Yellow Quill tragedy highlights need for band government reform

by Morgan O’Neal

After the two tiny sisters were found tragically frozen to death on Tuesday, January 30th, apparently abandoned in the snow by an inebriated father in minus 50C temperatures, local and national media attention has focused on the appalling conditions on Yellow Quill, located a short drive east of Rose Valley, Saskatchewan. And things don’t look much different than they did in 2002 when former vocal critic of the system Chief Whitehead took over administration of the band. The housing shortage is still desperate and mould in existing homes still makes residents sick. Officials are still rumored to attend meetings drunk.

The seeming failure of First Nations governments to manage the most basic of public services is not uncommon in Canada. The Auditor General reports that 3/4 of all First Nations are being run by inexperienced, untrained staff and that there exists a shortage of at least 80,000 homes on reserves across the country. If such statistics came out of any other Canadian community, heads would begin to roll. They certainly did in Walkerton where even Ontario’s premier was made to answer, before an inquiry, for contaminated water resulting from bureaucratic bungling. In Walkerton the politicians and their underlings were answerable to the communities they were elected to govern and hired to provide safety and services. That is not how things work on the reserve.

Six years ago, Robert Whitehead was without a doubt the loudest critic of the Yellow Quill First Nation government. A disgruntled band member, he had publicly chastised Chief Hank Neapetung, complaining about band employees — including teachers and social workers — stumbling around the Saskatchewan reserve, drunk. He complained about the lack of housing for members and the rotten conditions of ones already built. Whitehead was beaten up physically, sued by the chief, had his house shot at and his water cut off, and then he lost his job. But Robert Whitehead is now Chief Whitehead (since 2002), after winning a fluke election from which Hank Neapetung (who had ruled for 18 years), was disqualified for failing to attend an all-candidates debate. Whitehead is the one now facing harsh criticism.

The community, which counts about 2,000 people as members, is, according to the Chief “bankrupt.” He blames the situation on a dysfunctional council and intransigent trustees who refuse to allow access to the Yellow Quill nest egg of $29-million in treaty land settlements that is, according to his reckoning, being hoarded rather than spent on the urgent needs of band members. It is common that First Nations politicians come to office promising reforms and end up failing to implement the necessary changes once elected. “Over and over again, you see this happen. The chiefs come in and they see how things are done, and they pick up right where the last chief left off.” Don Sandberg, a member of Manitoba’s Norway House First Nation, implies quite justifiably. However, this sort of individualistic greed and sloth simply replicates the political culture western European white Anglo-Saxon Protestant governance and residential school brainwashing forced upon indigenous peoples in every colony they captured.

Sandberg is an Aboriginal Policy Fellow at a Winnipeg based think-tank, The Frontier Centre for Public Policy. The diseased and corrupting institutional culture habitually passes the buck to whatever scapegoat is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Chiefs regularly refuse responsibility for troubles on reserves. There are numerous recent examples of this type of cowardice that are different only for the fact that they are less well publicized copycat versions of crimes like the Liberal scandal that became public when Jean Chretien left office and the shameful misappropriation of money that Brian Mulroney is obviously guilty of in his relationship with the German white collar crook, Hans Schrieber. When in the Wild, Wild West do as the Cowboys do: Fix the Rodeo.

For example, members of the Piikani Nation were evacuated from their Alberta reserve in November after Health Canada condemned their mouldy, crumbling homes as “unfit” for human habitation, Chief Reg Crowshoe blamed the Department of Indian Affairs for not providing enough homes. “They’re saying they don’t have enough money, but we can’t wait any longer,” Crowshoe told reporters at the time. What he didn’t mention was that just five years earlier, the 1,500-member Piikani had received $64-million from Ottawa and the province of Alberta to settle a dispute over a proposed dam project. Ottawa sent another $450,000 in housing assistance to the reserve in 2006. Today, 500 Piikani are still waiting for houses, and despite the fact that Indian Affairs routinely allows First Nations to use settlement money for necessities, the band insists it cannot afford to fix existing housing.

When Ontario’s Kashechewan reserve was evacuated in 2005 after E.Coli was found in the water system, the federal Ministry took the blame. Under immense public pressure, the government dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cases of bottled water into the community and deployed over 40 engineers and soldiers of the Canadian Armed Forces to install and operate a new 10-tonne reverse osmosis purifier (designed to filter water contaminated by chemical weapons). The province meanwhile arranged a massive airlift and evacuated 1,100 reserve residents. At first, Kashechewan seemed like an aboriginal community left alone to cope with rundown under-funded infrastructure, but the water treatment plant was just 10 years old and the band had received $800,000 for upgrades just a year before the crisis unraveled. When a water engineer from Red Lake arrived, he found that the only problem was a plugged chlorine injector. This injector cost 30 dollars and took the engineer all of six hours to install in order to make the water drinkable again. The Kashechewan plant managers (band members) had never been trained to operate the water treatment facility. When the automatic alarm system had signaled the problem by annoyingly ringing to warn of the imminent contamination of the water, workers had simply unplugged it.

It is understandable that chiefs are quick to deny accountability to their members when things go horribly wrong, and in reality, because they are not accountable, similar crises come and go on reserves all over the country, just as they do in government departments because of bureaucratic bungling at all levels of governance from the municipal to the national. No one in power is accountable to the citizens of Canada as a whole. How could it be any different on the reserves created by that same governing criminality over a century ago, a modus operandi force fed into children kidnapped from their homes and families and severed from their traditional ethical and moral code. Whether Canadians choose to recognize First Nations as a legitimate constitutional level of government (an issue remaining a matter of debate within the Department of Indian Affairs), Ottawa entrusts a huge amount of governmental responsibility to chiefs and councils in relation to health, education and other public services. It is to a dysfunctional federal government that these Chiefs and Councils report their actions. The people at large are left out of the loop. As even minimal standards of real grassroots democratic governance do not exist at the level of the larger bureaucratic system, First Nations have little choice but to replicate this sort of top-heavy administrative chaos just in order to maintain the status quo in the face of any unknown changes in the direction of true democracy and collective progress. When cultural genocide succeeded in alienating First Nations peoples from their own traditional ways, the most important guardian of those ways was destroyed with them, the communities, the families, the bonds to the earth which had guided the spiritual existence of these Nations for millennia.

Canadians of all backgrounds have an expectation that public officials in charge of urban planning in water systems or health administration have some kind of experience and training. This is not the case on reserves, where positions of authority in regard to safety and provision of services are frequently allotted to members unqualified to hold them. It does not matter what the immediate reasons for this turn out to be when such information becomes public during critical failures– nepotism, patronage or simple lack of properly trained people to hire are all in play here. “In our talent pool, we don’t have thousands of people to pick from,” says Clarence Louie, chief of British Columbia’s Osoyoos Indian Band. Louie received the 2003 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for a number of achievements including the reduction of the band’s dependence on social assistance by creating jobs within the community through the band’s eight businesses. (You can learn more about Clarence Louie in a Drum article collected in the book Smoke Signals from the Heart published by Totem Pole Books.)

Chief Louie created a human resources department to ensure people hired by his council are properly qualified. This move sets the elevated standard of action necessary to fulfill the promise of the opportunities his attitude in general has opened up. “I consider myself a ‘worker’ for OTB. All awards are about the band, not about me.” This is the spiritual base from which a log term program of development can be confidently put in place. Band jobs are sometimes the only ones available, but at the same time they are almost always the highest paid. This inevitably puts chiefs under a great deal of pressure to distribute wealth to friends and family first in the form of legitimate employment. If Clarence Louie’s laudable attempt at breaking the cycle is to succeed in the long run, there must be a simultaneous return to traditional ethics of governance that guided native communities for centuries before Europeans brought their diseased egocentric ‘dog eat dog’ survival of the fittest philosophy to North America.

Not surprisingly, a 2003 Ekos research poll conducted for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada found that just 37% of on-reserve aboriginals considered the performance of their band’s government to be “good” or better. The reason is not hard to discern. While politicians are assumed to be answerable to voters in democracies (a myth that will be critically examined at another time), Chiefs and Councils on reserves report only to the same sorry Department of Indian and Northern Affairs which has no incentive to alter the chain of command. And to make matters worse, these local chiefs are the same ones who go on to elect the grand regional chiefs and the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. In other words, about 600 chiefs elect someone who claims to speak for 700,000 status Indians, the American Presidential electoral system writ small. At every turn and at every level there is strong incentive not to elect grand or national chiefs who might complicate things by demanding reforms.

Of course, having local chiefs elect a provincial or national leader makes no more sense than having all Manitoba’s mayors, animated as they are by their own local political agendas, choose the Premier of the province. “Mostly what they [local chiefs] are looking for is more government money passing through their hands, basically, so a little bit of it sticks,” says Calvin Helin, a Vancouver aboriginal lawyer and author of Dances with Dependency: Indigenous Success Through Self-Reliance.

The only way around that, he says, is to ensure that the head of the AFN, the most powerful aboriginal in Canada and the one who often has the Prime Minister’s ear, is elected directly by Canada’s aboriginal people, through a general vote. “We can do that these days by a referendum,” Mr. Helin says. “It used to be a case where geography was a barrier, but with the Internet these days, and all of the sorts of things we have at our disposal, everything is possible.” There are, of course, many chiefs and councils who take responsibilities to their fellow band members seriously; they run squeaky clean elections and govern with integrity. But as long as Ottawa continues to send money directly to First Nations bosses who are then, in turn, in charge of doling out funds in the form of housing allowances, social assistance and available employment, band members will depend on their politicians for survival and social mobility. According to Calvin Helin, “If there are any problems, [these politicians] are not answerable to their community. They are [only] answerable to the Minister of Indian Affairs. That is just a recipe for corruption . . .”

In 2003, an Indian Affairs poll showed that Minister Robert Nault’s Bill C-7, the First Nations Governance Act, designed to provide bands a codified system of elections and financial management, was backed by a majority of First Nations people. The Assembly of First Nations, however, opposed the legislation and convinced Prime Minister Paul Martin to create instead the Kelowna Accord which was later killed by the incoming Conservative government under Stephen Harper. But more accountable leadership is the only route to making governmental intervention in economic and social development more effective and responsible. Band members themselves should decide democratically how and when and where funds should be allocated. A democratic environment of financial accountability would encourage people from outside reserves to bring investment and jobs to on-reserve natives.

The bizarre strictures of the present Indian Act make contracts and leases very difficult to enforce in the legal grey zone within which reserves are forced to do business. Better councils do not eliminate investment risks created by the Indian Act, but they can reduce them substantially. A decade ago, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development concluded after a study of the most prosperous tribes in the U.S. that “poverty in Indian Country is a political problem — not an economic one.” Tribes that succeed have in common a few key characteristics. “They settle disputes fairly,” and that “sends a signal to investors of all kinds that their contributions will not be expropriated unfairly.” In addition, “they separate the functions of elected representation and business management,” which counters the urge of politicians to “interfere in business on behalf of voters.” Similarly, Canadian bands that have succeeded in implementing governmental reform are in virtually every case the same ones who have managed to lure millions of dollars in investment. The examples of success in this realm include Bands governed by accountable leaders already mentioned above.

For instance, Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos, created an economic development corporation which was mandated to distance band business (including a winery and a vacation condo development with Calgary-based Bellstar Hotels and Resorts) from political interference. He also hired a former executive from juice giant Sun Rype Products Ltd., from off the reserve, as chief operating officer.

In Sydney, Nova Scotia, the Membertou First Nation posts all its band finances online and in 2001 achieved International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 9001:2000 certification, verifying the band had met globally recognized business standards. In barely a decade, Membertou moved from just scraping by on a $4.5 million annual budget (nearly all federal transfers), to collecting $65 million in annual revenues from partnerships in seafood processing, tourism, retail, and high tech industries.

On the Westbank First Nation in B.C., Chief Rob Louie recognized that the reserve political system as it was typically structured provided no mechanism for local industry concerns to be heard. In 2005, therefore, the band as a whole went to work in order to meet several conditions demonstrating in Westbank governance sufficient levels of accountability and transparency to attain self-government status. It enshrined in the band’s legislation, laws requiring the establishment of an advisory council representing non-member business interests. In another legal precedent Westbank now applies the Judicial Review Procedures Act of B.C. to its own lands; in essence, volunteering Westbank as accountable to the same legal system other businesses rely upon to protect them off-reserve. Indian Affairs now calls Westbank “one of the most economically successful Aboriginal communities in Canada,” and no doubt takes undeserved credit for some of this development.

There are a dozen other bands like this, maybe two dozen. In every case the formula works pretty much the same: when First Nations people are given real control over their leadership and the fate of their own lives, they start demanding, and getting, things we all want to demand even if we seldom end up getting; thriving economies, well-paying jobs, access to housing, effective government services, and water we can drink without getting sick. We have never been compensated yet for the deaths from small-pox which became our ancestors’ common fate. When those two little girls froze to death in the harsh winter cold of the northern winter for what ever reason their father was moving them from one shabby house to another in the middle of the night Yellow Quill takes on a tragic meaning as a place name, some snow covered village in equatorial Rwanda or a brothel in Kenya commandeered as a temporary morgue for murdered voters who voted in the wrong place at the wrong time. And just as all the lunatic violence in far off places which supplies pictures of malnourished children for television advertisements coaxing donations out of well-meaning bored and emptied middle class Canadians can in very large part derives from hastily drawn boundaries of post colonial Africa and a segregated education system that deprived generations of black children from real knowledge, so the great majority of the tragedies befalling the peoples of the First nations of Canada can be traced to the last great symptom of the genocidal lunacy of the European ego which allowed established churches and psychopathic individuals to use the residential school system to abuse small children in the name of a bitterly deformed god of their narrow understanding with the conscious support both moral and economic of the Government of Canada and its citizens who stood by sheepishly for decades in the face of mounting evidence that something was horribly wrong inside the walls of those schools modeled on the incarcerating perimeters of American prisons.

Whether indigenous peoples of this continent die alone and one at a time on the dismal streets of the Downtown Eastside, or are extinguished as families in the flames of three alarm fires devouring dilapidated housing, or are buried as a bunch after massacres of whole communities on the gun club prairies, or who perish in the ongoing genocide of an entire civilization, there will be certain historically significant events and legal precedents that will stand out when looked back upon through the indigenous eyes of those whose grief has mercifully been transformed into a wisdom of partial tentative forgiveness (for they know not what they do, they are so god dam stupid). The guilt and shame of such events are calculated in degrees of intergenerational consequences, the half lives of the contaminations wreaked upon grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren and great grandchildren by the trauma of the residential school. The headlines attest to the ever present parasite eating away at the gut of the Aboriginal people of this country.