Discourse surrounding First Nations issues is deteriorating when we resort to screaming rather than discussing.
Recently in Winnipeg, a press conference organized to announce Ottawa’s new First Nations Financial Transparency Act, was disrupted and shortened due to loud protests.
Bernard Valcourt, the newly minted minister of Aboriginal affairs, announced that the new act requiring financial transparency had received royal assent and was now in effect. The Act requires bands to post all relevant financial information on websites or face penalties.
However, Phyllis Sutherland, the leader of one grassroots First Nations accountability group from Peguis First Nation, was drowned out by drumming when she was called to speak at the podium.
There is room in our public culture for carefully-conceived and disciplined civil disobedience, but drowning out someone for expressing their thoughts is the intellectual equivalent of putting your hand over your ears in a temper tantrum-like fashion.
It is sad that it was one First Nation drowning out another.
Is this the level of discourse we can expect from Idle No More protesters?
John Kim Bell, the Mohawk founder of the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, got into hot water recently for suggesting Idle No More had died out because it lacked focus and answers.
Bell was right, however, because what started as positive attention on First Nations issues, quickly degenerated into sporadic rallies, blockades, and no clear direction.
After the ill-fated Winnipeg press conference, Pam Palmater, Idle No More spokesperson, was only able to offer deflection onto the federal government when Colin, Craig, the prairie director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, challenged her to stand with grassroots First Nations citizen who are sick and tired of exorbitant salaries amidst so much poverty.
Unlike Sutherland, Palmater was able to get plenty of media airtime.
The people on reserves we speak to are concerned about transparency. In our fifth annual Aboriginal Governance Index, we spoke to over 3,000 First Nations members in 32 communities across the Prairies. Over 80 per cent said they believed everyone should know how much chief and council make, yet 25 per cent said this information is “definitely not” available to everyone.
That is a troubling minority of community members.
In her arguments at the press conference, Palmater ignored the complaints of band members saying they were not proven. However, she misses the point that on too many reserves band members must resort to stealing financial information or spilling the beans to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to get information out.
If administration in a First Nation is not carefully separated from elected politics, chief and council can make someone’s life a living hell if they fall outside their favour.
We hear these stories in our travels.
Members are becoming increasingly impatient with chief and council administrations that are not transparent, that deny them their basic rights, or mistreat them. The First Nations Financial Transparency Act is necessary because too many governments are not transparent. And, as the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.
While Idle No More focused on important problems, it ignored internal problems on reserves, such as bad governance.
Let’s hope that these issues are aired as well. Of course, this requires calm discourse and less screaming.