Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/3/2009 (4482 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Indian Affairs documents lay out a reasoned approach to reform governance on reserves, recognizing that Ottawa has to substantially increase its financial support to improve accountability for band spending. The paper notes federal programs that sought to improve administration were designed as far back as the 1970s, and funding levels are almost as old. Bands are now overburdened by modern accounting expectations but are incapable of financing the work that is required.
Exacerbating the problem is that the way reserves govern themselves is even more antiquated. The Indian Act's rules for elections have not been updated since the 1950s -- Ottawa has too much control over chiefs and councils, who in turn have extraordinary power over reserve residents. Some bands have updated their governance rules, but it remains a fact that native people have limited rights to accountability, with no ability to demand budgets, audits or spending documents. Some bands, following traditional customs, hold elections without secret ballots.
Weak election rules and insufficient funding combine to undermine good leadership, financial management and accountability on reserves, the department's documents point out. The department, in its background document to cabinet, advises that the Harper government can improve both by using Ottawa's funding power and by writing new rules for elections and financial accountability into agreements with band governments for the provision of administrative, health and education services.
The proposal, in effect, is a short cut to governance reform through government policy rather than by contentious amendments to the Indian Act. The Globe and Mail, having obtained the cabinet memo and minister Chuck Strahl's own briefing notes, reported that the reforms go beyond what Mr. Strahl has so far let on to Canada's native leadership.
Predictably, native leaders across Canada smell a hidden agenda, recalling the 2001 First Nations Governance Act unveiled by then Liberal minister Bob Nault. Indeed, the principles underpinning the two reform movements are fundamentally the same. Mr. Nault's draft bill aimed to change the relationship band governments have with Ottawa, and to strengthen the rights of First Nations people through new rules for elections and financial accountability. The chiefs rejected it, demanding that changes to the Indian Act turn Ottawa's power over to band governments, which they said are best positioned to lead electoral and accountability reforms.
Mr. Strahl's briefing notes acknowledge that, for all the reforms some First Nations governments have made, the lives of too many of Canada's native people have changed very little. And the broader impact of weak government is that it thwarts economic development that is so badly needed in some of Canada's most impoverished communities -- bands cannot attract investment or gain access to capital because, absent good financial controls, investors refuse to risk their money.
The lack of accountability also undermines good controls over federal cash transfers to bands. Central to this problem is the fact that bands have been badly underfunded by Ottawa. Bands simply cannot afford to hire or develop the necessary expertise to comply with their increasing obligations for auditing and reporting -- the reams of complicated paperwork the auditor general has said is breaking the back of many band administrations. "Without the policy and program conditions in place to support governance, strong First Nation governments will only emerge in spite of INAC's help, not because of it," warns the department's memo to cabinet.
The classified documents comprise an honest distillation of problems that plague governance on Canada's 600-plus reserves. The papers are posted on the Globe's website so First Nations people can weigh the tone of the department's brief against the warnings of a hidden agenda.
The proposal acknowledges that past attempts to push reform through legislative amendments were a delicate political manoeuvre that Ottawa seems incapable of mastering. Mr. Strahl's proposal sets aside the problem the Indian Act presents. It is an insult to the idea of responsible government and the capacity of First Nations people to govern themselves.
The history of Ottawa's relationship with native people is replete with examples of paternalistic judgment, bad planning and mismanaged attempts at reform. First Nations leaders understandably are wary of ministers who insist they are here to help. The Indian Act will have to be scrapped and replaced, but that adventure cannot be launched until First Nations people feel confident in their own power.
Mr. Strahl's plan doesn't tackle the big job. It can get at some of the problems long overdue for attention. "Even without legislation, we can significantly improve our support to First Nations governance. The first step is to discuss with First Nations how this can be done," the department advises. Native people should take the opportunity to use robust funding agreements to drive useful change now.