New Government in Ottawa Means Hope for First Nations

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

Canada’s aboriginals have been let down many times over the years by various governments in Ottawa who have pandered to powerful native elites. With the Conservative party now in charge, this may end.

Today grassroots residents of First Nations, well used to having their hopes brought up and then quickly dashed, are again cautiously optimistic that the new government will step up to the plate and start cleaning up a very broken system. The eight billion dollars a year currently in the native trough created a feeding frenzy for Chiefs, band councils and their hangers-on, lawyers and consultants.

The average native person, whose destitute living standards the money was intended to address, now survives on scraps that fall from the table of those with connections. Prime Minister-elect Stephen Harper spoke movingly about this conundrum just a few days before the vote. He seems to be a man of his word.

Previous federal and provincial governments have identified some reserves as the most progressive in the land. Yet rigged band elections, outright corruption and human rights abuses reminiscent of third-world despotic states are the norm in some of these very communities.

Dissidents in Indian country have complained loudly and clearly about such conditions for years, but their pleas fall on the deaf ears of bureaucrats at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC), who’ve totally aligned themselves with native leaders. These officials almost always side with band councils to deflect valid complaints of band corruption and electoral abuse. If anything is to change, Harper’s new minister must weed them out of the department and put them in positions where they can do less harm.

Even though the problems are worse in some locations, those of us who travel widely know that they exist to some degree in every province and territory. INAC has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the interests of all aboriginal people, but somewhere along the line that disintegrated into a protection racket for native elites. When things go wrong, they refuse to interfere on the grounds of a self-serving excuse, that of self-government. Too many departmental bureaucrats now act as if the stakes are between them and First Nations leaders versus the people.

Former Indian Affairs minister Robert Nault, a Jean Chrétien appointee, and his staff did something different. They traveled throughout First Nations and consulted with average people on the ground. That positive move resulted in the First Nations Governance Act, a far-reaching piece of legislation that would have helped create the conditions for fair and democratic band elections, transparent and accountable band finances and some form of the human rights so often abused by the Chiefs and band councils.

Almost as soon as he was sworn in, Prime Minister Paul Martin killed the act to appease the Chiefs. Now hope is once again in the air, because Harper’s regime has promised to revisit the Governance Act and retool it. The native elites will fight this move; they will mount phony protests by handing out $100 in spending money and bus rides to the city, and many reserve residents will climb on these buses and carry signs to protest any changes that threaten the status quo. Harper’s government must recognize the false nature of such opposition, and resist all the demagoguery sure to accompany it.

The poverty of native people can be addressed. Secure home ownership for individuals and families is one positive step, a far better situation than what we have now, with the band owning all the houses and using them as tools for buying votes at election time. A
legislated framework to clean up aboriginal spending, and even for redirecting more benefits straight to the people, will help ensure the growth of accountable band governments.

Real democracy for our First Nations is long overdue and will be welcomed by the rank and file. Those who have dared to speak out and have paid the price by being blacklisted, denied housing, jobs and healthcare—even denied their very citizenship when they have been exiled and removed from band membership lists—will finally see some justice, and some justification for their sacrifice.

Does the new Conservative government have the political will to clean up the aboriginal policy envelope? They will have the support of a silent majority on reservations, held in check by their leaders and without the resources or support to make their concerns public. They want some housecleaning at INAC. They want the services all Canadian taxpayers pay for, and they want self-government capable of delivering those services.

All that sets the bar very high for Harper and his colleagues, especially given their minority status and the fact that aboriginal policy reform is not one of their stated top priorities. But they shouldn’t blink. The current system is a house of cards, and the Chiefs will fall in line if they know the new government means business.