Aboriginal Governance Index – 2007-2008

The second year of the Frontier Centre's Aboriginal Governance Index ranks governance on 51 Manitoba First Nations and 61 in Saskatchewan based on personal interviews and surveys with band residents by Frontier’s Aboriginal Policy Fellow, Don Sandberg.

Published on February 11, 2008


The link between economic prosperity and good governance is well established. Nowhere is this more evident than within Aboriginal communities. People who are more effectively governed tend to experience more access to economic opportunities than those who are not. While recognizing that First Nations value culture-specific institutions, it is important to acknowledge that some principles of good governance are universal and transcend culture. There is no reason First Nations should be denied the tools of good governance to improve their lives. The UN Millennium Declaration established the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for international development. These goals recognize that good governance is a critical component of development. There are correlations between low infant mortality and low levels of corruption, a strong rule of law and high levels of literacy and, accountability on one hand, and per capita income within the community on the other.

It is a well observed fact that for people enjoy employment and prosperity, band governments must create the right governing institutions. In 2003, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development embarked on a major study of tribal governance in the United States. Many of the observations apply to Canada. To achieve prosperity, Aboriginal governing institutions must provide (1) stable institutions and policies, (2) fair and effective mechanisms for resolving disputes (3) separation of politics from band management (4) a competent bureaucracy and (5) a “cultural match,” which refers to the ability of institutions to match traditional ideas of governance. These are some of the important components we are measuring.

Despite reforms to improve Aboriginal governance structures, obstacles to economic development on reserves still exist within the Indian Act and through the slow process of approval for projects by the Department of Indian Affairs. As B.C. Aboriginal leader Manny Jules says, “The Indian Act was simply not designed for and never contemplated the kinds of development possibilities we see on reserve lands today.”

The poverty on most First Nation communities in Canada is evidence enough that Aboriginal communities are in need of governance reform. Manitoba and Saskatchewan are the two provinces with the highest proportion of Aboriginals in their populations. The encouragement of good governance on First Nations is therefore a critically important public policy issue for both provinces. This project attempts to measure the level of good governance within First Nation communities. This is the second annual survey, and it has been enlarged to include an additional province.

This past year saw much attention devoted to the topic of reformed Aboriginal governance. Most critically, the federal government introduced amendments to federal human rights legislation to include Aboriginals covered under the Indian Act. This long-awaited reform goes to the heart of good governance, as individuals would be empowered to file human rights grievances against their band governments or the federal Indian and Natives Affairs Canada (INAC). At present, First Nations do not have adequate recourse against human rights abuses. The fate of this legislation has yet to be determined. Moreover, Ottawa has moved on the issue of matrimonial property rights for on-reserve band members. Often, in marital breakdowns, female band members find themselves denied their family homes because they lack basic protection. Legislation was introduced to close this loophole.

Issues like elections in First Nation communities have also come to the forefront of public attention. Serious irregularities demonstrate the pressing need for change. In 2006, the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs removed a chief and several councillors on Lake St. Martin, a community in Manitoba, over allegations of vote buying. In a rare move, the chief and council were removed by order of the Governor-General, with approval from the federal cabinet. In Manitoba, members of Peguis First Nation were shocked to hear that their chief was reprimanded by a Federal Court judge for using funds from the community’s Special Needs program to buy appliances in exchange for people’s electoral support.

In general, the political leadership that runs these First Nation communities refused once again to participate in this project, so this report ranks governance on 51 Manitoba First Nations and 62 in Saskatchewan based on personal interviews and surveys with band residents by Frontier’s Aboriginal Policy Fellow, Don Sandberg.

The sample size this year is 1,780 surveys, 789 collected in Manitoba and 991 from Saskatchewan. Overall, 51% of respondents were women and 49% were men. In conducting the surveys, attempts were made to include band members from all walks of life and to ensure the sample was representative. It was also decided to avoid having too many responses from band officials in a particular community and to actively engage band members not connected to band administration as much as possible.

Each ranking is based on a weighted composite of scores evaluating six broad areas of good governance. The subdivided categories for good governance used were:

  • Elections – How fair and impartial are votes for leaders?
  • Administration – How effectively is the band’s business conducted?
  • Human Rights – How much regard is assigned to basic rights?
  • Transparency – How well are citizens informed about government?
  • Services – How well are health, education, social and municipal services delivered?
  • Economy – How well is the community providing economic development?


The Aboriginal Governance Index is intended to provide Manitoba and Saskatchewan First Nations with a convenient benchmark through which individual bands can measure their progress in achieving responsible self-government. It is also hoped that individual band members can benefit from the information. Knowing where their band government places can be a source of empowerment for individuals. These members can then use the information as a source of encouragement for their own community to adopt better institutions of governance. A copy of the survey questions appears later in the report, and the authors hope that leaders of First Nations will closely read its contents and make the appropriate conclusions about policy reforms that could bring them closer to ideal best practices.

The analysis of the Aboriginal Governance Index, based on data gathered from direct surveys of people living in First Nations, ranked these communities as having superior systems of governance and assigned these total weighted scores:

  • Ahtakakoop 78%
  • Rolling River 77%
  • Pasqua 70%
  • Cowessess 69%
  • Okanese 69%
  • Fond du Lac 67%
  • George Gordon FN 67%
  • Muskoday 67%
  • Muskeg Lake 64%
  • Mistawasis 63%
  • Wahpeton 63%
  • Kahkewistahaw 63%


These First Nations scored the lowest in the Index:

  • Berrens River 36%
  • Island Lake 36%
  • Chemawain Cree Nation36%
  • Manto Sipi35%
  • Nekaneet 35%
  • Lac Brochet 34%
  • Canupawakpa Dakota34%
  • Key First Nation34%
  • York Factory 33%
  • Black River 32%
  • Grand Rapids31%


The balance of the 90 First Nations surveyed ranked in the middle. A full list of their scores appears later in this report. A map of their locations is also presented.

The section on correlations is instructive for discovering what reforms are most important in obtaining a better overall score for good governance. The correlation between Transparency and the overall score is .89, and the correlation between the Administration grade and the overall score is .76. In other words, these two measurements are the best indicators of the overall health of the band in question. If one could measure only one or two aspects of band performance, these scores would give the best indication of how the band is performing overall.

Just as in 2006, Aboriginal Policy Analyst Don Sandberg encountered much resistance to his research from Aboriginal leadership. He was particularly critical about the lack of transparency exhibited by many band governments, although he mentioned that co-operation from band councils in Manitoba had greatly improved over last year’s survey. Many councils even actively assisted in data collection.

“A veil of secrecy and therefore a lack of accountability continue to permeate the activities on the majority of First Nation band councils,” Don Sandberg concludes. “Most band members are completely in the dark with regards to the disposition of band funds.”

Evidence also seems to show that community residents on First Nations are growing increasingly concerned about mismanagement, and desire basic transparency from their local governments. In 1999, the Auditor-General Report stated that INAC received over 300 allegations relating to 108 First Nation governments during a two-year period prior to their audit. More seriously, an Access to Information request from INAC revealed that between 2002 and 2004, INAC received 984 allegations of criminal and other non-criminal wrongdoing by native governments or organizations.

These concerns are not without foundation. In the 1999 Auditor-General’s Report, it was revealed that Indian Affairs had to intervene in the management of 167 out of 585 band governments. Data from INAC also showed that as of March 2004, 23 per cent of First Nations’ tribal councils were under some form of management intervention. Within Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the number of bands under co-management or third-party intervention is a significant cause for concern. For example, in 2006, according to an INAC spokesperson, 12 bands in Saskatchewan were under third-party management, the highest level of financial crisis intervention.

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