Multi-million self-government initiative dies in Manitoba

by Frank Larue

A multimillion dollar initiative once hailed as the path to self-government for Manitoba First Nations was quietly disbanded last year with nothing to show for the $50 to 70 million that could have been better spent elsewhere.

The Manitoba Framework Agreement Initiative (MFAI) was signed in 1994 between then Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Phil Fontaine and INAC minister Ron Irwin with the goal of correcting an “injustice that has been institutionalized by government for 125 years.”

The goals of the ten-year initiative was: dismantling the Department of Indian Affairs and repealing or amending the Indian Act, developing First Nations authorities for self-government, and restoring the jurisdiction to First Nations in the areas of executive, legislative, administrative and judicial powers.

“It was a grand experiment, but it failed,” said Grand Chief Ron Evans, of the Association of Manitoba Chiefs(AMC). But in January 2007, the AMC voted to dissolve the agreement, citing concerns about negotiations after the Conservative government took over in January 2006.

In December 2006, independent auditors began a wide-ranging probe of the regional office because of complaints that pointed out that little was being accomplished the monies being spent on the initiative, said Manitoba New Democratic MP Pat Martin.

“There was a lot of money that went through it,” said Martin. “It was a noble initiative, but it went on and on for no tangible benefit.”

Its one of several files under review by the outside firm hired by the department for the region-wide audit of the Manitoba office.

Sixty First Nations originally signed the agreement, but within two years, at least three had withdrawn over concerns that self-government would impede the flow of federal funds for programs and services. Some said self-government wasn’t a priority as they were just trying to deliver basic services.

Then in 1997, Fontaine left the AMC to take over as grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations and Ron Irwin retired from politics, which many would later suggest marked the waning of negotiations over the initiative.

Evans said that because First Nations leadership changed so often over the life of the initiative, there was little continuity in negotiations.

The original ten-year agreement’s terms called for reviews at the end of three, six and ten years, but INAC can only point to one review done in 1999. That review suggested the process was rife with difficulties and that a rift had developed between Manitoba aboriginal leaders and department officials.

Former Privy Council official Anne Scotton, chief audit and evaluation executive with INAC is heading the probe, but refused to discuss specific files under examination.

Scotton said auditors have been given leeway over the time and files they can examine, including calling the RCMP