Think Tank Conducts Ground-Breaking Study of Nisga’a Treaty Experiment: Results highlight improvements and deteriorations

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

It’s good form not to embark on major policy experiments without thinking through the implications, as well as testing out ideas first.

If there is one policy area where a prudent attitude should be adopted it is Aboriginal policy. In both Canada and the United States, the policy history has been a seesaw approach of supporting Native autonomy and then adopting an assimilationist approach, and back again.

No group is more micromanaged than on-reserve First Nations. The theory goes that removing federal interference from Indian affairs would allow First Nations to succeed. Like decolonized developing countries, removing the ‘external colonizer’ is one part of the equation.  Creating the right governing institutions is the larger job. 

Aboriginal self-government is an area where prudent observation is necessary. One major experiment was the Nisga’a Final Agreement, signed between British Columbia, the federal government, and the Nisga’a Tribal Council.

In May 2000, B.C.’s first modern land claims agreement with the Nisga’a came into effect.

The treaty transferred nearly 2,000 square kilometers of Crown land to the Nisga’a, created a provincial park, and transferred control over resources to the Nisga’a Nation.

Controversially, the treaty granted significant law making powers to the Nisga’a government, especially in areas integral to preserving Nisga’a cultural identity. It bothered many, especially in B.C., that in many legislative areas Nisga’a laws prevail over provincial and even federal law. Many believed the Nisga’a Treaty created an ‘unconstitutional third order of government.’

Although Canada signed self-government agreements with other First Nation communities, the Nisga’a were set apart by the jurisdiction granted.

Beyond that controversy, there is a crucial debate about whether self-government can deliver a better way for First Nations as both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Scholars, and activists contend self-government will improve First Nation communities.

This is critical as First Nation communities may view the Nisga’a agreement as a model of self-government.  In 2009, B.C. policy expert Gordon Gibson, in his work on Aboriginal policy A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy: Respect the Collective—Promote the Individual, recognized this gap in research. Despite scholarly work promoting ideas of Aboriginal self-government, no one studied systematically a functioning First Nation government with substantial freedom from the Indian Act.

Gordon wrote: “The Nisga’a treaty is held out as an example of the right way to settle Indian claims and yet we simply do not know how it is working after seven years and cannot trust any of the three governments involved to tell us of problems.”

In 2010, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy embarked on the first comprehensive look at how the Nisga’a Treaty is working on the ground. The independent think tank commissioned COMPAS, a professional polling firm, to conduct computer-assisted surveys of Nisga’a people about how governance and services have been affected by the Treaty. For comparative purposes, the Frontier Centre interviewed a sample of respondents from nearby Tsimshian First Nations, as the Tsimshian are similar culturally, linguistically, and economically. The main difference is that the Tsimshian still live under the Indian Act.

In questioning a representative survey sample of Nisga’a residents from all four Nisga’a villages, as well as Tsimshian from two communities, the Frontier Centre gained insights. Frontier Centre researchers visited Tsimshian and Nisga’a communities and interviewed 30 Nisga’a and Tsimshian ‘key informants.’ These are knowledgeable community people who provided a more qualitative, nuanced view of governance, distinct from the main survey sample.

Frontier Centre researchers found self-government makes a difference. Nisga’a respondents trust their government more than others and think it is more honest in spending and hiring. They also think education and health services have improved. On the other hand, Nisga’a think their government consults less often with the people and believe their financial situation has actually worsened.

Survey results were confirmed by the informants, although these individuals identified many challenges, including a belief that family-style voting, mismanaged economic development, and politicized service delivery still exist. They also thought that dependency created by the Indian Act is alive and attitudes need to change.

The study confirmed self-government has not ‘hurt’ the Nisga’a, but neither is it a panacea. Creating effective institutions, wise leadership, and changed attitudes, is a long-term task.

First Nations need to be prepared for the consequences when they clamour for an end to the Indian Act.

That is one test in policy experimentation where the consequences of failure could harm individuals and communities.