Rethinking the Reserve – Jean Allard’s Big Bear Solution

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

When you listen to Jean Allard talk about his solution to native poverty and powerlessness, it’s hard to believe that no one else has thought of it. Highly critical of what he calls the “Indian Industry,” Allard argues that the agreement between unaccountable chiefs and band councils, and the department of Indian Affairs is keeping Canada’s natives locked in a bleak cycle. His radical answer? A provision from a 19th century treaty signed by Cree Chief Big Bear — a promise to pay each Indian $5 per year. Allard’s only caveats: skip the chiefs and pay the people directly. Oh, and account for inflation.

A Manitoba Métis, Jean Allard has been involved in politics since the 1960’s, serving as an MLA under premier Ed Schreyer, the co-ordinator of the Métis National Council and the president of the Union Nationale Metisse St-Joseph du Manitoba, among numerous other roles. A non-conformist among Native politicians (on sovereignty for specific native tribes, he avers: “How you set up a nation with 300, 600 or 3,000 people beats the hell out of me!”), his knowledge and insight are hard to match. His 2002 article in Inroads Journal, “Big Bear’s Treaty,” clearly spells out his vision for empowering Canada’s natives.

In 1882, Chief Big Bear signed over his land in Treaty Six, one of the so-called “number treaties” between natives and the Canadian government, which contained the commitment to pay every Indian $5 per year. As Allard explains, the government was anxious to provide the natives with money, not just because they needed it, but because Indians were major clients of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which needed cash-laden customers. While other clauses in the number treaties have been modernized — the promise of a “medicine chest” updated to mean health care provision — treaty money remains pegged at $5 a person. Allard places the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of “leaders [who] have never advocated for the rights of the individual.”

Fixing his calculation to land prices, he argues that what cost $5 in the 1870’s, now costs something closer to $5,000. For a family of five, that’s an income base of $25,000 per year. Not necessarily enough to live on, but enough for a family to move off the reserve and pay the rent. With such stability assured, a mother could “get herself a job at a Tim Hortons,” and get her family on track for a better life.

At first glance, this idea doesn’t seem particularly new. It just sounds like more money, and the federal government has transferred revenue to Canada’s native population for years. The big difference is that Allard’s solution cuts unaccountable leaders out of the loop.

Under the current system, chiefs and councils distribute government funds as they see fit. But as Allard explains, there is no one to oversee their financial decisions. Contrasting the reservation modus operandi with his experience in the Manitoba legislature, he says that, “on the reservation, there is no one to make sure you are spending the money properly. Indians who supported a chief’s leadership would simply come to him the next day with open hands.”

Such patronage systems work exceedingly well at prolonging a leader’s stay at the top, but they also keep the group at large at the bottom. The lack of accountability to the native rank and file, and the lack of infrastructure and oversight make for a dire situation for everyone but the leaders. On this point, Allard proffers a favourite quote from the late Cree Leader, Harold Cardinal: “Non-accountability is the reward that Indian affairs gives to chiefs and councils for their compliance.”

This unwritten agreement goes to the very heart of the widespread opposition Allard’s Big Bear solution faces. The Assembly of First Nations and its leader, Phil Fontaine — who, incidentally, managed Allard’s MLA campaign in 1969 — as well as the department of Indian Affairs are heavily invested in the current system. Allard’s Big Bear solution would deal the current order a fatal blow by ending native dependence on unaccountable leaders. As he puts it: “without a bunch of dependent Indians, you’ve got an Indian industry with no purpose.”

Of course, the Big Bear solution isn’t a panacea, and Allard knows it. But it is a novel idea that at least addresses the problems of native financing and governance. It has received serious attention from certain politicians in Ottawa, although they’ve been slow to get behind it. However, the Big Bear solution is indicative of a sad, larger truth. Its mere consideration painfully demonstrates the extent to which native governance has failed. Regardless whether the blame lies with the Canadian government, native leaders themselves or a combination of two, Jean Allard’s message is a wakeup call that progress cannot wait long.

Daniel Goldbloom is a journalist at the National Post newspaper. This was originally published on the online section of the National Post on February 1, 2008 as part of a wider series of commentary and analysis on aboriginal governance reform called Rethinking the Reserve.