What Went Wrong with Aboriginal Policy?

An anonymous letter penned by a civil servant working for Indian and Northern Affairs has been posted on another website. The writer discusses the problems faced by Canada’s aboriginals and places them in historical context. “Big Bear’s People,” as the person described our native population, are still dealing with the fallout of policy errors committed many years ago, mistakes that still define their plight.

Who was Big Bear? He was the last Chief to cave in and sign the infamous “numbered treaties” that confined aboriginals to reservations. Big Bear held out because he accurately foresaw the consequences of that policy. His story is important because his own tribe, starved and regulated into submission, eventually abandoned him. The point is that each family had the freedom to take its hogan elsewhere. Even though Big Bear’s people made the wrong choice, they had the power to do so.

Conceptually, we need to focus on the most significant of elements that inhibit participation by Indian people in the benefits enjoyed by mainstream Canadians. Under self-government, total federal power over band members has been transferred to small groups of politicians on reserves, leaving the rest with little power or influence. The administration of federal authority and funding historically held by “Indian Agents” without the consultation of the people they presumed to serve has been replaced with a similar process in the hands of band councils.

This handover reflected a belated realization by government that external control of all elements of life on reserves by the Crown did not build independence or self-determination. But the solution—a transfer of federal authority and programs to band councils—resulted in a form of homegrown autocracy with weak lines of accountability to those served. The only means most people now possess of escaping this lack of empowerment and its consequent poverty is to flee their own communities, and thousands have embraced cultural genocide in cities foreign to them.

Government rules and a database governing bands for the purpose of administering benefits limited the ability of band members to move between bands as they had historically. The transition from an independent people who largely migrated with their need for food to a stationary reserve system compromised that historic freedom to choose their community affiliations.

The transition from a nomadic existence to reserve status brought with it increasing external dependency, exemplified by agencies and commercial development on the periphery of native communities. Men in the past known as warriors had acted as protectors of their communities; others gathered food. The Northwest Mounted Police replaced the warrior’s role; the loss of buffalo and fisheries was replaced by dependence on welfare.

By the middle of the 1960s, we embarked on a program of self-government that transferred programs to the only power centres available, band councils. Interdependency—the need for each other in a complex society—had essentially been destroyed by external dependency for two generations or more, so this move by government did little to redress the balance.

Almost all income, either earned or through social support, now originates from a single source, the band council. On most reserves, there is no middle class; there are those in power and those dependent on power. Those who have power are determined to keep it and enjoy the benefits of generous incomes and influence through nepotism and patrimony. Competition from others who seek that power has caused deep divisions in formerly cohesive communities. The party in power has absolute control of all funds and all programs.

Almost all this activity is directed to the sustenance of a minimum quality of life. Little or no effort is directed at establishing a base for individual aspiration. Political interference prevents band members from embarking on business ventures. In addition, the economic implications of limited incomes stifle any chance for the kind of independence essential to expressions of dissent. Organized rebellion to local authority becomes the only avenue for change.

Some—most notably Métis intellectual Jean Allard—have suggested that the yearly treaty payments to band members be increased from five dollars a year to bring them closer to a yearly livable salary for families, a recourse that would partly eliminate the need for welfare and free housing. Band councils would be relegated to serving the collective needs of the community, rather than the individual privileges of some members. People would have more control of the future Big Bear predicted they would lose on reserves.

A diversified system of financial support for First Nations would better serve their interests, and in the long run Canadian taxpayers. Would some abuse the expanded payments? Of course. But many others would turn the resources to productive use, and build self-sustaining, independent communities. If a federal bureaucrat understands all this, so should our Chiefs.