Federal policy regarding Aboriginal peoples in Canada has amounted to a hundred years of sometimes well-intentioned but often misguided initiatives, usually with miserable outcomes. The consequences of moving children to residential schools, changes in what constituted status, Chretien’s 1969 “White Paper”, tinkering with the Indian Act – are all well-known, especially to the Aboriginal community. These disastrous initiatives have also triggered renewed fears of assimilation and have awakened calls for self-government among Aboriginal people. The Liberal agenda is now shaped by its reaction to the movement it created.
In the last three decades, the number of status Indians has tripled. However, in the same time period, government spending targeted at Aboriginal Canadians has increased by 25 times. In spite of the disproportionate increase in spending, Aboriginal Canadians are not correspondingly better off. Clearly, new approaches are required. We would like to believe that this time, the government’s good intentions will have positive outcomes but what follow are three reasons why this is not likely to happen.
First, the Liberal bill (the “First Nations Governance Act”) proposes to modify the Indian Act and devolve powers to the chiefs and councils of over 600 bands. Most issues such as taxation powers, property management, legal codes, enforcement officers, and grievance officers would be dealt with by chief and council. This empowerment may sound reasonable but living on a reserve is not like living in Markham or Moose Jaw. Aboriginal people living on reserves do not own their own homes, and many receive social assistance. Under the FNGA, chiefs and council will control these fundamental matters and without proper checks and balances, granting this kind of power is an invitation for abuse. The FNGA provides for the appointment of a band ombudsman to resolve grievances but the potential objectivity and independence of this individual can be compared to the Prime Minister’s ethics councillor.
Second, enormous growth in the Indian Affairs bureaucracy has done little to improve the lives of the vast majority of Aboriginal Canadians. Eighty percent of reserves have fewer than 2000 residents. Each reserve is top-heavy with administrative positions resulting in an income disparity among Aboriginal Canadians that is far greater than among the Canadian population in general. The Liberal changes would give rise to separate election codes, property management codes, enforcement officers, ombudsmen, quasi-judicial dispute resolution institutions, and more. This would merely add to the administrative burden and duplication.
The Liberal’s proposed “First Nations Fiscal and Statistical Management Act” is another example of bureaucratic waste. Under the act, a new separate First Nations Finance Authority will be created. This agency will encourage bands to issue bonds and incur debt to pay for the infrastructure projects the federal government has perpetually postponed. The proposed, separate First Nations Statistical Institution, for a mere $6 million a year will duplicate work done by $60-million-a-year Statistics Canada. By their nature, each bureaucracy will fight for its perpetual existence, or expansion. It is tremendously difficult to reduce wasteful spending at the federal level. Once the Liberals devolve these powers to 600 different bureaucracies finding such economies will be all but impossible and very politically incorrect.
Third, better governance is seldom imposed from above. The Canadian Alliance shares with ordinary Canadians the goal of enhanced accountability. But accountability requires strong checks and balances emanating from the governed themselves. In small communities where people depend on the local government for their jobs, their income, their social services, and even their housing there is little likelihood of such accountability. This is the case on most reserves.
Individuals cannot afford to make financial contributions to the services they require and the source of the funds to pay for these services is external to them. In that environment there is little likelihood of calls for more rational spending practices. New election codes and annual financial statements won’t achieve accountability because they don’t change one of the fundamental problems facing on-reserve aboriginal Canadians which is - no jobs.
Aboriginal leaders and grassroots citizens have a message for the Liberal government: “It’s about the economy. If I’m working, I’m stronger. If I’m paying, I’m smarter.” Better governance is the result of empowering of the governed, not the cause. Like most federal Indian policy throughout Canadian history, the Liberal’s package of Indian reforms may be well-intentioned. But by solidifying ineffective and unaccountable governance structures, by entrenching more than 600 wasteful parallel bureaucracies, and by failing to initiate meaningful changes to strengthen economic opportunities for individual Aboriginals and their families, it is a virtual certainty that these changes to Indian policy will have the same perverse outcomes as those of our tragic past.
A significant change in direction is in order. The Liberal approach is not it.
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