Figures on aboriginal population from the 2011 census are not yet available, but the 2006 census showed nearly 1.2 million Canadians — about 4 per cent of the population — claim to be aboriginal. Of these, fewer than a quarter (under 400,000) live on reserves.
While some of the central Canadian reserves likely have the biggest populations (Ontario's Six Nations may have as many as 20,000), residents seldom respond to requests from census-takers. Among reserves on which a reliable census has been completed, the largest is the Blood reserve near Fort Macleod, with under 5,000 members. Just over 200 reserves have as many as 500 residents. Nearly two-thirds of our 617 reserves have far fewer than 500 inhabitants.
It would be easy to give up on First Nations and declare their problems unsolvable — too much corruption, incompetent leadership and nepotism, too many residents permanently scarred by addictions, fetal alcohol syndrome, dependence on government, under-education and unemployment.
The damage done by these pathologies is compounded by the fact that much of what is believed by the Idle No More movement and other adherents to the cult of aboriginal victimhood about treaty rights and neglect by Ottawa is rubbish. Too many aboriginal leaders nurse so many unrealistic demands that they could never be satisfied.
But there is good news. There are bands scattered across the country that have begun to pull themselves and their members out of the mire. And the really good news is that there are more and more such bands every year.
Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos band in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley has worked hard for more than a quarter century to gain permission from Ottawa to lease reserve land for shopping centres, golf courses and other outside businesses. He and his members even opened the first aboriginal winery in North America. Employment on the reserve is up, suicide and social problems are down. And the chief recommends that other reserves eager to lift themselves out of destitution "go into business."
Former Kamloops band chief Manny Jules, who is now head of the First Nations Tax Commission, spends most of his time trying to convince other First Nations to trigger provisions in federal law that permit bands to set up property tax regimes on their reserves to get away from dependence on federal government handouts. Jules believes charging band members taxes also leads to local leaders being accountable to their residents, rather than the other way around.
Annually for the last five years, Winnipeg's Frontier Centre for Public Policy has produced an Aboriginal Governance Index (AGI) to evaluate the honesty and openness of on-reserve administration and to rate the efficiency of on-reserve services. Although confined largely to Prairie bands, the exercise has shown progress each time towards fairer elections and more transparent aboriginal government.
The 2012 AGI, for instance, found 54 per cent of more than 3,000 respondents felt the elections on their reserves were "definitely fair." Although slightly lower than the confidence off-reserve voters have in their local elections, the gap is closing.
By and large, the leaders and members of these good-news bands have one trait in common: they have given up the blame game and have taken ownership of their own problems. Rather than pointing fingers at anyone and everyone else as the source of their woes — and waiting for someone else to provide solutions (and cash) — they have done honest assessments of the resources they have at hand and crafted realistic plans to create economic development and employment for their members.