For the most part, relationships between institutions of government and the communities, families and individuals that form Canada’s population have a predictable consistency. Citizens are allowed wide latitude for social and economic expression, and a social safety net has been carefully constructed to assist those who fail to achieve at least a minimal level of sustenance on their own. In many respects, these arrangements differ for the aboriginal community. Their opportunities are constricted by a unique legal framework that differs significantly from the one that governs the mainstream of Canadian society.
The long-term effects of those differences are little understood, but plainly they create at least some incentives for behaviour that are negative in their impact. Weak property rights which undermine security of possession, legal exclusion from systems of commercial credit and the inability of courts to enforce contracts on Indian lands mean that the rewards that other Canadians expect from work and constructive effort may not be available on Indian reservations.
These differences do much to explain why aboriginals in Canada sit at the bottom of the economic ladder. In addition, the traditional response of social supports is delivered through layers of programs that often fail to reach those most in need. Assistance is indirect, and its ability to ameliorate individual need reduced by high overheads.
In the last thirty years, government spending on aboriginal Canadians has increased by 3000%, yet the data on native incomes and standards of living show little improvement. Many reserves report unemployment rates as high as 90%, and urban natives face rates as high as 50%. Other indicators of social development often associated with entrenched poverty – welfare dependency, involvement with the criminal justice system, family disintegration – also lag when applied to First Nations. No other ethnic group reflects this persistent lack of progress.
These distressing facts led the Frontier Centre to establish the Aboriginal Frontiers Project in 2003. We were fortunate to discover an individual with a long and distinguished track record of discussing such issues, and to bring him into the Project through a feature called Aboriginal Voices From Ground Zero. Our Aboriginal Policy Fellow, Don Sandberg – to our knowledge the only native Canadian in the country employed by an independent or other think tank to do this sort of work – soon made us aware of the dimensions of the governance problems faced in First Nations.
As he researched and discussed these problems, we came to appreciate that some First Nations communities were in much better shape than others. We wanted to know why. If some Indian reservations were experiencing good governance, in spite of the significant barriers common to all, why couldn’t they all? That led us to propose this experimental project. How adequate are the institutions of governance in Canada’s First Nations? When measured by commonly accepted standards of the quality and effectiveness of ruling institutions, how do these semi-autonomous units of governance measure up? How can we find out?
The Frontier Centre wishes to acknowledge the generous support of the Lotte & John Hecht Memorial Foundation in Vancouver for providing the seed funding for the work of the Aboriginal Governance Index, and for its continuing support for the Aboriginal Frontiers Project. This initial ranking of most of the Indian reservations in Manitoba will, we hope, be followed by more such examinations of First Nations governance in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and eventually throughout Canada.
We have learned much through this first effort, in terms of methods and our ability to measure the various phenomena that compose good governance. As a by-product, we also discovered what we should already have known: despite the obstacles that face them, the aboriginal population of Manitoba living on reserved lands are a welcoming people. They invited us intotheir homes for long hours of discussion of unfamiliar issues, and were unfailingly gracious and hospitable to the Frontier Centre’s representatives.
The purpose of the Aboriginal Governance Index is wholly positive. By ranking aboriginal communities, we wish to help point them in the direction of better governance practices. By publishing the results, we hope to spread the word throughout our First Nations that ways and means exist for them to improve their governing institutions and thereby improve their lot.
Peter Holle, President, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy