Reserves’ Rankings Have Silver Lining

Media Appearances, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

No one reading about the Frontier Centre for Public Policy’s new ranking of First Nations reserve governance should assume the last-place finish by the Piikani in southern Alberta means it’s the worst-governed in Western Canada.

In fact, there’s good reason for residents on this long, financially troubled reserve to take heart from the results released this week. The same goes for residents of the Blood Reserve, which finished 94th.

It’s not that a bottom-five finish gives either bragging rights. In fact, the survey confirms the rumblings of dissatisfaction expressed by members of both bands.

But here’s the thing. Both bands showed considerable courage in opening themselves to scrutiny at all.

The Frontier Centre’s survey isn’t foisted upon them. It was conducted with their co-operation. The survey comes with a prize of $50,000 to the First Nation that scores highest in its fairness of elections, effective administration, regard for human rights, how well its citizens are informed about their own government and how well the community fosters economic development.

The prize, this year to the O’Chiese First Nation in Alberta, reinforces the goal of the exercise — to reward excellence and help others identify shortcomings and improve upon them.

Of more than 40 First Nations in Alberta, only 16 were included in survey results. Others chose not to participate. In others, survey participation was too low for the centre to be confident in the sample size.

As the report itself points out, “By permitting their people to answer questions about their local governance, all of the bands in our rankings made the implicit statement that they have ‘nothing to hide.’ ”

The governance woes on the Piikani Nation have been well documented. Not long ago, the band was briefly put under third-party management by Indian and Northern Affairs, a serious step that indicated the depth of management problems. It was predictable the band wouldn’t top the list in a governance survey, but it took part nonetheless.

Good for them, and the door is now wide open for both southern Alberta bands to build upon the results of the survey’s first look at Alberta’s native bands.

Also encouraging, the report notes the aboriginal governance index has become a source of pride in communities that have scored highly. The issues of good governance are being taken to heart.

This year’s winning band, for example, posts its most recent financial audit on its public website. Another declared it had a plan to remove politics from day-to-day administration, a common complaint on the local reserves.

On the other hand, one Alberta band wanted any information collected by Frontier Centre to become sole property of the band and not shared with anyone. The Blood Tribe received specific mention because its band meetings appear to be closed to the public (though its efforts in agricultural development were given the nod). In other offices, the Centre noted members of band council always seemed to be off-reserve at meetings or administrative staff didn’t know how to reach them.

None of this is news to frustrated residents of these reserves.

What is new is this governance survey offering best practices and a path to improvement.