The activities of band councils on many Manitoba reserves are hidden behind a veil of secrecy, says the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
The Frontier Centre, a privately funded think-tank with offices in Winnipeg, has ranked all but four of Manitoba’s 63 First Nations on how well they govern.
The scores are based mainly on in-person interviews conducted on Manitoba reserves since last fall.
The index rates First Nations governments on fairness of elections, transparency, economic development, quality of services, effectiveness of administration and regard for human rights.
Don Sandberg, the Frontier Centre’s aboriginal policy expert, said the goal was to make band councils more accountable to First Nations people.
“I keep hearing over and over again on far too many reserves that they have no idea what is going on or where the finances are or — in a lot of cases — where their band council is,” he said.
Poplar River, a remote reserve on the east side of Lake Winnipeg with no permanent access road, ranked highest on the index, largely due to perceived transparency of government.
Buffalo Point, a tiny band with 41 on-reserve members that forms the southeast tip of Manitoba, ranked lowest with zero ratings for elections and services.
The band council is unelected and operates under a hereditary system that gives the chief the power to select his council and serve for life or until he chooses a successor. The current chief, James Thunder, is non-aboriginal.
The reserve, located on Lake of the Woods, is one of the most economically successful in the province, boasting a world-class marina with 350 docking slips, an 18-hole golf course and plans for a hotel resort and health spa. But Sandberg said it needs a democratic system of government.
Thunder did not return phone calls yesterday.
Grand Chief Chris Henderson of the Southern Chiefs Organization said he doesn’t take issue with the idea of an unelected chief and that Buffalo Point is a well-run reserve.
“I would say the chief there is an accountable leader,” he said. “He’s definitely pursuing economic development ventures for his First Nation.”
Henderson said he has no problem with the idea of rating the quality of governance on First Nations.
However, the idea that many are unaccountable or keeping their members in the dark in terms of band finances is a misconception, he said.
“I would say that First Nations in general are taking great strides in trying to address those common concerns,” he said.