How to Improve First Nation Economies: Manitoba bands lack essentials

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

Manitoba’s First Nations are behind the ball when it comes to measures that can advance indigenous economies.

Recent data from the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board’s new National Aboriginal Benchmarking Report confirms higher performing First Nation communities tend to share some things in common and Manitoba bands tend to not have those things. The data was released at the Aboriginal Entrepreneurs Conference and Tradeshow in Ottawa.

Lack of access

Aboriginal entrepreneurship is growing. However, not surprisingly, lack of access to capital is still a major problem for aboriginal entrepreneurs.

Looking at the Community Well-Being Index — a measure of educational attainment, income, housing conditions and labour force activity from the census of Canada — the data found First Nations that tax tend to have higher scores than those that do not.

Section 83 of the Indian Act enables First Nations to create bylaws for real property taxation on reserves (usually on leases) and to derive revenue from the collection of these taxes. The First Nations Fiscal and Statistical Management Act (FNFSMA) is an effort to improve the ability of First Nations to tax on reserves.

In addition, First Nations that have been taxing longer, or at least since before the enactment of FNFSMA, perform slightly better in their overall index scores than those that only recently introduced a regulatory framework for taxation, suggesting taxation is connected to higher well-being.

The problem is Manitoba only has two First Nations with taxing authority. These are Opaskwayak First Nation and Pinaymootang First Nation. This compares to eight First Nations in Saskatchewan or 14 in Ontario.

The other area is in land management. First Nations are able to opt into the First Nation Land Management Act (FNLMA), a legislative framework that allows bands to opt out of the land and resource management provisions of the Indian Act.

On this, the data from the benchmarking report indicated a clear connection between being in the FNLMA and community well-being. Communities participating at various stages of the process tend to have higher index scores and average incomes.

Here again, Manitoba’s participation is lower, with only three bands participating in FNLMA at various stages. The bands are Opaskwayak, Chemawawin, and Swan Lake.

The caveat is correlation does not necessarily mean causation. More detailed analyses of these numbers need to be made and to determine if other factors are at play. However, the strong correlations should not be ignored.

Deal inked

The good news is the federal government recently inked a deal whereby more funding would be injected into the program allowing more bands to participate. The FNLMA regime was closed recently due to lack of funding. Manitoba bands should jump at this opportunity to enter the FNLMA regime. The Frontier Centre for Public Policy releases an annual Aboriginal Governance Index that looks at band performance across the Prairies and declining Manitoba numbers have been noticed.

Perhaps this benchmarking report can provide clues.