Phil Fontaine’s article on the “native fiscal imbalance” in the October 30 Globe and Mail cites the high numbers of aboriginals in prison, and his words and statistics on the numbers of disadvantaged native people mired in poverty ring all too true. But Fontaine’s prescriptions for fixing that miss the mark. He should take a look in the mirror, because he’s part of the problem. More money is not the answer.
The funding directed towards First Nations has ballooned to $9 billion dollars and Fontaine wants Ottawa to keep the promises made in Kelowna to send billions more. Why should we believe that will have any more effect than existing funds?
There are very reachable solutions to ending aboriginal poverty on First Nations. They cannot be achieved as long as the federal government feels it must consult directly with people like Phil Fontaine to find answers. Instead of Chiefs and Grand Chiefs, why not try listening and talking to the very people who reside on reserves, the neglected majority bypassed in a system that caters to elites and their bagmen?
Leaders speak of poverty and the lack of funding, yet many of the loudest complainers set their own salaries, some of which run as high as a tax-exempt $500,000 a year. The money spent by Chiefs, band councils and their staffs on travel alone is mind-boggling, countless millions of dollars. Most of this travel is unnecessary. Reserves with stay-at-home Chiefs who mind the store do much better on all indicators.
The biggest barrier between people in First Nations and prosperity is the concentrated political power of their leaders. Why do most reservations not have construction companies, hardware and furniture stores and other retail outlets? Why do they lack grocery chains, lumber companies, logging operations, sawmills or construction companies that trade goods and services with other reserves? Why can’t they create jobs and keep revenues circulating on reserves instead of leaving with non-aboriginal businesses? Why can’t reserves be like every other rural community that offers these amenities to their people?
The answer is very simple. Far too many band councils operate like despots in Third World countries. Their people are afraid to invest twenty or thirty thousand dollars in a reserve-based business, only to see it shut down by the band council for petty political reasons. Then they have nowhere to turn. The only option is Federal courts, where legal fees and excessive timelines can break a person. Unlike band councils, who have unlimited funds to hire the best lawyers available to defend their actions.
Fontaine failed to mention that most grassroots aboriginals are against the five-billion dollar Kelowna deal. Why? People want accountability from their leaders first. He often claims that 99% of First Nations are accountable. Yes, but only under the flimsy accounting rules currently in place. Just recently, in my home reserve, the Norway House Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, a new reform-minded Chief, a lawyer by profession, asked for an audit of the band’s books. It took a staff accustomed to old, untransparent ways of accounting seven attempts to come up with an audit that finally showed a clear picture of the band’s finances.
First Nations’ peoples feel that self-government is failing them. Fontaine says that “To ensure a productive and competitive Canada, First Nations must have equal opportunities, a fair physical framework and a real self-government for real self-sufficiency.” Powerful words backed by inaction on the vast majority of First Nations, where political leaders hinder their own people’s desires to break out of poverty.
Fontaine article ends with these words: “Only through a comprehensive plan supported by real investments can First Nations finally and forever break free from the prison of poverty.” Wouldn’t it be nice if he directed those thoughts at the chiefs that elected him to national office?
It might be different if we, the people of Canada’s First Nations, had a say in the election of Grand Chiefs like Phil Fontaine. Then he could truly represent our interests instead of pandering to the powerful who live in high style. We need a clear voice to speak on our behalf.