First Nations

TIME OF RECKONING

Ottawa adopts a top-down process for dealing with Natives—and is paying the price

JULIAN BELTRAME June 16 2003
First Nations

TIME OF RECKONING

Ottawa adopts a top-down process for dealing with Natives—and is paying the price

JULIAN BELTRAME June 16 2003

TIME OF RECKONING

Ottawa adopts a top-down process for dealing with Natives—and is paying the price

First Nations

JULIAN BELTRAME

CAROLYN BUFFALO was fuming mad. In late April, she had sat deep into the early morning hours watching the House of Commons standing committee on Aboriginal affairs debating the new First Nations Governance Act. Or merely going through the motions, in her view. Some Liberal MPs were reading newspapers and magazines. One was poring over his tax return, says Buffalo, a Native lawyer for the four nations of the Maskwachiys in central Alberta. Then she got on a plane to Calgary and by happenstance ran into Paul Martin, the frontrunner for the Liberal leadership. She lit into him. “I told him the committee was disrespectful to us,” she recalls. “I told him they didn’t care about our views, that if [Indian Affairs Minister] Robert Nault had come into the room and ordered them to bow

like sheep, they would have done it.”

The 20-minute run-in may not have been pivotal in Martin’s declaration, two days later, that as prime minister he would not implement the controversial legislation without further consultations. But Buffalo’s passion had made an impression, as an indication that the most important government initiative in a generation to deal with Canada’s 700,000 status Indians had seriously gone off the rails. A Martin aide told Maclean’s that the former finance minister is convinced that the top-down process adopted by Nault in developing the bill has poisoned the well. Now, even if it could be shown to benefit First Nations, they will never vol-

untarily adopt it, and will probably drag the process out through years of litigation. “Nault’s whole approach was, T’m a tough guy and this is what I’m going to do, like it or lump it,’ ” said the aide. “They’ve snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Few doubt that the government’s heart was in the right place. Jean Chrétien, whose first big test in politics was in Indian Affairs more than three decades ago—and who almost flamed out after disastrously attempting to scrap the reserve system without intensively consulting Natives—desperately wanted a new deal with Canada’s indigenous peoples as a bookend to his career. Because negotiating real self-government and land treaties could take most of the century, why not modernize the 127-year-old Indian Act as an interim measure and put the best practices of democratic government, transparent administration and accountability to work in the hundreds of Native bands spread across the country? The changes would force bands to adopt codes governing elections of chiefs and councils through secret ballot, rules for regulating the making of laws, and requirements for annual, audited budgets. Bands would also have to establish impartial bodies to allow members to lodge complaints. Companion legislation would make it easier for band councils to raise money, through borrowing and internal taxation, for economic development. “There is no real option of leaving the Indian Act in place because we will then guarantee another generation or more of poverty,” Nault has tirelessly said in defence of his approach.

Who could argue? Well, the vast majority of the Natives the government seeks to help. They’ve staged protests across the country, hounded Nault at public events and tried to disrupt committee hearings. Roberta Jamieson, chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River and a vocal opponent of the legislation, notes that of the 201 individuals and groups who she says made formal presentations before the parliamentary committee, only 10 spoke in favour of the billincluding the minister. “Yes, the committee has travelled across the country,” she says, “but the opinions were 191 to 10 and they’re still going ahead. They can’t claim to have listened to the Native communities.”

But both sides may be playing hardball. Committee chairman Ray Bonin, a Liberal MP from the northern Ontario riding of Nickel Belt, claims some of those who spoke

against the changes publicly have confided to him in private that they felt pressured to do so and feared retaliation. “This has been an orchestrated opposition,” he says, laying the blame on Native leadership. Nault, in an April speech, took time out to talk about a band employee who was fired for criticizing the council’s management strategy. “I use this example because I get letters like this every day,” he said of band members who oppose their leaders, adding that he can’t release them because of the Privacy Act.

Such insinuations do not impress Matthew Coon Come, national chief of the Assembly ofFirst Nations. “Where’s the proof?” he asks. Sure the chiefs are angry, he says, but not because they stand to have their powers curtailed by the amendments to the act. They’re angry because they’ve been left out of a process to transform the way Natives live, he says. An underlying fault with the legislation is that it begins with a false premise— that the Native leadership’s incompetence, or worse, corruption, is a major contributor to the squalor most Natives endure. “Pie’s tarnished us all with the same brush,” Coon Come complains. “Sure we have our culprits, but the minister has the authority right now to step in if there’s a legitimate complaint. He has the power to pull the funding, he doesn’t need new legislation to do that.” Besides, he adds, it’s laughable to suggest Native poverty stems from poor management practices, rather than from a lack of resources and adequate land base.

There are other objections to the bill, of course, but many stem from the paternalistic father-knows-best process adopted by the government. The legislation sets overriding principles under which Natives could develop codes of governance and accountability. For some bands, such as those with hereditary tribal chiefs, such parameters are a straitjacket. “That’s your values, not ours,” says Coon Come. If the government had properly consulted Natives, he adds, it would have discovered they favoured the establishment of an independent ombudsman and auditor general—as previously recommended by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples—as a way of achieving transparency and accountability. Lastly, he argues, the forced imposition of rules on Natives contradicts the spirit and the letter of the Canadian Constitution, which recognizes the right to self-government.

The tragedy is that one more attempt to

end the historic injustice done to Native Canadians may, in the end, go for naught. “We wasted a lot of time and resources on something that we don’t want and won’t benefit us,” says Jamieson. Bonin, who favours the legislation, concedes the government may be losing its appetite for the fight. Liberal House Leader Don Boudria said last week that he wants eight bills passed before the House adjourns for summer recess on June 20. The governance act was not one of them. That means the bill will be held back until the fall, when Liberal MPs will be torn between fulfilling the legacy agenda of an outgoing prime minister and accommodating the wishes of an incoming

new leader—in all likelihood Paul Martin. “I’m disappointed,” said Bonin, “because I believe this is important legislation. But the calendar is against us.”

If the legislation should die on the order paper—or be stalled at the implementation stage—Buffalo can take some satisfaction that she played her part when she gathered up the courage to confront Martin at the Calgary airport. But it’s an empty kind of victory. One more defeat of a well-meaning— if flawed—initiative does nothing to improve conditions in Native communities. And it means that if Martin wins the leadership, he’ll inherit an issue that stymied his predecessor on two occasions—34 years apart. (TO