Home of the brave?

Shared problems require shared solutions from native and non-native communities

This will be a very difficult article for me to write. Difficult because I am very anxious that the native community view my comments as they are intended, which is to be helpful and supportive — not to criticize for the sake of criticizing and especially not to blame.

Canada’s relationship with its native population is in serious need of review. I would argue it needs a major overhaul, indeed a complete re-think.

So, what are my credentials to be an advocate of such change? First, the issue concerns me. At times it makes me angry. Second, I believe every Canadian has an obligation to speak out on major policy issues (the accompanying responsibility is to educate themselves as to the relevant facts and to think about remedies that might be employed to correct the failures in current policies). Beyond that, I have a keen interest in the history of the country and have assembled what must be one of the best private libraries of books on the discovery and opening of our northern frontiers. I have also been lucky enough to explore our north and seen enough to leave me in awe of the spirit and enterprise of our northern natives. I have done business with natives and native communities and engaged with native leaders. I have travelled with, and been guided by them, and listened to lots of fascinating stories. I have also been subjected to lots of diagnostic commentary from natives themselves as to what is wrong with the current system.

Most importantly, I respect the native community, what it stands for and what it means to Canada. I believe strongly in the responsibility of the non-native community to do the right thing for our native brethren.

Accountability, transparency and responsibility at every level are key ingredients of any initiative designed to provide natives with equal rights and opportunities. This is not just a government problem. No level of government can impose the discipline of a functioning family unit or supplant the spirit of a local community.

Governance

This is a big deal. Get it right and you enjoy the leadership which is so important to driving change. Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo appears to be a good man. He is one of the very few natives to have earned a PhD — bravo — and, more importantly, he is an advocate of engagement, not confrontation. But the native community is a complex one with over 600 bands across the country. Leadership at this level has to be in tune with the direction pursued by the Assembly chief, otherwise progress is compromised. Native leaders have to speak with one voice on big issues.

In many native communities, there are vigorous complaints about the election process. Elections need to be open and free from any taint of corruption. It is ridiculous that many chiefs, some whose community populations number less than several hundred people, earn salaries that exceed those of any non-native elected official, including premiers. This is particularly offensive given that most of the funding for such incomes comes from the federal purse.

Business dealings and relationships between community leadership and the band need to be totally transparent. The practice of some native bands to make sincere efforts to ensure their financial statements are open and understood by their communities needs to be universally adopted. Responsibility and accountability has to reside within the community itself, perhaps at the Assembly level, so the umbilical cord of oversight now provided by the federal government, through the auditor general, can be cut.

That was the easy part, now it gets more difficult.

Native Rights

Many of these are enshrined in the Constitution and are therefore inviolate. This is like saying “we had marriage vows and those vows govern the relationship going forward.” Healthy relationships can’t work like that. There has to be an on-going dialogue in which mutual respect and trust are the underlying guiding principles.

Land claim settlements need to be more vigorously pursued and taken away from the courts where there is too much “win/lose” and not enough compromise and understanding. Judges can only interpret the law, not negotiate mutual concession.

It is ridiculous that land claims by natives, in many instances, are so obviously excessive. This brings disrespect to the process and undermines the integrity of the claims themselves. Native rights on tribal land can simply not include the right to smuggle cigarettes into the non-native community so as to avoid — and profit from — the tax system.

Resource rents are a legitimate claim for native communities, but they have to be sympathetic to the natural limits of any tax regime. There is only so much capacity for taxation, and taxes have to be shared amongst all levels of government (including native governments). When resource rents are imposed fairly, they create partnerships between industry and native communities rather than a structural divide which can only promote confrontation.

That said, native rights have limits. For example, the current federal government has determined that, subject to appropriate environmental review and controls, a pipeline to carry Alberta oil to the West Coast is in the national interest. You can agree or disagree with such a policy but no native group or leader should have the right to unilaterally declare such a pipeline is not in the national interest or in their interest and therefore will not happen. Sorry, that doesn’t work.

You have to work with the hand that feeds you. You may think that is an overly crass characterization of the situation, but my point is simply that a partnership between “two nations” has to work for both nations.

Housing

Much is made of government’s failure in this area. Certainly, the quality of the native housing inventory is sub-standard and in some cases disgraceful. I’ve seen evidence of this first hand and agree it is a big problem. But once again this is a shared responsibility. Whose fault is it that a brand new house, within two years of its occupancy, has broken windows, huge holes in the gyproc, doors falling off their hinges and is otherwise in a terrible state of cosmetic repair? You can’t blame that on the government.

We need to move quickly to enshrine property rights on tribal lands. Perhaps it’s a two-step process, with natives being allowed the right to own their houses while the land is held in a common band title. Government and the local band council should finance the building of housing stock for sale to band members, with financing provided using the same procedures as in the non-native community. Existing housing stock should be sold to inhabitants with access to full financing, perhaps on the basis that residents have a track record of responsible tenancy. The underlying principle must be that the federal government removes itself from this responsibility and devolves it to the local communities and individuals.

Health care

Obviously, the geographically closer a native community is to a significant population density, or the larger the native community is itself, the easier it is to deliver a robust range of services. It will never be possible to serve remote communities with services equal in quality and response time to what’s available in larger jurisdictions. That’s true in the non-native community as well. What’s perhaps different is the role traditional medicine has played in native culture. I understand the scientific community’s disregard for the efficacy of such treatments but such an attitude fails to take into account both the placebo effect and, frankly, the evidence.

The more involvement the community has in this responsibility, the more likely outcomes will be favourably impacted. For instance, Type II diabetes is at rates several times that of the non-native community (which is itself at unacceptable levels). This is a lifestyle disease, almost entirely preventable, but once inf licted, the sufferer has it for life and life-time treatment is very expensive. Diet and exercise, or rather the wrong diet and lack of exercise, are at the heart of its onset. Community awareness, peer pressure, education, programs at school and out of school are all effective tools in managing the incidence of this disease. Money saved in this area could be directed to other disease treatment programs whose root cause is not so easily preventable.

Education

To the extent that there is a panacea for many of the social problems resident in native communities, it is education. Consider family violence. To a large extent, it is caused by alcoholism, drug addiction or psychological problems — all either brought on by, or a function of, despair, lack of opportunity, indolence and lack of self-respect.

Education can fix much of this. But responsibility must, again, be resident in the community. Government’s role should be in providing the funding. Period. This simply must be managed at the local level. Yes, there will be native communities who will fail and the CBC will make much of what will be represented as the government’s failure. But the government can’t make teachers feel welcome in remote communities, it can’t ensure regular attendance and it can’t provide the oversight to ensure homework is taken seriously. If the family unit is dysfunctional, then the community, best able to identify such shortcomings, perhaps in concert with the respective teacher, can provide mentorship and support to the child. Higher education and career training opportunities should be fully funded. Young people who show promise should be encouraged, supported and feted by their communities. Education and its pursuit need to be celebrated.

Fix the education problem and you fix a range of social issues. You raise the standard of living, you introduce a sense of self-worth and pride.

It would be wrong of me to imply there has been no progress or initiatives by any of the First Nations communities in these areas. In fact, the opposite is the case. Those examples should be both the subject of congratulations and examination by other chiefs, perhaps within and by the Assembly of First Nations, so lessons can be learned, communicated and best practices honed and shared. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the progress of the Membertou band in Nova Scotia. Their financial accountability, governance practices and success in building business relationships with the private sector are exemplary.

But this progress by First Nations is only a beginning.

Independance

Canada’s native community is not really independent. The whole history of the relationship between native and nonnative communities has been to create dependency, and we got there from a platform of imposed subservience.

We simply have to make the First Nations independent as a community within Canada. To do that, I would favour the negotiation and writing of a single cheque by Ottawa in their favour. From this capital, it would be their responsibility to provide social services, income support, health care and perhaps even education. It would be a one-time payment. The context would be an agreement for the responsible management of these funds. Couple this with an expeditious and sensible settlement of land claims and resource rent issues. The responsibilities within the bureaucracy of the Indian Affairs department in Ottawa should be devolved in their entirety to a governance structure, or structures, managed and staffed by natives. This will take time of course, but it must be an objective, with a clear time horizon.

I want to make the problems of the native communities their problems, but I also want to equip them with the tools to fix those problems. It’s time to turn this page. Are we brave enough?

John Risley
About John Risley

John Risley, president of Clearwater Fine Foods Inc., regularly engages in policy debate as a member of the World Presidents' Organization, the Chief Executives Organization and as a director on the Board of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

1 Comment to “Home of the brave?”

  1. Avatar Yves Villemaire // March 7, 2012 at 10:18 am // Reply

    The best article I read on the subject.

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