 20 years by a pharmacist who made the community his home, was forced out by the band council. Today it is run by another First Nation under licence by a band member. The full details of the contract are unknown.

The band is currently negotiating with the federal government to take over the local hospital. Many employees fear this outcome because of heavy-handed tactics used in the past by the band council. After someone accused her in the death of a child, a councillor once banished a nurse from the community by way of a band council resolution (BCR). No autopsy had been performed or any other medical reason for the child’s death determined. A nurse who had spent 18 years of her life in the community was forced to leave in shame. Spooked by this councillor’s hasty action, the hospital’s five doctors refused to renew their contracts. The doctor shortage then forced the closure of the community clinic for three months. As for the band councillor, he was relieved of the health portfolio for one month, then reinstated by the Chief.

Another area of serious concern is that some band members are denied all services simply because the Chief or a council member do not like them. Ottawa has told the band council that these people are included in the funding agreement and have to receive the same services. The band council still refuses all support to these people.

The social services program was also transferred to the band’s control. Sadly, on the very day the band took over, they were in the process of evicting a family off the reserve with a band council resolution. The father, accused of stealing the Chief’s cell phone, was grabbed at the local mall by band constables, driven to Thompson and dumped off on the street with instructions to not return to the reserve. The wife and children refused to leave, but the band council ordered social workers to confiscate the children if they did not vacate. She and her children were then driven to Thompson by the social workers and dropped off on the street.

Many Canadian might find it hard to imagine these things are happening in our midst. Or that our federal government tends to turn a blind eye to such problems. Given the massive increase in tax dollars heading to unaccountable and corrupt regimes, is there any doubt that sooner or later Canadians are going to head down the Australian path? The day of reckoning will come, sooner or later.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) website