The results of the 2007 second annual governance survey of Manitoba First Nations completed by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy—a Manitoba based think-tank—are in and are not flattering, with 68 per cent of the bands indexed in the study not even achieving a passing grade in the six broad areas of good governance that were measured. The survey focused on the opinions held by band members regarding elections, administration, human rights, transparency, service delivery and economic development on their reserves.
Only one band—Rolling River—finished with a 76.5 per cent average to break the 60 per cent plateau, a sharp decrease from the eight First Nations last year that scored 60 per cent or higher in the first annual survey ((Poplar River, Sagkeeng, Marcel Colomb, Rolling River, Gamblers, Swan Lake, Fisher River, Berens River, Long Plain and Brokenhead). The latest governance index results are based on a total of 789 completed surveys of band members on 51 reserves taken by Frontier staff between August and November of last year.
Thirty-five First Nations scored below 50 per cent in the survey, seemingly indicating that the majority of First Nations governments in the province are failing to measure up in the opinion of those residents who participated in the survey.
Among the 10 poorest performing bands in the survey were Grand Rapids (51), Black River (50), York Factory (49), Canupawka Dakota (48), Lac Brochet (47), Manto-Sipi (46), Chemawawin (45), Berens River (44), Brokenhead (43), Sandy Bay (42) and Mathias Columb (41).
However, some observers say the accuracy of the survey and the results are open to wide interpretation and serious doubt given that four of this year’s poorest performers—Brokenhead, Mathias Columb, Black River and Canupawka Dakota—were given high marks in a previous survey conducted by the institute only a year earlier.
Critics of the index point to the absence of fundamental statistics that could be used to gauge the accuracy of the survey and process itself such as the number of surveys attempted and completed on each reserve and the on-reserve population of each band.
“It just doesn’t measure up in terms of measurable analysis,” said Adam Cook, an aboriginal political science graduate who now specializes in First Nations governance consulting.
Yet a number of mainstream national media outlets have given the survey results wide publicity without much critical analysis of the survey itself.
“The media generally like studies and surveys that are simplistic and offer a quick hit of best and worst ratings,” said Cook. “But the coverage has been given without much of an eye to the details of how the survey work itself was conducted. So there are no details to really measure the accuracy of the survey itself.”
Indeed, the survey makes no mention of the projected accuracy of the survey as most public opinion polls and surveys routinely utilize.
But Frontier spokesperson Don Sandberg, the aboriginal policy fellow at the political think-tank, says the index provides a snapshot of how ordinary grassroots band members view their communities and the governance and administration on those reserves.
“But I think that you can’t dismiss the results of the surveys of people who wanted to go on record and state their opinions about how they view the governance on their reserves.”
Part of the value of the survey, according to Sandberg, is that it provides an opportunity to probe beneath the veneer of reserve life and the outside public perception of the state of health of a reserve.
“For example I visited a number of reserves where all appeared to be tranquil, relatively prosperous, with a number of concrete economic initiatives that seem to be creating jobs and wealth and optimism only to discover in the surveys that all was not as it appeared.” Bands such as Buffalo Point which placed dead last in the 2006 survey and Long Plain which mysteriously dropped from a 9th place finish last year to drop to a ranking of 30th in this year’s governance index may point to weaknesses in the sampling rate used to compile the rankings and the failure to conduct follow-ups with the respondents who participated in the first survey.
“That would provide an indication of whether things are either as bad, good or unchanged from a year ago,” says Cook.
While neither the AMC, MKO or SCO have responded publicly to the index many band officials are discounting the exercise as fundamentally flawed and undertaken only to perpetuate an anti-First Nations agenda.
“The study admits it purposefully chose not to survey band officials or employees and yet these people are also band members and in many ways have some insight and knowledge that many ordinary people don’t have about how things work or don’t work,” said the northern chief, who did not wish to be named. “I think when a survey is done that is supposed to be measuring good governance, accountability and transparency doesn’t use basic objectivity, transparency or accountability itself in producing the survey that you have to discount the results,In fact, three of this year’s top ranked bands—Pine Creek and Oxford House—were among the poorest performing in the 2006 survey. Nonetheless Sandberg stands behind the results of the survey noting that in the absence of any such similar work being conducted either by INAC or the bands, tribal councils or regional political bodies, that the Frontier Centre’s governance index remains as the only public barometer of ordinary band member’s opinions of the governance on their reserve.
“We are working continually to develop the survey work further, to broaden our sampling and focus our work and next year’s index will help clarify the overall picture here in Manitoba some more,” he said. “Our work at the centre is about providing informed dialogue and examination of issues critical to all Canadians and this index is one part of that work and something that I hope will get ordinary people and leaders on reserves talking and examining things in their communities so that these areas that we measure can be improved upon.”