INAC Policy Changes Ruffle Feathers

By Lloyd Dolha

The Conservative government is introducing policy changes to the way First Nations are funded in another attempt to ensure greater transparency in federal funding and the election of chiefs and councils. The changes are outlined in hundreds of classified Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) documents obtained by The Globe and Mail, include a number of briefing notes and presentations by department officials that introduce changes in minimum standards for band elections and improved accountability.

The documents make repeated references to the failed Liberal-led First Nations Governance Act initiative of 2002, which triggered widespread outrage and opposition among First Nations leaders. AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine issued a warning that the Conservatives should not attempt to revive the failed Governance Act through backdoor policy changes. “Any proposed changes that are unilaterally developed by the federal government and imposed on First Nations are of great concern,” said Fontaine. “This runs counter to the meaning and spirit of partnership.”

One document, a memo marked “secret” and dated Feb. 19, 2008, asks for the approval of INAC’s associate deputy minister in seeking cabinet approval to change the policies for funding band councils. It states, “An earlier attempt to enact legislated standards for community governance was contentious. The proposed approach—program redesign—is more modest, but could be misunderstood by First Nations.” The memo also recommends that new policies “would not be optional.”

The briefing note returns to the very issues that caused the controversy in the 2002 Governance Act: term limits, election appeals, the appointment of electoral officials, and the right of off-reserve band members to vote. The document demonstrates a move to challenge the selection of band leaders by “custom elections” that allow the use of Aboriginal traditions that do not involve secret ballots or written rules. It notes that 333 bands representing 54% of all band councils are elected in the custom system rather than using rules stipulated by the Indian Act. The memo states that about 60 of the custom codes are unwritten and based on oral tradition, while others lack clarity and are “flawed/outdated.”

Another document, titled “Communications Strategy” said that the department has scaled back its communications budget (from $5 million to $1.2 million) for consulting First Nations on the proposed changes in a low-key communications strategy aimed at keeping the policy changes quiet. “A low profile communications approach is recommended,” states the document marked “protected.” A July 10, 2008 Indian Affairs presentation states that it may look like the department has “already decided on its reforms” and “with little time and funds, First Nations participation will be limited.”

Following the scaled-back consultation meetings with aboriginal leaders, the government is directing the changes to take effect on April 1, 2010. The changes, which will be brought in as new policy rather than new legislation, will allow the government to bypass debate in Parliament.

Leaders from the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) were surprised by the proposed federal policy changes. FSIN leader Chief Lawrence Joseph called the proposed changes “damaging and disrespectful” and said they are contrary to the federal government’s duty to consult, as established by case law. In an interview with Regina’s Leader-Post, Perry Belgarde (former FSIN leader and contender for the upcoming AFN leadership bid this summer) said he agreed with the principles of transparency and accountability, but added that INAC has a duty to openly share information in a timely and respectful manner. Since the story broke in the mainstream media, the department of Indian Affairs has posted a more generic take on the proposed changes on its website.

INAC minister Chuck Strahl laughed off suggestions of a secret agenda. In an open letter to the nation’s chiefs, Strahl states that “far from a ‘hidden agenda,’ this represents an inclusive, transparent approach to get better results.” He also said “the timing couldn’t have been better” because INAC’s authority to fund current programs expires on March 31, 2010 and program evaluations over the last several years have recommended changes to improve efficiency and operations.

The minister said that consultations began in January 2009, and INAC officials will be working to ensure all stakeholders in these programs have an opportunity to express their views and suggest improvements until May.