Indian Affairs Must Heed Indigenous Voices On Reform

Indigenous peoples across Canada are interested in creating accountability structures in their communities, but the federal government needs to recognize them.
Published on November 24, 2008

Indigenous people all across this country are hungry for change and they are tired of waiting for governments to bring it.

This includes both the federal government and their own.

Just ask members of the Blood reserve in southern Alberta. Members of the Kainai First Nation Elders Association, along with members of their community, are talking about bringing accountability to their band council.

They allege that they never hear about band council meetings and that they are kept in the dark about what chief and council are doing, especially if it relates to major economic development projects.

Members of the Blackfoot tribe, Blood reserve members will be going to the polls on November 26th. Their desire is to see institutions of accountability established for the future.

During meetings of the Kainai First Nation Elders Association in Standoff, Alberta members openly speak about introducing rules to penalize leaders who do not keep their electoral promises. One half-jokingly refers to impeachment proceedings.

The ironic thing is that traditional forms of indigenous governance did just this.

They had tough systems of accountability. In traditional Iroquois systems, a leader had to be community-minded and could not show favouritism (different than the nepotism seen on many reserves now). If he was, there were systems to force him from the position. End of story.
Others speak about innovative ideas like the establishment of a “senate”-type body that will act as a check on chief and council.

“They would not attend every meeting, just the most important ones,” says one of the association members. They do not know how this “senate” would look like, but they know that it would represent community members and would ensure band government is not held in secret.

The Kainai Nation is not the only First Nation doing this. Community associations and elders associations from First Nations across the Prairies are trying to create structures that prevent the concentration of power within chief and council.

Many refer to older indigenous forms of governance for inspiration and some look to modern examples of accountability structures. Under the Indian Act, band members have an option of reverting to band custom election procedures. Here they can initiate new reforms, but these are often unsupported by chief and council.

The problem is that the federal government often does not recognize on-reserve solutions. The Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs tend to pick their pony and that is often the chief and council that fall under the Indian Act. While Indian Affairs allows First Nation communities some autonomy in elections, under “custom council” systems, this often does not extend to recognizing institutions that fall outside the Indian Act. They may view it as easier that way, as it involves one body to deal with and distribute money to. Of course, any alternate institution would also have to be elected even if it is rooted in indigenous traditions.

Take for example Roseau River First Nation in Manitoba. This reserve opted to include an elder’s council (which they called a custom council) in its constitution years ago. It was supposed to act as a check on chief and council. It comprised two elected representatives from each family on the reserve. When the custom council began to feel that the chief and council was ignoring it, they requested help from Indian Affairs, which only co-operated with the chief and council. To receive recognition, the custom council had to pursue action through the Federal Court of Canada.

The problem with this scenario is that things could have been much easier for all involved if Indian Affairs recognized accountability institutions created within the indigenous community itself, but often Indian Affairs does not want to lose power or control.

This does not mean that the government should recognize any institution coming from First Nation communities. There should be clear standards. The institution must have legitimacy within the community. It should enjoy the support of a broad segment of the populace. They must involve a vote. Second, any institution recognized must respect individual rights of all band members. Chief and council already wield too much power over the lives of band members, so it would be irresponsible to empower another body with dictatorial control.

During the Liberal government of Jean Chretien, Ottawa attempted to pass the First Nations Governance Act, which would have prevented many of the abuses on reserves today, but it was defeated under political pressure.

The irony is that community members within First Nations are calling for many of the same things. It’s time Indian Affairs started listening.

Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. The Centre will be releasing its 2009 Aboriginal Governance Index early next year. The 2009 Index will, for the first time, include First Nations communities in Alberta.

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