The crucial question looming over tomorrow’s Assembly of First Nations meeting is not who will be the next national chief but whether native lives will be substantially better in a decade.
A heap of money is being spent on the Calgary gathering.
Meanwhile, grassroots reserve natives, who don’t even get to vote for their national chief, remain largely impoverished.
First the good news. There are plenty of well run reserves and band councils truly committed to integrity and openness.
Take Alberta’s O’Chiese First Nation, which recently won an award from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy for being the best-run band of 98 Prairie reserves.
Many bands go out of their way to prevent residents from getting a peak at council finances, but the O’Chiese band has posted its 2007-08 financial audit on its website.
Compare that refreshing openness with the chilly reception analysts from the Winnipeg think-tank got when they tried to poll the residents of some other reserves.
Of the 44 Alberta reserves, only 16 agreed to participate in the survey on good governance. What do the other 28 have to hide?
The think-tank simply wanted to hear the opinions of ordinary natives on issues such as the fairness of elections, human rights, transparency and how well the community promotes economic development.
"Trying to find many of these leaders was an ongoing and daunting task," the Frontier Centre noted in its recently released report on aboriginal governance.
Alberta reserves were the most stubborn the think-tank has ever dealt with, the study added.
(This is the third annual survey but the first time Alberta reserves were invited to participate).
The researchers often got the runaround from band officials.
"Others stated that they did not like our questions on elections," says the study. "We could have asked ‘nicer’ questions but our view is that in the area of human rights, election fraud, nepotism and accountability, problems do exist and must be remedied."
Alberta’s Louis Bull band hated the idea that the information would be — gasp — made public.
It wanted the Frontier Centre to agree that the survey results would be the sole property of the band. That abruptly ended plans to gather grassroots opinion on that reserve.
"Much has to change on many Alberta reserves so that their people have a voice rather than being subject to a quasi-dictatorship," the Frontier Centre concluded.
Curiously, one of the Manitoba reserves that refused to participate in the survey was the Roseau River First Nation. And the chief is Terry Nelson, who is vying for the position of grand chief of the AFN.
"The attitude they had at that time was ‘we don’t need any help from anybody,’ " recalls Frontier Centre policy analyst Don Sandberg.
Nelson wasn’t there at the time but the band councillors wanted nothing to do with a grassroots survey, he says. "We were followed by somebody in a car on a cellphone until we left the reserve. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience."
For average reserve natives, the goings-on at the AFN are meaningless because ordinary aboriginals have no power and no way to ensure accountability.
Last year, 27% of First Nations reserves — 168 bands –were under some kind of government intervention to protect the delivery of essential services.
If there is any hope of saving reserves, it must start with good governance. And that means accountability.
AFN, heal thyself.
(Also published in: Edmonton Sun, Barrie Examiner, Belleville Intelligencer, Brantford Expositor, Brockville Recorder and Times, Chatham Daily News, Cornwall Standard-Freeholder, Grande Prairie Daily Herald-Tribune, Kenora Daily Miner and News , Kingston Whig-Standard, Niagara Falls Review, North Bay Nugget, NorthumberlandToday.com, Owen Sound Sun Times, Pembroke Daily Observer, Peterborough Examiner, Portage La Prairie Daily Graphic, Sarnia Observer, Sault Star, St. Catharines Standard, Stratford Beacon-Herald, Sudbury Star, Timmins Daily Press, Welland Tribune, London Free Press, Winnipeg Sun, Woodstock Sentinel Review, Ottawa Sun, Toronto Sun, Calgary Sun)