Reserves Show Signs of Slow Progress

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

The Frontier Centre’s third year of travelling to Manitoba First Nations to survey on-reserve band members about governance reveals that some councils are making tentative improvement. But the road to democratic progress for many bands appears long and fraught with challenges.

Last year we broadened survey efforts to include Saskatchewan reserves, and found comparable results. Many bands in the two provinces have sought public input and direction and become — some for the first time in decades — more approachable and transparent and, in the process, more successful economically. These First Nations have moved beyond simple survival mode to invest in economic opportunities both off- and on-reserve under a style of leadership that is becoming more accountable, transparent and democratic. This, in turn, engenders the peoples’ support to take positive steps towards developing greater self-sufficiency for their communities.

One off-shoot of increased accountability and transparency is a new generation of responsible leaders backed by an engaged and empowered band population. These exciting leaders are steadily relegating the “old boys’ club” and its regressive style of governance to the political and historical dust-heap. However, corrupt election practices and lack of human rights continue to be sore points on many reserves, particularly during band council elections. It is alarming to hear repeated complaints of band elections marred by voting list manipulation, vote buying, the appointment of politically partisan electoral officers, fraudulent mail-in ballots and other implicit and explicit coercion.

It is a cause of equal concern to learn that governmental agencies and local institutions with the ability and authority to ensure free, fair and open elections are doing little to end such practices. Attempts by the old guard to cling to power and accumulate personal profit at the expense of their impoverished citizenry remain in play, and are a scenario against which band voters will hopefully remain vigilant.

This new generation of progressive and principled First Nations leaders is forced to face the almost total dependency by far too many band residents on the government handouts which flow through band offices. This pernicious cycle of dependency has evolved and taken root, particularly during the last three decades, as federal transfer payments to band councils increased. As a result, even progressive leaders are burdened with the cycle of dependency encouraged by leaders of a bygone era. The culture of entitlement and dependency is an impediment to these leaders’ tough new approaches to ensure sustainable economic progress for their communities.

Promisingly, at least one band, the Opasquiak Cree Nation (OCN) situated next to The Pas, Manitoba, is challenging this culture of entitlement and dependency by informing its people that there will be no more “free homes.” In fact, band members are now required to arrange financing for their new homes and, in contrast to most reserves, are now responsible for repairs to their homes as well as the cost of water and garbage services. This bold move by OCN would shock those First Nations accustomed to simply lining up for a free home and having all amenities borne by the band.

It is a message that other First Nations leaders should start sending to their people: funding received by First Nations can no longer be utilized to stifle personal initiative, responsibility and the development of a solid work ethic while plunging many bands into one financial crisis after another.

We thank those who shared their perspectives for their support and hospitality and we heartily commend those First Nations leaders who welcomed us into their communities and offered us accommodation and assistance in our work, thereby demonstrating their commitment to the fundamental principles of transparency and openness in a democratic society. Their example serves as an inspiration to their people to commit themselves to the economic, political and social improvement of their own communities.