The Conservative government is being hypocritical and underhanded in its relations with native leaders, demanding more transparency on reserves while keeping secret its plans for overhauling the rules governing chiefs and band councillors, critics said yesterday.
But one expert on reserve life in Western Canada is urging the government to tune out these objections and move forward with the changes.
“It’s long overdue,” Don Sandberg said of federal plans to ensure secret-ballot elections and measures to reduce voting fraud. The member of Manitoba’s Norway House Cree Nation is working on his third annual accountability ranking of Western Canadian reserves for the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre. He said the powerless grassroots natives he meets are desperate for federal moves to prevent corruption.
“There are huge problems with elections and corruption involved with elections.”
Mr. Sandberg dismissed criticisms from native leaders and opposition MPs that Ottawa is trying to sneak changes through the back door. He said the concerns of chiefs and tribal leaders are overrepresented because they have access to the news media.
“Not too many people ever listen to the people on the first nations, and their voice has been loud and clear – from what I’ve been hearing out there – that we need these positive changes and [they] couldn’t come soon enough.”
Liberal and New Democratic MPs peppered Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl with questions yesterday in the Commons and in a parliamentary committee after The Globe and Mail reported on classified documents from his department. The documents show Indian Affairs wants changes that would require bands and regional tribal councils to commit to secret-ballot elections, to grant off-reserve natives the right to vote and to implement access-to-information policies.
The documents include far more detail than Indian Affairs had given to chiefs in a letter. The government has said its program for funding reserves and regional tribal councils expires next April, and that it wants new accountability measures in exchange for renewed federal transfers.
Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he’s disappointed with Ottawa’s approach. He said his organization was invited to take part in a panel on the changes via a phone message left only yesterday, while the minister was facing questions in the Commons.
“This is really an underhanded way to undermine the ability of first nations governments to deliver good government to their citizens,” he said.
Mr. Strahl laughed off accusations that his department is secretive, noting meetings are planned with native leaders over the coming weeks.