As residents of Manitoba’s First Nations see it, federal election politics in Indian country now mirror the mainstream. “Where did we go wrong?” is the perennial, if cynical response to that style, one that does not advance their interests. Instead it serves powerful leaders who’ve adopted the appearance and tactics of traditional politicians. They’re wryly referred to as “hang around the fort” Indians.
The wider society vaguely sees these leaders and their agenda as representative, but for the most part they do not reflect their people’s wishes. They move and meet amongst themselves, usually in isolation. The work they do for governments and political parties brings them recognition, awards and the protection of privileges. But many at the grassroots believe they have sold their souls and the respect of the people in exchange for political and monetary gain, and glory.
Some who have pursued higher office have broken all the rules, and in Indian country you can get away with it. The large Churchill riding in northern Manitoba has seen its fair share of political jousting, sometimes very dirty and bitter. The federal election of 2000 saw Chief Ron Evans of Norway House and long-time native politician Elijah Harper compete for the nomination to represent Churchill for the Liberal party.
That was surprising, because only a year earlier Evans had run as a provincial candidate for the Conservatives and lost to another former chief, the NDP’s Oscar Lathlin. Harper won the nomination, but not before feathers flew. Accusations of buying memberships were thrown back and forth; both sides were guilty, but who paid for those memberships is still being debated.
Prior to that election, the Liberals had scheduled a meeting to nominate officers for the party’s constituency office, then located in The Pas. Not many were expected to attend, but new members signed up from Norway House poured in the door. The meeting had to be relocated to a larger venue to accommodate them, and Evans’s special assistant Freda Albert and Norway House band councillor Mike Muswagon walked away with control of the office.
To no one’s surprise, Chief Evans became the Liberal candidate for the 2003 federal election. But the NDP’s Bev Desjarlais defeated him. Liberal Party operations in the north are still run from that base at Norway House, which also happens to be the home community of this year’s star Liberal candidate, Tina Keeper, who is running with the full support of the current native leadership.
These machinations raise the bar for those who do not support incumbent reserve leaders. Consider their skeptical, again all too cynical approach to strategic voting. In Norway House, many took the opportunity to vote for Evans federally in the hope he would win and leave. A similar story makes the rounds in The Pas; when Chief Oscar Lathlin decided to run provincially, he did not win a vote of confidence but rather a vote for new leadership at home.
Tina Keeper should remember that Paul Martin’s Liberal Party, as with other parties in government before his, has not been good for her people. They want accountable leadership decided with fair elections, not Third-World deal-making among connected political elites. They want human rights. Paul Martin sided with the Chiefs and killed the one hope average natives had for real democracy, the First Nations Governance Act, which had been championed by the Chrétien government’s Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Robert Nault. Outside the current leaders, who see Martin as a friend and ally, few natives have noticed any improvement under his leadership.
The taxpaying public should be also concerned. With eight billion dollars earmarked now for aboriginal programs and an additional five billion dollars promised, no one wants to address the struggle for accountability. As they stand today, the delivery vehicles for this spending are broken, in desperate need of a major overhaul. The delivery of housing and healthcare services depends not on need, but political connections. Money will not fix the problems on reservations if political problems are not addressed.
Currently, Chiefs control every dollar of every program on reserves. Money moves from one program to another or to pay down debt, not what the money was intended for.
Although Norway House is hailed as one of the most progressive reserves, its long-term debt has ballooned from last year’s record level of $68 million to a “guesstimated” $77 million for this year. Yet this reserve is still not under third-party management, a consequence that would have befallen most other reserves so deep in the hole.
Why? The system is broken and in major need of political repair. Whichever party wins the election will have to take control of this monster. For Ottawa to send more billions with little accountability in place benefits no one except for the aboriginal leaders who have proven that the current system is just fine with them and who will fight to hang on to it.
(Don Sandberg is the Aboriginal Policy Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, www.fcpp.org)