Recently the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs voted in favour of ending negotiations over dismantling the Manitoba division of the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC). The Assembly stopped short of attaching an honest label to the process, which was supposed to wind up the long transition from dependency on Ottawa to self-government. In terms of bettering the conditions of people in our First Nations, the transfer of power was a failure, pure and simple.
Grand Chief Ron Evans says that after 12 years and nothing to show for it, Ottawa lacks the will to resolve the issue. ?After a year-long review, there has been very little will at the political level to negotiate,? Evans stated. That may be true, but it?s irrelevant. The Chiefs have had their chance and have little to show for it.
The agreement, signed in 1994 between the Assemb!
ly and the Chr?tien government, was doomed to failure from day one. Why? Aboriginal people did not want self-government under the political structures in place then, and the same structures are in place today.
Self-government meant dismantling INAC in Manitoba and turning over its responsibilities to First Nations governments. That entailed transferring the one billion dollars currently spent on program delivery for housing, healthcare, education, justice, band administration and capital projects over to Manitoba?s Indian bands.
For Manitoba?s native people, this is where the buck stops. I travel extensively to First Nation communities, and I have heard their voices loud and clear for many years. They are saying, ?No! Not under the political system that is in place now. We have no faith in the current system. We do not trust that our tribal and band councils will do the right thing in the handling of the funds.? This is the overwhelming response of the p!
eople, not just in our outlying native communities but also fr!
Why? How did this negative attitude towards our own native governments develop? It was the culmination of many events over many years, and the consequence of an imposed system geared towards keeping native people mired in poverty and dependent on their leaders.
For a recent example of the disconnect between the people and their leaders, look at the referendum in August, 2006, on the Peguis First Nation. The question was whether or not to accept the resolution of a long-standing land claim. So many people on the reserve went out of their way not to vote that the plebiscite did not attract the minimum percentage of band members required. Why? One reason was that they simply did not trust that the millions of dollars coming to their community from this claim will be properly managed by their band council.
As a result, a second vote was scheduled, with the qu!
estion to be decided by 50% plus one of those that showed up. But another controversy dogged the referendum. Thousands of names were pasted in or deleted from voters lists, almost, it seemed, at whim. Who was accountable for that? Chief Louis Stevenson refused to return phone calls from a respected native reporter. ?We have no comment,? said his secretary. ?We do not speak to the Drum.?
Our native leaders are not wholly to blame. They followed a path laid out by the federal government. All the power in native communities is concentrated in the hands of the band councils, who control all the funding and program delivery. That includes deciding who goes on band lists and who can be removed, who gets a new house or who receives funding for post-secondary education.
This has created a ?power trap,? where First Nations leaders become intoxicated by the power and money that accompanies their positions. This has led to human rights abuses, fraud and r!
igged elections. The people, on the other hand, are sucked int!
o a long
-standing ?dependency trap,? where they lose their self-respect in lining up for their monthly handouts and their dignity in the loss of steady work.
This style of politics has denied budding aboriginal entrepreneurs the will and the opportunity to open businesses in their home communities, which would create jobs and self?reliance. Instead, outside providers reap all the profits. This must change and this change has to start at the top.
Phil Fontaine, a Manitoban who?s moved up to be National Chief, recently argued in the Winnipeg Free Press that Ottawa?s human rights legislation should be watered down on First Nations, in recognition of the fact that Chiefs and their political structures embody the rights of native people (?Protect individual and collective rights,? February 15). George Orwell had fun with that position, namely that some people have more r!
ights than others.
But even if you agree with Fontaine, why doesn?t he at least submit his leadership to a direct vote from the people instead of fellow Chiefs? Why doesn?t Ron Evans do the same? Aboriginals throughout the province greeted with excitement last year?s announcement that Manitoba Keewatinook Ininew Okimowin, the northernmost Tribal Council, would start submitting its Grand Chief to a general election, and with disappointment the fact that MKIO has since reneged on the promise.
Recently, we?ve seen the emergence of a few more enlightened chiefs working within the system in the best interests of their community and its people. Let?s hope that this positive style of leaders becomes more addictive in our communities. That might convince more people that we are ready for true self-government.
A version of this article appeared originally in the Winnipeg Free Press February 20, 2007.