In 2006, the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy unveiled its Aboriginal Governance Index in Manitoba.
The first Index involved only Manitoba bands. Six years later, Manitoba First Nations are posting impressive results. The index is the only independent barometer of grassroots First Nations opinions on quality of governance and services. After our research assistants are welcomed onto a First Nation by leadership, the survey involves random sampling of adult band members from as many backgrounds as possible.
This year, we surveyed more than 3,000 First Nation respondents in 32 communities across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Three traditionally top performing Manitoba communities made the top 10 list. They are Fisher River First Nation (sixth place), Long Plain First Nation (seventh), and Norway House Cree Nation (10th).
All deserve praise for their high standings. This means these bands have memberships that perceive their governance and services to be characterized by higher transparency and accountability than other First Nations.
The survey is a positive tool allowing First Nations to learn from the high-performing bands and share best practices. Within Manitoba, the hope is the higher ranking communities are approached by the lower performing ones to emulate their successful strategies.
One thing learned from the surveys over the last five rounds is that lower performing communities do improve over time. There is always hope. One example is Yellow Quill First Nation. A small Saulteaux First Nation located in northern Saskatchewan, the community was devastated in 2008 when two young girls froze to death during their father’s drunken midnight stupor. The tragedy made national headlines.
Around that devastating time, the community ranked low on our survey, showing a community in distress. Over the years, however, the community has climbed higher and higher in the estimation of its residents. As of December 2011, the community was still listed as being co-managed, but there appears to be hope for continued improvements.
During the recent Crown-First Nations Gathering in Ottawa, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo compared the Indian Act to a boulder standing in the way of indigenous progress. That is certainly true.
The Frontier Centre has made its fair share of criticisms of the Indian Act and the governance system it imposed, not to mention the economic shackles it places on bands.
However, First Nations cannot use the Indian Act as an excuse to not improve things here and now. The surveys show indigenous communities are advancing despite the Indian Act. Higher performing bands — including those in Manitoba — do not need a massive Indian Act overhaul to open their books to their members, post their salaries and benefits publicly, ensure band meetings are held on reserve and accountable, or seek out business opportunities.
First Nations residents from Fisher River and Long Plain are noticing the effects of transformational leadership in their communities.
It takes leaders with a strategic vision who are willing to establish the right rules of the game. Hats off to the Manitoba bands that are doing just that.