Prime Minister Paul Martin will ride into the historic first ministers’ meeting in Kelowna on November 24 with bags of new cash to end native poverty. Originally promising two billion more, a government shaken up by contaminated water at the Kashechewan First Nation has upped the ante to five billion, stretched over 10 years. Unfortunately, this massive infusion will fail as badly as the eight billion already committed, unless the current formula for dispersing it is radically overhauled.
The sad story from Kashechewan, whose people lived with contaminated water until the Province of Ontario airlifted them out, reinforced a perception that the federal government is asleep at the wheel. Reserve residents suffered from skin and intestinal-tract infections for years, the consequence of cryptosporidium thriving in a poorly constructed sewer and water system. Only this past summer, Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott toured the site, yet did nothing to correct the problem.
The scandal interfered with Ottawa’s outreach to native leaders, designed to curry the aboriginal vote. Will the new money work? Let’s break down the plan for spending it:
Health Canada has been transferring control to bands for years. How has it worked to date? A snapshot of one large reserve in Manitoba reveals mixed results. One of the first things the band council did was purchase an aircraft to fly people to Winnipeg for medical visits. Health Canada said the band could do it, but warned officials not to ask for more money if they ran out. The plane was small and too cold in winter, so they got rid of it. No one knows exactly where it went.
Another serious problem soon emerged. The band council refused medical benefits to members considered politically hostile. Some of those who incurred the huge expense on their own and complained to Health Canada had the costs covered, but that money was then deducted from the band’s transfer payments. Then Health Canada stopped paying the extra bills altogether and informed the band that their money was supposed to cover all band members. Although the council still refused to fund these people, Ottawa did nothing.
The government also did not consider band debt before it transferred control. One large band, saddled with a long-term debt of $68 million, moves money from one account to another to cover payments. Where Health Canada flew patients to Winnipeg, this band now loads them onto buses for a long, bumpy ride over terrible roads. Their air conditioners often break down and mothers must pour water over sick babies to cool them. Toilets do not always work. The only difference between them and poor African countries, one of them jokes, is that “at least we’re not riding on the roof of the bus yet.”
An independent board free from band politics must administer health dollars and it must not be used for any other purpose.
The devil may be in the details. As it now stands, many First Nations have their own schools, mostly controlled by band council members. School boards should be free of political interference and board members elected directly by the people.
Here the Martin Government may be on the right track. Housing on far too many reserves is used as an election ploy to buy votes. Some residents with the right political affiliations may receive a new home every five years, while three families on the wrong side of the political fence share an old, run-down shack.
Some reserves tried to establish local housing boards made up of band members, but nepotism often derailed the effort. A regional authority free of political interference could study housing lists and make home visits in each First Nation to set priorities based on need. Publicly available, annual financial statements to monitor performance must be required. As a further incentive, Ottawa could allocate dollars directly to individual families who want to purchase off-reserve housing.
One glaring weakness in the Martin plan is its failure to address the problem of economic development. Ron Evans, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, is quoted as saying, “There’s a lot of money that goes to social assistance. It should be the other way around.” That bold statement must be backed up with action.
Why do most Native reserves not have bakeries, lumber stores, furniture stores and restaurants owned and operated by band members, just like every other community? The story of the Gabriel family at the Waterhen reserve in central Manitoba rings a bell. They and other families who opposed the band council were forced from their homes, their enterprises seized and sold. Band politics on many reserves keep people in poverty. Successful First Nations have learned to remove this curse. Once the fear of being shut down by band councils is removed, businesses thrive and jobs are plentiful.
Aboriginals need the opportunity to enjoy health, education and housing services on the same basis as non-aboriginals. More funds will open those doors only if they are tied to structural reform of service delivery. And if we allowed First Nations to develop their base economies by ensuring security of possession, the money might not be needed at all.