As far as the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and many other Aboriginal organizations are concerned, there will never likely be a bill that adequately consults enough with First Nations, includes enough funding, or respects First Nations constitutional rights enough. Ever.
This should upset average First Nations who have to deal with enough in their daily lives to know legislation is required to address pressing problems on First Nation communities.
This is why it may be time to go directly to the people to gauge their views.
A good example is Bill S-11, Safe Drinking Water Act for First Nations, a current piece of legislation creating standards for water quality on First Nations across Canada.
Many readers of this column are familiar with the numerous water advisories on their reserve. Water quality is a serious issue for many bands and needs immediate addressing.
The federal government has been moving over the past several years to address the critical issue of water quality on reserves. This is not partisan. It is fact. How do I know? Well, I covered all of the federal initiatives being adopted when I was still a reporter with the Drum/First Perspective, an Aboriginal newspaper. Ottawa compiled a list of the First Nations in need of water quality improvements and ranked them according to which communities needed immediate action.
Of course, the AFN and others don’t go out of their way to mention that to First Nations.
The latest opponent of the bill is the Chiefs of Ontario. Regional Chief Toulouse said: “Our opposition to this Bill is a clear indication that we will not accept legislation that disrespects our constitutional and treaty rights and is unilaterally imposed on us.”
Toulouse later switches strategy and attacks the bill because it lacks adequate support for capacity and infrastructure. These are all valid concerns, but these supposed shortcomings should not be used to stonewall and adopt a rejectionist attitude.
One could almost cut and paste the reasons for rejecting a government bill, particularly a Conservative bill, and insert it into any bill affecting First Nations.
This should mean communications officers and directors for the mainline Aboriginal groups wouldn’t have much work to do.
This is not to say that jurisdiction is never a legitimate issue. It often is. But, this alone should not kill every bill that aims to do good for many First Nation communities.
Federal legislation to fill the matrimonial property gap on many reserves, for example, is still not welcomed by many Aboriginal organizations, including some women’s groups that called attention to the matter for decades.
I always wonder how average band members would respond to certain legislation if given all the facts and realities on the ground.
When the First Nations Governance Act was being debated during the Liberal administration of Jean Chretien, independent polling found that most First Nation respondents supported the bill. It was the lobby groups and chiefs that opposed it.
At our organization, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, we recently released polling data we conduced during our fourth annual Aboriginal Governance Index (AGI), which found that First Nations supported matrimonial property legislation on reserves and were also concerned about the state of First Nation women. Many believed there band governments were not doing enough to combat violence against women or consult with women when making important decisions affecting the community.
Now, no government should necessarily rule by polls. That is unmanageable and flies in the face of the reality that the people are wrong sometimes.
However, it is evident the government needs to seek more direction on key First Nation legislation from the people most affected. If properly educated in a objective way about the issues, there is no reason governments cannot appeal to polling data or conduct their own.
This may take a lot of effort, time and money, as First Nation communities are difficult to poll. Population numbers often conflict and many are not interested in participating in surveys, but it would be worth it.
Despite their claims they represent all First Nations, some Aboriginal organizations can be quite patronizing about their own people. When we release our AGI results, our data is sometimes ignored because they do not trust their own people’s perceptions. It’s sad to hear how quickly Aboriginal spokespeople dismiss their own people’s opinion about governance and services.
No one is saying ignore the chiefs or Aboriginal organizations. They have their place. But, it is not appropriate to have them speaking on behalf of everybody in their communities.
It’s time to realize there is more to Indian Country than just the AFN or other Aboriginal organizations.