Democracy on Reserve

by Morgan O’Neal

One look at the Community Well-Being Index compiled for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (if we can plug our noses and hold our breath long enough to believe what we see) shows that it is precisely those First Nations communities recognized as having implemented more progressive standards of governance are almost always the highest ranking reserves on the index. Members of First Nations regularly complain of not being able to vote in band elections when they live off reserve: this, in violation of a Supreme Court ruling protecting their franchise. For example, in 2000, the Mohawk band council of Kahnewake in Quebec evicted and revoked the voting rights of any members who were not able to verify they had the minimum amount of Indian “blood quantum” — uncontaminated by racial mixing. In another instance, according to Don Sandberg, a member of Manitoba’s Norway House First Nation, “In advance of one Norway House election, . . . 392 voters were struck from the rolls, while the chief crammed a warehouse with refrigerators, stoves and other basic appliances, to hand out to those who would back him. Once such a chief is in power, “they have total control of funding and when anyone runs against them they’re running against millions of dollars,” says Rod Sutherland, a former councilman from Peguis First Nation, in Manitoba, where long-time chief Louis Stevenson was recently accused of stacking the public service and boards with cronies, and entering into secret deals with lenders, without band approval (these allegations have not been proven in court).

Electoral officers, who are supposed to be in charge of preserving the integrity of the voting process, are not of much use: “They are appointed directly by the chief, leaving open the possibility of backroom deals” (On Peguis, Mr. Sutherland says, the chief and his longtime electoral officer were, at one point, in business together). When reports surfaced in 2005 that members of Saskatchewan’s Red Pheasant First Nation had allegedly sold their mail-in ballots to a candidate for chief — one member claimed to have received a three-bedroom trailer — the chief electoral officer, who admitted she took unsealed ballot boxes home with her, refused to intervene, insisting it wasn’t her job to monitor vote buying. The same officer was in charge of an election on the nearby Mosquito First Nation where “Individuals provided money to electors in exchange for votes and mail-in ballots, forged voter declaration forms and mail-in ballots, and intercepted and destroyed valid mail-in ballots,” according to a federal investigation that same year.

On other reserves, members suspected of supporting opposition candidates have been threatened with losing assistance cheques, single mothers with having their kids taken away by social workers. Unscrupulous band governments will not only close meetings to the public, but will hold them off reserve entirely. Away from their members’ eyes, they are free to manipulate finances for their own gain. In Saskatchewan, the council of one Saulteaux band, comprised of just 800 members, was recently found to have spent more on travel expenses in a single year than the entire cabinet of the province — with the chief alone spending more than $175,000. Sorry, Whitey, it sounds like some reserves just operate exactly the same way as democracy in North America in general. Both American and Canadian manners of governance offer unlimited ways to commit fraud on behalf of one candidate or another, one party or another, once the power cliques are established either by family ties or business interests the dynastic disaster of anti-democracy may stay in place for generations. When is the last time we saw any real change in the way power is transferred at the center of the country; whether the conservatives or the liberals are the ruling party we all know in our propagandized minds that the real moving and shaking, the real control is in the hands of a very few very rich individuals on the boards of the most important corporations in the country. An electronic calculator would fizzle into a blob of black plastic if it had to add up all the money that changes hands from the hundreds ogf other Hans Schriebers to the hundreds of ex-prime ministers like Brian Multroney and all the lesser cronies that have to get their little bit for riding shotgun on the Gravy Train.

Problems (and they are very real and serious) with the governance on reserves in Canada will only continue to fester until the entire system is rotten. Only true political & financial accountability can rescue the struggling cultures of Aboriginals in this country. Some say the missing mechanism is that which off-reserve inspires citizens to hold their leaders to task, namely, the exercise of paying tax and demanding this revenue be used responsibly. “Taxation is one of the most fundamental things” for proper governance, says Tom Flanagan, a right wing political science professor at the University of Calgary who has written several books on, aboriginal policy. He argues that if Ottawa were to begin sending financial support directly to individual reserve residents, requiring band councils to tax it back for public expenditures, First Nations members, like most Canadians, would naturally take a much deeper interest in ensuring that government revenues are being used properly and with efficiency, and have the power to do something if it weren’t.

Studies by Robert Bish, former co-director of the University of Victoria’s Local Government Institute, found that in every country where a government has derived the majority of its funds from something other than taxes, government services have deteriorated, with Norway and its oil revenues standing as the sole exception. Taxes would not end scandalous governance on reserves completely, just as taxpayers off reserves were not spared the Liberal sponsorship scandal or the MFP computer leasing fiasco in Toronto. But it is an important start to ending much of it. “The need to tax does not guarantee good government, but the absence of the need to tax usually guarantees bad government,” writes John Richards, the former Saskatchewan MLA and Simon Fraser University public policy professor, in his 2006 book Creating Choices: Rethinking Aboriginal Policy.

It is easy to see why: When politicians have to start convincing voters to part with cash, citizens are more apt to begin scrutinizing who they elect and how they devise spending priorities. It provides voters the power to check the size of government, something that can otherwise grow as large and expensive as the politicians themselves desire. For an idea of what the worst case scenario might be for a council whose spending priorities were truly out of control, consider the Stoney First Nation, west of Calgary, which has three chiefs and 12 councillors for just a few thousand members; Meanwhile the Ottawa-based Institute on Governance last year reported that the average First Nation spends ten times more per capita on governance than the average Canadian municipality). These percentages force us to want to lay the blame on individuals for their stupidity of even criminality, but this would be a cop-out in almost every case. Most individuals in positions of financial power have never been trained even in the basics of accounting nor educated in the ethics of business. These courses are readily available at colleges all over the country, but there is no mechanism for efficiently hooking potential leaders into continuing education on a large scale so that they participate in a community of learners from the same background and where a package of materials directed toward guiding aboriginal leaders through the growing pains that inevitably accompany the births of new democracy.

When First Nations people begin paying their own way for the band’s administration, the many missing or flawed governance institutions that exist on most reserves — auditing agencies, independent electoral officers, term limits for chiefs — would arouse attention, and if taxpayers demanded it, adjustment would follow. The minor scandals and other examples of failed governance on Canada’s reserves which periodically make it to the mainstream press are merely symptoms of the larger scandals and misappropriations that occur at the municipal, provincial, and federal level of the nation’s government. It is as if we (the entire population) were all held prisoners in the Residential schools of the first half of the century; as if all our moral codes were shattered and our self-esteem reduced to nothing, so bent out of shape that the “dog eat dog/get it while you can” amoral code expressed in the sly sloganeers’ drunken sneers becomes the only intelligent way to plan for your future. After all, when there is always the possibility that the pension plan you have been paying into all your working life all of a sudden without warning goes belly up because some mortgage bank went broke after a greedy feeding frenzy in the housing market in a country you may never have heard of let alone have been able to visit with bikini and snorkel and a cold beer with a name you cannot pronounce.

I believe the Indigenous peoples of this country will rise above these very real obstacles to progress and they will do it one leader, one council and one reserve at a time closely following the best examples there exist out there to imitate. There are already a number of success stories based on different models of governance, but one thing is common to all these successful models; true grassroots democracy has been cultivated and nurtured within the circle of traditional ethical standards based on the spiritual bond to the earth. If the larger country and economy of Canada cannot learn from these aboriginal initiatives it has even a worse chance of developing the kind of environmental and spiritual code which will guarantee that at least some generation down the road of historical time will live in close touch with the spirit of real progress and at peace with its neighbors, and where production and distribution are articulated in a way that provides each human being the essentials of a good and happy existence..