Does PM Really Want to End Native Poverty?

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

“PM Wants to End Native Poverty” read one headline on August 20th. Paul Martin was announcing a first ministers’ conference in Vancouver next November, where he’s expected to commit two billion additional dollars to trigger “transformative change” in aboriginal health, education and housing.

That sounds good, until you consider the context. Ottawa is already spending eight billion dollars a year for this purpose, and our First Nations are still mired in extremes of poverty unknown in other Canadian communities. Is ten billion the magic number? If you divide ten billion dollars by the registered Indian population of 558,175 reported by the 2001 census, the figure comes close to $18,000 per man, woman and child. Even if the definition is expanded to include all those who claim “aboriginal identity”—who number 976,305 individuals—the per capita allotment comes to more than $10,000.

That would mean $40,000 a year for a family of four, more than enough to lift most aboriginals out of poverty. But it won’t, because most people at the grassroots will be lucky if they see a dime out of every dollar. What still remains as a major cause of poverty amongst First Nations is political diversion of the helping funds and a lack of accountability by many leaders for the money they already receive.

So the Prime Minister is talking out of both sides of his face. We native people thought we were well on the road to ending our poverty a few years ago, when former Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault unveiled his First Nations Governance Act. That legislation, a courageous attempt to remedy the muddle in native elections and close the black hole into which so many resources now disappear, was killed by Paul Martin in a trade-off for the support of aboriginal elites during his leadership campaign.

His predecessor, Jean Chrétien, knew that the current system of band governance was flawed and invited corruption, but he waited until he was about to retire to do something about it. He wanted his long-time adversary to feel the wrath of the native leaders across the country, who liked the way things were going on the reservation and did not want Ottawa telling them they have to follow certain rules to make them accountable.

For years, the Federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) has received tons of mail from disgruntled band members across the country, information describing fraudulent band elections, misappropriation of funds and a host of other questionable activities by leaders. Nault’s defunct Act emerged from many meetings with such disaffected band members tired of wading through political red tape.

The native people of Canada do need a large cash infusion to help with housing shortages and to create urban schools for those who have voted with their feet and left the reservations. But that money should be conditional on a complete overhaul of the current system. The federal government must tie existing funding, and certainly any new money, to tighter rules for accountability and transparency from the native organizations that spend it.

Wrestling that gorilla to the ground is the most important, but a few other ways of tackling native poverty suggest themselves.

First Nations’ peoples were once self-sustaining, living off their plentiful rich resources. Trapping in furs and commercial fishing paid the bills, provided the income to purchase boats, nets, snowmobiles and bombardiers and fed families a rich diet of natural foods. Whole families participated in trapping and in fishing camps, which also provided closeness with family and nature.

But this lifestyle was destroyed. Thanks to the misinformed on other continents who campaign tirelessly to end all trapping of wildlife, a custom that sustained aboriginal people was damaged. The construction of hydroelectric dams altered the course of streams and rivers, which had a severe impact on the native fishery. What the dams left alone was decimated by a federal monopoly, the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, whose rules made most of the native catch unsellable. The first two are not reversible, but the last one is.

Much of First Nations’ allotments of funds for housing, water and sewer and road construction are now farmed out to contractors located in nearby cities. Why can’t reserves purchase their goods and hire contractors from within their own ranks, keep the money circulating within their communities and provide much-needed employment?

A catalogue of native suppliers and contractors could be created. Why hasn’t this happened yet in Manitoba? Partly because many band leaders prefer to deal with outside contractors who provide “appreciation money” for receiving generous terms. Band councils and the politicians on them must be separated from the tendering out of contracts.

The feds seem finally to have twigged to the importance of depoliticizing aboriginal housing. One of the expected initiatives from Martin’s conference will create a national housing plan to work with the private sector and provincial governments to expand on- and off-reserve housing construction. Bands will be encouraged to move away from communal ownership and towards individual home ownership, a key source of wealth creation for other Canadians.

Most native organizations today are stuck in the same old rut. Politics dictate every aspect of an on-reserve native’s rights. Whether or not one is self-sufficient usually depends on one’s allegiance to those currently in power.

The message the Prime Minister must heed is the call for greater accountability and less political interference from native leaders. Otherwise the two billion new dollars will simply add to the problem.