Twelve years ago I was a guest of Her Majesty’s Government of Ontario for a few weekends due to a disagreement we had over the legality of certain activities. I would show up every Friday evening at the local provincial correctional facility (local was obviously relative as I had to travel thirty miles at my own expense) around 5:30 pm to be dressed in overalls of a fetching Orange and be bored silly until Monday morning at 5:30 am.
They would keep us weekend guests separated from the permanent residents for a variety of reasons (it’s amazing what can be transported via body cavity or to use the correct parlance, “hooping”) but we were directly across the hall from the minimum security “bucket” that housed thirty-plus guys doing sentences of less then two months. Amongst them was one guy who stuck out from the rest of the crowd by virtue of his size and his skin colour.
He was a large native man, easily six foot four and probably well over 250 pounds. He wore his hair in a braid that hung like a thick rope to his lower back. He appeared to have some sort of force field around him because nobody ever seemed to come within a yard of him. Quite an amazing accomplishment when you consider how many guys and bunk beds were crammed into such a small space.
It turned out he was the friend of some friends of mine (not a great surprise in retrospect), so it was easy to find out his story. He had been the leader of a group who had occupied the band council office of the local Mohawk reserve, Tyendinaga. They were protesting the misappropriation of government money, nepotism, and a variety of other irregularities by the band’s Chief, who they wanted investigated.
Less then a year later this same man was leading a party of Mohawks from his reserve on a raid of the office of the Grand Chief of The Assembly of First Nations in protest against their inaction on dealing with issues that affected the day to day lives of people living on reserves. While his actions were more extreme than others’, the frustration behind them represented the split between some people who live on reserves and their elected chiefs.
While the Assembly claims to speak for all native people in Canada, its membership is limited to Chiefs. On the surface this may give the appearance of adequate representation, but there is a serious problem inherent to the system. The concept of an elected Chief is alien to the majority of native peoples. The position of Chief had been traditionally earned, appointed, or inherited. For example, the female elders, grandmothers of a tribe, selected the Chiefs of the Mohawk people.
The election of Chiefs was a concept imposed upon tribes as a condition of the Indian Act of Canada in order for them to be accorded “status” and be given a reservation. It has long been a bone of contention between those wishing to live in a traditional manner, following the rules and customs of their ancestors, and those more inclined to assimilate.
With most traditionalists refusing to vote and others not caring enough to vote, the same people repeatedly win election to the band council and position of Chief. It’s these people who are responsible for the allocation of funds that the government hands out to reserves for education, housing, and infrastructure. Now, that’s not to imply all of them are corrupt, because there are plenty of councils who aren’t, but unfortunately there are sufficient numbers of councils where nepotism and corruption are still problems.
Conservative politicians in Canada have made a big deal of this issue and have often used it to call into question other government Indian policies. It was no surprise that when they were elected to power they stalled an accord that had been negotiated between the previous government, the provinces, and the Assembly of First Nations on the grounds there needed to be more accountability for how the dollars would be spent.
When a Conservative government says things like that, they are accused of everything from racism to not caring what happens to the native people of Canada. While there may be some basis for those accusations based on things that have been said or done by members of the current Conservative caucus, what can you accuse a Native of for saying the same thing?
I think back to the days when my friend showed me photocopies of his band council’s bank accounts. They showed where a check from the government for enough money to build thirty-two houses had been deposited. Somehow or other, though, only two houses were ever built. Other records showed the chief’s brother being hired as the contractor for the job, despite his having no previous experience.
The same man who was Chief of the band council in those days is still Chief in Tyendinaga. I have to wonder what my old friend would say about trusting him with money for education and health care on the reserve. My friend isn’t the only native person who has raised questions about the integrity of a local band council; there have been others across Canada who have done the same.
Native people of Canada face conditions as desperate as those of people living in some of the world’s poorest countries. With a standard of living far below that of the average Canadian, there is a desperate need to provide reserves with infrastructure that we take for granted, health care the rest of us enjoy, and the educational opportunities that would allow them to compete on an equal footing with the rest of our population.
Before those issues can be addressed, the issue of who speaks for native people has to be decided. While the elected Chiefs are recognised by the government of Canada as the leaders of their communities, do the communities recognise the Chiefs as their leaders? Do they and their band councils adequately represent the hopes and aspirations of their reserves, or only the minority who vote in the band elections?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions because you can’t make blanket statements like all band councils are corrupt. It makes it that much more important that the issue be resolved. Maybe now is not the time to address the whole issue of how natives are allowed to govern themselves, but it will need to be dealt with as the drive for self-government progresses.
The Canadian government’s responsibility is to all the native people of Canada, not just the Assembly of First Nations. If any of that membership is not speaking for their community, that means potentially thousands of people are going to miss out on the benefits of any new programming. That is not acceptable.