Prairie Think Tank Identifies Best Governed First Nations: Governance survey leads to on-reserve improvements

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

Helping to generate better governance in First Nation communities was the Frontier Center for Public Policy’s goal four years ago when a team of researchers embarked on a challenging initiative called the Aboriginal Governance Index (AGI).

One of the goals was to move the discussion about First Nations away from the all too frequent situation where media reports paint Native reserves in a bad light. First, we had to understand where First Nations stood with their band governance. Thus, we started the AGI, which is based primarily on a survey that is designed to ask people on reserves how their governance structures are doing and how they could be improved.

In the first year, we started with Manitoba First Nation communities. It was no easy task getting the necessary co-operation from the leaders. Our first obstacle was dealing with the mistrust felt about any non-Aboriginal organization coming in. Many did not want the outside world to inquire whether they were doing a good job. Some were quite content to collect their salaries, per diems and other perks while occasionally managing their own people’s poverty.
For many band councils travelling appeared to be the best perk, which unfortunately meant they were spending too much time away from their communities. Consequently, it was a challenge to find anyone in authority when visiting these communities. The people often jokingly call these leaders ‘Sasquatch’ because “you often hear about them but rarely see them.”  This is definitely an area that needs improvement.

First Nations on the east side of Lake Winnipeg were the most difficult to deal with as they seemed to lack transparency. Red flags immediately went up, and before you could speak to the people, the chiefs ushered you off the reserve. Did the people even know their chance to voice their opinions was stymied by their own elected leaders?
Most other Manitoba First Nations, including Shamattawa, War Lake, Brochet, Lac Brochet, Tadoule Lake, Fox Lake and Split Lake, were open and accommodating. The AGI creates employment for Aboriginal surveyors and wherever we travelled many Native people wanted to join our team. Those working on the AGI have had the opportunity to view and experience other Native bands and their distinct cultures, not to mention forging many new friendships along the way.

Many AGI survey team members have said they had no idea how many communities differed. At the same time, they said, the politics appeared to resemble their home reserves in many ways. What was not surprising was that band members of many reserves have been extremely thankful for the AGI survey. They are grateful that someone from outside the reserve cared enough to ask them directly how they might improve their standard of living through reforms to health, education, and employment programs, electoral reforms and economic development opportunities. The hospitality on these reserves was exceptional and left our AGI team members wanting to return.
The most positive result was that most Native band councils are now aware the AGI is a regular project and consequently, they are working to improve transparency, accountability and all around governance. This was borne out by yearly visits to the same reserves during which AGI staff witnessed positive changes.

 There is still some resistance to openness and change, but the majority of First Nations leaders openly welcome the survey as the way to achieve overall improvement.

 For the past three years the AGI has included Saskatchewan and Alberta and we are hoping to expand it
to include other provinces. We are often asked to come into Ontario and British Columbia.

We have been very successful in overcoming the old boys club and the Indian Industry, both of which want First Nations’ hands off their lucrative federal transfer payments. First Nations people are very aware of these people and the leaders who support them, but fixing this problem is no easy task. Money can still buy a lot of votes on some these reserves. That is an ongoing issue that needs addressing.