Before Native Self-Government

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

Ron Evans, Manitoba’s new Grand Chief, has indicated that his priorities are self-government for native people and an urban reserve located in Winnipeg, where he wants to build a new government house. Both goals deserve serious consideration.

The new urban reserve is a welcome idea, if the plan includes opportunities for native entrepreneurs to build businesses and create much-needed employment for their people.
But do we need a government house? Already dubbed the Grand Chief’s new country club, the idea does not sit well with the rank and file of band members. The chiefs already spend too much time in the city, and the funding for this new building could better be spent elsewhere to battle native poverty.

Self-government is another matter. What changes must aboriginal leaders make that will bring their people on side in support of native self-sufficiency, sovereignty and self-determination? Does Ron Evans appreciate the magnitude of the problem?

The whole system of tribal offices is excessive, duplicative and expensive. It should be revamped to include one office, with one Grand Chief nominated by the people and elected by the people. None of Manitoba’s three Grand Chiefs as yet are directly elected; our 63 band chiefs alone decide who they will be. How can Evans or anybody else claim to represent people who had no opportunity to vote for them? That’s the first and most important condition for self-government, that it be legitimately decided.

Evans claims that the band chiefs who elect the Grand Chiefs do represent the people, and draws parallels with Canada’s political system, where party leaders appear nowhere on parliamentary ballots. But let’s peel that onion down a few layers, and look at how the chiefs themselves are elected. How representative are they?

On far too many reserves, band elections resemble the style of balloting common in Third-World dictatorships. Bribery, manipulation of voters lists and fraud designed to ensure the re-election of incumbent councils have left little doubt about the outcome. Since electoral appeals are decided by committees appointed by the same incumbents, they have little chance of success.

That’s an easy reform to ensure legitimate self-government, that band members directly select electoral officers and the composition of appeal panels. Rules to ensure that the official band list of voters prevails and not be manipulated prior to an election could then be enforced.

To ensure clean elections, band financial transactions for three months prior and three months after a vote must be publicly posted. Housing has been a big part of vote-buying, so independently elected band members must compose the housing board to ensure those that dwellings be allocated in turn, not by virtue of political affiliation. It goes without saying that those with a history of abusing band funds and should not be eligible to seek office.

The current, flawed model means that some bands are effective dictatorships, where every aspect of the people’s lives and fortunes are tightly controlled and human rights ignored. This has kept most in virtual poverty, while a few get rich.

An office of native human rights and a native ombudsman with the authority to rid these first nations of their despotic practices must be established. Only then can entrepreneurs establish businesses and create jobs without fear of being locked out of their enterprises. Families and friends divided by this style of politics can once again be united without fear of reprisals. Nothing divides a reserve more than a dictatorial regime.

The federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs must start listening and speaking to ordinary native people. What they have to say is important. As one official said at a recent meeting with the department’s Minister, Andy Scott, “Indian Affairs does not really care about native politics; the cash pot goes empty, the chiefs ask for more and INAC fills the pot again.” With eight billion dollars already committed to native funding and another two billion coming, they should start talking to other people than just the chiefs.

Let’s hope that the bands who, by dint of enlightened leadership, are well on the path to good government will soon have more companions. But real self-government on the reserves that are in trouble will not happen by accident. Ron Evans should forget about his new palace and get down to the difficult task of sorting out the nut and bolts of democratic self-government.