For the most part, relationships between institutions of government and the communities, families and individuals that form Canada’s population have a predictable consistency. The people are allowed a wide latitude of social and economic expression, and a social safety net has been carefully constructed to assist those who fail to achieve at least a minimal level of sustenance on their own. In many respects, these arrangements differ for the aboriginal community. The breadth of opportunities available to them are constricted by a unique legal framework that differs significantly from the one that governs the mainstream of Canadian society. The long-term effects of those differences are little understood, but it is plain that they create at least some incentives for behaviour that are negative in their impact. Weak property rights which undermine security of possession, legal exclusion from systems of commercial credit and the inability of courts to enforce contracts on Indian lands mean that the rewards that other Canadians expect from work and constructive effort may not be available on Indian land. That difference does much to explain why aboriginals in Canada sit at the bottom of the economic ladder. In addition, the traditional response of social supports is delivered through layers of programs that often fail to reach those most in need. Assistance is indirect, and its ability to ameliorate individual need reduced by high overheads. The Aboriginal Frontiers Project will attempt to develop policy alternatives to address both of these problems. By adapting the Indian Act to create wider avenues of opportunity and by making the social supports for natives more effective, we believe there is great potential for improving the lives of Canada’s First Nations.
In the last thirty years, government spending on aboriginal Canadians has increased by 3000%, yet the data on native incomes and standards of living show little improvement. Many reserves report unemployment rates as high as 90%, and urban natives face rates as high as 50%. Other indicators of social development often associated with entrenched poverty – welfare dependency, involvement with the criminal justice system, family disintegration – also lag when applied to the First Nations. No other ethnic group reflects this persistent lack of progress. The need for public policy innovations to address these dysfunctions is especially acute because the native population is expanding at faster rate than any other group in Canada. The distinctive nature of native governance employs policy models unfamiliar to most other Canadians. The Aboriginal Frontiers Project will propose a fresh look at these problems and point out some reforms with the potential to create a stronger economic and social framework for native peoples.
The Frontier Centre wishes to acknowledge the generous support of the Lotte & John Hecht Memorial Foundation in assisting the Aboriginal Frontiers Project explore new policy options.
ABORIGINAL POLICY REDUX
* This policy statement uses the term “First Nation” to apply to status Indians who reside on reserves or have moved to urban centres. Although much of the policy work described here refers to this group, the policies pertaining to good governance, as much as possible, apply to Metis and Inuit peoples as well.
1. Governance Reform
Many of the problems in First Nation communities stem from distortions created by the Indian Act system and federal legislation. Band governments do not have all the necessary checks and balances that non-Aboriginal governments do that ensure accountability and transparency to community members. Government needs to encourage First Nation governments to develop checks and balances within their systems, such as the encouragement of independent media and other civil society institutions that can check power. Here are some possible measures that will rebalance the equation in favour of individual band members and taxpayers:
a) Require band governments to open their ledgers to any member when requested to do so. Amend the Indian Act to ensure that band chiefs and councillors provide all financial reporting to their membership, not just to Indian Affairs.
b) Create clear division between elected chief and council and all other areas of administration within the First Nation government, such as social services delivery, education, and housing. Band administration must be run neutrally for the benefit of all members, regardless of their political or family affiliations. All services must be thoroughly de-politicized for the benefit of all.
c) First Nation governments must be subject to federal Freedom of Information laws, so band members and taxpayers have an idea of how the money is spent.
d) Consider creating an ombudsperson office to deal with complaints from First Nations people about their governments. If this becomes too costly and unwieldy, there needs to be some form of streamlined process that allows band residents to report impropriety and have it dealt with. The current system involving Indian Affairs and the RCMP is not working.
e) Toughen up the conditions of the block-funding arrangements with band governments. From the 1980s to the 1990s, Ottawa moved toward block funding with First Nations. A recently identified problem is that band governments sometimes abuse the no-strings-attached approach and shift money around illegitimately. The emphasis should be on program spending accountability, not just financial accountability. Like all governments, First Nation government should demonstrate that money is being spent on what it is intended.
f) Create incentives for band administration employees to train in financial management. A problem that was identified at the 2009 Assembly of First Nations AGM by the head of the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association is the lack of trained financial managers and band managers in band governments. This needs to change. More people need training in the area of financial management, as this lack of training may be creating some of the problems associated with financial mismanagement.
g) Develop uniform election codes for both Section 74 bands and those opting for “custom election” mechanisms. This would include clear requirements for secret balloting, and processes for appealing results and removing council members.
h) Create a system whereby all First Nation citizens and governments can share best governing practices. All First Nation communities should be able to see which band governments are doing better and how they can improve their own governance.
2. Housing and Infrastructure
With the recent H1N1 epidemic, it became clear that overcrowded housing on reserves is a contributor to disease. The federal government should work with First Nations to replenish their housing stocks and to meet growing housing needs. This can be done through innovative arrangements with members of the private sector such as the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and with non-profit groups such as Habitat for Humanity. While subsidized housing will remain an important way to house Native families for the time being, Ottawa should work with both on- and off-reserve First Nations members to increase private home ownership. Those families that qualify for mortgages could be given assistance in meeting down payments or be provided with low- or no-interest loans. This would work especially well for urban Aboriginals, who make up a growing part of the First Nation population.
3. Economic Development
a) A study by the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples found that less than five per cent of Aboriginal funding goes toward economic development initiatives, whereas the vast bulk goes toward social spending, including social assistance. This needs to change. Ottawa should immediately allocate more of its Aboriginal funding toward economic development. The conversation needs to change from government spending as a solution to problems towards private sector development and community empowerment. As much as possible, solutions should be oriented towards reducing government dependency and creating self-sufficient First Nation economies.
b) It is a myth that all First Nation communities need is a ‘land base’ to develop into self-sufficient economies. While land claims are vitally important towards creating a just order, they are not the only issue. Like all economies, First Nation ones need to demonstrate that they can produce goods and services the public wants and are able to get those goods and services to the market. Having land alone is not sufficient as it is how that land is put to productive use that matters.
c) The lack of private property is a fundamental obstacle to meaningful economic development and the elephant in the room when it comes to real economic growth and empowerment. Ottawa must help make it easier to transfer reserve lands, which are held by the Crown, to First Nation governments and allow for an easier uniform process for band governments to voluntarily transfer private lots of reserve land to individual members. A good example is the Nisga’a government in British Columbia, which is considering voluntary transfers of 0.5-hectare lots to its First Nation members. This must be made easier than the process under the 1999 First Nation Land Management Act. Private land ownership would permit individual band members to use their land as collateral for business loans and to build equity in homes. With an independent source of revenue, First Nation governments could begin to tax their members and raise their own funds for housing and infrastructure.
d) Education and training should be central to any meaningful strategy for lifting First Nations out of poverty and towards wealth creation in their communities.
4. Off-reserve Services
a) Government and indigenous leaders should not discriminate against First Nations who choose to live in cities. Not enough is being done to assist First Nations in making the transition to urban life. Data from the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples confirm that most of the Aboriginal funding goes toward on-reserve programs and activities. With a growing percentage of Natives moving off the reserve, the funding that would normally support them on the reserve should be allocated to agencies that deal with urban First Nations people and help them transition to their new lives. This could include assistance for eventual home ownership (low-interest loans and down payment assistance, see housing) and assistance with literacy and job training. To make it revenue-neutral, this would be money that would have been spent on these people if they were living on reserves.
a) Encourage the quick and equitable settling of all outstanding land claims, whether specific claims (which arise where the federal government mishandled land, cash or other assets promised to Natives under treaty) or comprehensive claims (which involve claims where treaties were not ratified, as in B.C.). These are outstanding and ongoing liabilities on the Crown and should be dealt with as quickly and justly as possible. Moreover, knowing who owns what land is essential to creating stability for investors, which is important for Aboriginal economic development. First Nation communities should also take advantage of the treaty land entitlement process which allows them to access unclaimed Crown land that they are entitled to. The Conservative government’s Specific Claims Tribunal is a great step in this direction, as it created an independent system of adjudication and it involves an expedited land claims process. The claims should always ensure that the rights of non-Aboriginals and taxpayers are taken into consideration.
b) The Frontier Centre for Public Policy supports viable autonomous governing structures for First Nations. The form this will eventually take is an issue for further study and debate, although whatever governance emerges must respect principles of accountability, financial self-sufficiency and respect for individual autonomy.
c) The long-term goal is to remove all bands currently under the Indian Act from that system and to adopt a thoughtful system of devolved governance through negotiated arrangements. However, it is important that any future self-government arrangement be subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to protect individual rights and the rights of non-Aboriginals on Aboriginal territory. It must also include provisions allowing for self-taxation. The Ottawa-based Institute on Governance determined that self-taxation is the central means of creating a relationship of fiscal and political accountability between First Nation members and their governments. This should be strongly encouraged.
d) Encourage those band governments that do not have them to develop band constitutions in a process that involves all community members, especially women and other marginalized segments of the community. These constitutions oftentimes can provide “made-on-reserve” solutions to governance issues such as the inclusion of institutions that create checks and balances to the elected chief and council. These institutions must be encouraged, respected and enforced by the federal government, as they can help avoid costly court battles that divide communities and prevent the achievement of other meaningful and necessary goals.
e) Devolution of programs and services should be promoted, but there must be firm assurances that capacity has been built to provide services in a competent and fair manner. Ottawa should not transfer responsibilities until it is sure the First Nation will be able to handle the new role.