The focus of indigenous activists and scholars tends to be exclusively on Aboriginals achieving self-government.
While regaining jurisdiction over critical areas of governance is very important, the focus should be on achieving good governance. After all, the point ought to be the advancement of First Nations communities at the individual and group level.
The connection between good governance and improved socio-economic indicators is well established. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has highlighted this connection to developing countries that seek to improve their quality of life. Corruption is the enemy of good governance and robs countries of much-needed investment.
First Nations leadership and Canada’s federal government agree that a major outcome of the recent landmark Crown-First Nations Gathering was a commitment to remove barriers to good governance in First Nations. The emphasis of the statement was on “high performing governance systems,” not just self- governance.
The Frontier Centre for Public Policy aims to highlight the benefits of such understanding to First Nations communities across the Prairie provinces through its annual Aboriginal Governance Index (AGI). Frontier recently released the fifth AGI, and the results show that some of the most transparent and accountable bands on the Prairies continue to dominate our rankings.
This year, we have results from 32 Prairie First Nations. In total, there were 3,084 surveys, 2,662 in person and 422 by telephone. For the first time, we surveyed respondents in select communities by telephone. The public opinion firm COMPAS was responsible for the calling and collected results.
The top ranked band overall is Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, a band located northwest of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Next in line is Onion Lake Cree Nation, a community further north in Saskatchewan. Top ranked communities in Manitoba are Fisher River Cree Nation and Long Plain First Nation. For Alberta, the Siksika Nation and Little Red River Cree Nation are the top communities.
Some quick words on our methodology are in order. We directly approach Aboriginal communities to obtain explicit consent from their leadership to conduct our surveys. Our surveys are conducted randomly and we approach adult residents of various backgrounds. Respondents are assured anonymity and we operate on the principle of informed consent.
In 2006, the Frontier Centre released the pioneering First Aboriginal Governance Index. It involved only Manitoba. In 2007 we added Saskatchewan, and Alberta the following year.
We have learned over the years that First Nations residents expect good governance now. While it is almost universally acknowledged that the Indian Act is an obstacle to indigenous advancement and essential change, there is no excuse for band government inaction on improving conditions now.
Reform may come to the Indian Act eventually, but band leadership can act in spite of it.
Our annual survey demonstrates that there are progressive-minded communities doing good work, but our respondents also believe much work needs to be done.
Our respondents this year do not believe that band councils, like the federal government, are keeping their promises. Our respondents believe in total transparency in governance, but sadly believe band councils are actually becoming less transparent and are making it difficult for ordinary band residents to know what chiefs and councilors earn. Our respondents oppose nepotism and believe that band councils are practicing it.
It is good news in Prairie Indian country that an increasing number of respondents trust the band election process. Just under half believe with certainty that ballots are counted fairly. In our survey, it has not always been the case. However, three-quarters are concerned that voters were either paid for votes or offered future favours.
First Nations respondents in our survey fear arbitrary power by their own governments. More than half are concerned about the consequences of the chief and council disliking them.
It should be stressed that these are opinions and perceptions of residents. However, First Nations governments need to acknowledge and deal with these perceptions.
While all indigenous communities on the Prairies have their own traditions and institutions, it is clear that they desire universal values such as good, clean, transparent, accountable governance that treats residents equally.
The emphasis on “culturally-appropriate” governance has distracted from the universal in our desperate search to affirm the particular.
Despite assertions from First Nations leaders that a recent campaign to expose exorbitant chief salaries was an “attack” on them, our survey suggests that 77 per cent of respondents felt that they should have access to chief and councilor salaries.
First Nations themselves are expressing a desire for good governance. In so doing, what they are attacking is deficient governance.