July 25, 2002 Halifax Herald

First Nations Governance Act: It's 40 years late

SINCE Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault announced that he would ask Parliament to enact a First Nations Governance Act, a crescendo of both criticism and supportive commentary has accompanied its progress. With reservations, I'll add my voice to the supportive.

After reviewing the bill's contents, I ask: Why all the fuss? As an interim measure, it will, if some essential amendments are made, be the catalyst by which First Nations communities return to fully accountable self-government.

The new act includes the tools needed by a modern government to operate effectively. For instance, it provides the recourse needed by band members to require band councils to be accountable and includes conflict-of-interest guidelines, two essentials that the department has adamantly refused to include in contracts with band councils as an operating requirement since it began devolution of programs more than four decades ago.

However, Bill 61 has a fatal flaw. It doesn't provide recourse for band members against the department, the big culprit. If this isn't included, because it was departmental incompetence and racism that created the present situation, I'll withdraw my support. To make the act effective, departmental employees must be forced to follow the letter of the law when dealing with band politicians.

The before-mentioned statement will probably come as a shock to the multitude of columnists, editorialists, etc., who have come out in droves in support of the "white knight" charge of the minister to clean up something backward, corrupt and dirty. It's unfortunate that so many of these mostly white pen-pushers have taken it upon themselves to write criticisms about a complex subject that they obviously know so little about.

To put things in perspective, I'll begin by quoting the section of the Constitution, 91:24, that designates federal responsibility for Indians and Indian land: "It shall be lawful for the Queen, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons, to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of Canada, in relation to all matters not coming within the classes of subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the legislatures of the provinces; and for greater certainty . . . (notwithstanding anything in this Act) the exclusive legislative authority of the Parliament of Canada extends to all matters . . . hereinafter enumerated; that is to say . . . (24) Indians and lands reserved for Indians."

In view of this, why aren't the news media asking questions related to federal neglect of responsibilities, instead of implying the present state of affairs in First Nations governance was manufactured solely by "corrupt" band councils? As Section 91:24 states, the government had complete control and opted to permit things to unravel in the manner in which they have. The victims were the First Nations peoples, not government. I wrote the following in the 1993 edition of We Were Not the Savages, and included it in the 2000 edition:

"If the department had been staffed by competent and responsible personnel, before turning these programs over to band council administration, they would have taken the following three steps to insure accountability and good management:

"1. Made financial accountability and budgeting mandatory.

"2. Required band councils to enact effective administrative and financial bylaws under Sections 81 and 83 of the Indian Act to guide their governance of band affairs. (Because this was not done, most band councils in Canada today have no legal reference point to guide them in the administration of programs. The bylaws required for band management are like those any government needs for guidance in the administration of public funds. Most necessary are bylaws which govern the financial management of band budgets, the activities of staff, and the infrastructure of the community. To assist the band councils to enact enforceable bylaws such as these, the department should have recruited qualified employees, which it appears it still hasn't, because most bands don't have them.)

"3. Recruited fully qualified accountants to act as band financial advisers.

"If the department had followed these three simple steps during devolution, the vast majority of bands today (1993) would be in sound financial shape. Of course, if this was the case, the bureaucrats would have faded from the scene many moons ago. Instead, as a reward for their incompetence, they are still around and many of the bands are on the verge of bankruptcy. Perhaps the bureaucrats were not so dumb after all. At an inestimable cost to First Nations, by deceit or ignorance, they have protected their own jobs."

I want to challenge the media to ask questions of this nature: Why did governments wait for more than 40 years before acting? Why weren't the accountability recommendations contained in the 1979 Beaver Report and those contained in the 1983 Penner Report acted upon? A multitude of questions need to be asked of government. Stop just focusing on and blaming First Nations; it has racist connotations.

In the final analysis, Canada must acknowledge its racist past. Some of the horrific things that happened in this country - scalp proclamation, starvation, segregation, forced removal, internment, exclusion, etc. - need to be brought out in the open and accepted. South Africa did it by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Why don't we give it a try?

Daniel N. Paul


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