At midnight, March 31, 2005, a decade-old arrangement between Ottawa and the Chiefs of Manitoba’s First Nations expired. The Manitoba Framework Agreement Initiative (MFAI), an interim step intended to cover the transition between departmental control and self-government, was signed in 1994 by then Indian Affairs Minister Ron Erwin and Phil Fontaine for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. Now that it has run its course, the time for assessing its merits and demerits―and for deciding what legal structure should replace it―has arrived.
Aboriginal elites were ecstatic when the agreement began and, according to polls at the time, it had overwhelming support from native people. But the rank and file in aboriginal communities remained cautious. Everyone agreed with the idea of dismantling the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Under the Indian Act, there were no rules for the development, making and registration of band laws, nor were there rules on conflict of interest or any other operational codes on which all modern governments and their citizens rely. As well, there are no clear distinctions between band governance and administration. But the MFAI did little to fill in those gaps.
In order to succeed, self-government must include tools with which First Nations can build self-sustaining communities. The prototype provided by the MFAI, intended for use by Chiefs in other provinces as a guide for determining their own futures and direction, failed to do that. Fifty million dollars later, with very little to show for it, the government should call it what it was, a complete failure, and look for alternatives.
A new MFAI based on the existing model will never work. Why? The federal government and the AMC missed one very big issue, one that hampers the whole process. In one word, the issue is accountability, or rather the lack of it on the part of native leaders. The average treaty member experiences this every day as the dark side of native politics. It is and always will be the stumbling block for any form of self-government. Ten years later, views among the grassroots have not changed. Many do not want self-government under current power structures.
Why? Most of those in charge in Indian country like the system the way it is and are unwilling to admit there is a problem. They claim they are accountable for the funding they receive, and to a point many are. But in practice these good intentions often fall by the wayside, into numerous loopholes that allow too much abuse of power. Committed to sovereignty, the federal government refuses to follow up on complaints from band members right across the country.
The Chiefs are not really to blame. They were elected to govern in a system that was already in place, a system that invites corruption because the means for achieving accountability are almost nil. “It does not really matter who gets elected,” say ordinary members of First Nations. “They may be good people going into office. But like the others before them, the system and those in that system will eventually corrupt them.” Normal methods of accountability like elections mean little because they are so easily and regularly manipulated to assure a predictable outcome. Once in power, the Chiefs face almost no checks on their absolute power.
Those outside Indian country pick up bits and pieces of wrongdoing, such as the Virginia Fontaine Treatment Centre scandal, or the recent missing $12 million from Health Canada’s funding for Anisihinaabe Mino-Ayaawin, charged with arranging medical services for seven Interlake bands. The RCMP conducts fraud investigations of such misappropriations, and many others, but hardly anyone ever faces the music. Yet after ten years of MFAI the transfer of health care to native control is widely extolled as one of its successes. People living in these communities witness and document much more than is ever reported in the media.
What will it take to convince reserve residents across Manitoba, who will eventually have the last say on accepting some form of self-rule? A lot of the measures contained in the now-defunct First Nations Governance Act killed by Prime Minister Paul Martin could have brought them around. Despite all the protests from aboriginal leaders, the nuts and bolts of the Act were welcomed by the people who needed something to guarantee more accountable leaders. The Act would have put in place sensible rules for band elections, accountability and transparency, not to mention human rights and a host of other positive steps.
Before any form of self-rule will be welcomed in the aboriginal community, Ottawa must pass a new governance act to spread power among many, not concentrate it in the hands of a few. Appeal structures must be independent, not controlled by the same individuals who pass the rules that are appealed. Power must be shared. Many native leaders say we already have strong laws in place that dictate accountability, but when the same people are the judge, jury and executioner their cries ring hollow.
A new MFAI agreement, or even better a new Governance Act, must address the issue of accountability. When it does, perhaps we, the native people of Canada, can say we are now ready for self-government.
This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, April 7, 2005.