Sometimes it takes a near tragedy to induce people to rally together and root out the malignant forces ravaging a community.
In crime-plagued Hobbema, south of Edmonton, where a 2-year-old girl was injured in a drive-by shooting, the latest plan to combat the mayhem on the four native reserves in the area is a gun amnesty.
For four months beginning Aug. 1, Hobbema residents will be able to hand in their illegal or unwanted firearms without being charged with possession of an unlicensed or unregistered weapon.
It’s a start. As Alberta Justice Minister Alison Redford said the other day, “Every single gun that’s turned over is one less that can get to the hands of criminals.” With a reported 13 gangs in Hobbema — population 12,000 — fighting the blight of poverty, dysfunction and despair that breeds the kind of thugs who terrify law-abiding citizens is a daunting task.
Hobbema is the latest native community in the media glare because of an errant bullet that went flying through the wall of a house and into the stomach of little Asia Saddleback in April. But the same social chaos and sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming problems plagues most of Canada’s reserves.
Usually the public hears from native leaders about what’s wrong. The Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy, however, decided to go straight to grassroots natives to hear their concerns. For three years, the think tank has been soliciting the opinions of ordinary aboriginals on how their reserves are governed.
In the first year Manitoba reserves were surveyed. Last year Saskatchewan reserves were added. This year, Alberta reserves will be included. Don Sandberg, the Frontier Centre’s Aboriginal policy analyst, and a team of assistants, expect to begin polling Alberta natives in the fall.
Reserve residents are asked how they feel about a variety of governance issues, including elections, band administration, human rights, transparency and services.
While accountability is improving and some reserves are doing an excellent job, there are still major problems, according to Sandberg.
Accountability, in fact, is the top grievance among grassroots natives.
The other major concerns remain jobs, housing and clean elections, he says.
“There’s so much vote-buying, rigging of the electors’ lists, you name it.
It’s just disgusting what’s going on out there,” he says. “We even have dead people on voters’ lists and they vote too.” The former Liberal government’s aborted First Nations Governance Act, which was to have made band councils more accountable, was just the kind of legislation needed to clean up reserves, says Sandberg.
He said he was floored when former prime minister Paul Martin killed the bill. “Then he comes out after he leaves politics and says he’s going to spend the rest of his life trying to alleviate the poverty of First Nations people,” he says. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” Meanwhile, native reserves are top heavy with grand chiefs and tribal councils while ordinary Aboriginals wonder how band money is being spent, says Sandberg.
“The feeding frenzy at the top is big-time and the people at the bottom are pretty well forgotten.” In a damning indictment of the reserve system, more than 90% of those polled in Sandberg‘s surveys have said their children would be better off if they left the reserve.
Does he see a healthy future for reserves? “Not unless there are some great improvements,” he sighs. “It’s just a holding place for people on social assistance.”