Brian Smith was inundated with emails and phone calls from fellow aboriginals across Canada — many of them complete strangers — after his small, Mi'kmaq reserve in Nova Scotia became known in November as a symbol of unaccountable, fat-cat native governance.
Smith had made headlines for leading a grassroots uprising against the elected leaders of the Glooscap First Nation, after learning that his chief and councillors were each collecting more than $200,000 in salary and other payments — for running a community of 87 people.
He organized a petition demanding a community meeting, where Glooscap leaders were made to account for their extraordinary pay and promise more transparency in the future.
"You're changing the way things are done," said one email to Smith from an Ojibway supporter in Central Canada, whose sentiments were typical of the messages Smith received after the Glooscap details broke.
"I'm really, really, really happy you are standing firm on this and giving voice to us First Nations people who want better governance. I'm (also) proud that change is going to come from the community level, and from a First Nation person."
Such messages made two things clear.
First, ordinary aboriginal people care deeply about the chronic lack of good government on Canada's First Nations — a shortcoming illustrated this fall not just by the salaries at Glooscap, but at dozens of First Nations across the country.
Federal records showed that while a majority of naive band leaders earn fair and reasonable pay for the work they do, hundreds have been raking in six- to seven-figure incomes, as overseers of small and often poor communities.
Earlier this year, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation — using calculations based on figures obtained through Access to Information — reported dozens of reserve politicians were paid hundreds of thousands in salaries, with 80 earning more than Prime Minister Stephen Harper. First Nations have disputed the numbers.
Second, the messages showed that many aboriginals don't want the federal government to step in to fix such problems, whatever the outcry for intervention from non-native taxpayers. And they aren't eager for passage of a Conservative private members' bill, now before Parliament, that would require First Nation politicians to publicly disclose their salaries on a government website.
Instead, many native people say change must come from inside their own communities.
"I don't have any desire for the federal government to come in and solve our problems," says Cherie Francis, another Glooscap member angered by what her chief and councillors were being paid. "We elected these people. At some point, we have to step up in our own community and be responsible for our own actions, and our own leaders."
The salaries uproar serves as a reminder of how determined aboriginal Canadians are to govern themselves — yet how fraught with pitfalls that goal has been since 1995, when Ottawa recognized for the first time that native self-government existed as an inherent right in the Constitution.
In the 15 years since, there have been high-profile achievements, including the creation of Nunavut and the founding of the Nisga'a Nation government in B.C., but for the most part progress has been slow and haphazard.
Self-government agreements have been reached with only 27 communities to date. In the vast majority of Canada's 616 First Nations, where self-government remains a distant dream, Ottawa appears to be encouraging the process not through active, formal negotiations but simply by letting go wherever possible, and allowing reserves to find their way, to sink or swim on their own.
Indeed, despite its legislated authority and fiduciary duty to ensure the good stewardship of native reserves, the salaries affair was met with apparent disinterest by Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan, whose spokeswoman said Ottawa had "no role and no authority" to set salaries for band leaders, and would not intervene at Glooscap or anywhere else to resolve such matters.
"I'm glad Indian Affairs is staying out of this," says Smith, who works as director of operations for the Vancouver-based National Centre for First Nations Governance, an independent group that promotes good leadership in native communities.
"In the past, Indian Affairs would have jumped right in. That has changed in recent years. I think the message First Nations people are giving to the federal government is, at the end of the day we want to be more responsible for ourselves. And sometimes you've got to learn the hard way what is the right and wrong way of doing things."
The Department of Indian Affairs hasn't fully recused itself as overlord of First Nations. Ottawa sends about $7 billion a year to band governments. When that money is misspent, or fractious local politics brings a community to a standstill, the government intervenes, taking over the running of a band's affairs.
As of October, 157 individual band governments — more than a quarter of the total — were under direct intervention, fully or partially managed by federal bureaucrats or their appointed accountants and agents.
Yet, that number appears to be in decline: down from 165 in March 2010 and 177 in March 2008.
Some of that change might be the result of improving band governance. But Don Sandberg, a Manitoba Cree and president of Nistanan, the country's first aboriginal think-tank, attributes the decline to Ottawa's increasing reluctance to tackle First Nations' management problems.
"Whenever Indian Affairs intervenes, it creates a hornet's nest, with native leaders saying, 'Stay out of our affairs,'" says Sandberg. "Intervening in most cases is a political hot potato for the government. So the minister just sits back and says, 'My God, lets not go there. Not on my watch.'
"But the fact is we're not prepared to govern ourselves, as you can see with the outrageous salaries."
Smith takes a less cynical view, saying the government is simply giving aboriginals what they're asking for.
"You've got people at Indian Affairs saying, 'Fine, you want self-government, you want more control over your stuff? Then here you go, take it.'" he says.
Maryanntonett Flumian, a former federal deputy minister who served during the 1990s as a senior adviser in the Privy Council Office on the creation of Nunavut, says there's a growing awareness in the government that First Nations must figure out their own solutions, however messy that becomes.
"You've got to let communities learn," says Flumian, who is now president of the Ottawa-based Institute on Governance.
"If someone there is trying to bring about change, you've got to be very careful before you intervene . . . we can't always be saying, 'We're not going to allow anything to flourish in those communities, or we're not going to allow uprisings in those communities.'"
Sandberg says it's absurd to think that ordinary native people, spread out across hundreds of small, isolated reserves across Canada — many of whom depend on their elected leaders for housing and welfare — have the power to change corrupt or unaccountable band governments from within.
"If Indian Affairs doesn't intervene to impose good governance and reform the system, what are ordinary band members supposed to do? Go to court? I don't have the money to go to court.
"The strongest voice aboriginal reformers have is the non-aboriginal taxpaying public, who can let their elected officials know something has got to be done. Because we know that the government itself does not listen to grassroots native people."
Flumian says a better solution lies in training aboriginal leaders and managers, in building up the skills, ethics and know-how of good governance.
"I don't think enough work has been done on capacity building," says Flumian, who compares the vacuum left behind in newly independent countries like India after the British colonial rulers pulled out, to the management vacuum created on many First Nations as Ottawa has adopted a more hands-off approach.
"You don't build government capacity overnight," she says. "You can't turn people who've been doing other things their whole life into bureaucrats overnight. In Nunavut, that's what we were trying to do."
Smith says capacity building for leaders is vital, but must also be extended to ordinary aboriginal citizens. His Centre for First Nations Governance offers a popular workshop for native people, where band members are taught the basics of citizen engagement.
"The band membership needs to be informed, because they're the ones the leaders are supposed to be accountable to. They have to know their rights," says Smith.
"That's the situation in my community now. For so many years people just let the chief and council operate the way they saw fit, because people didn't know any better."
Flumian says the governance picture isn't all bleak. Several First Nations, from Membertou in Nova Scotia to the Osoyoos Band in B.C., are successfully gaining control of their own land management, raising their own property taxes, generating their own business revenue — and doing it with transparency and accountability.
But for the majority of First Nations, she says it's time to "hit the reset button" on self-government.
She says Ottawa should sit down with aboriginal leaders, figure out a few priorities, target certain communities and create projects — in health care, schools, land management, whatever — that can be placed under full local aboriginal control by specific deadlines. Such pilot projects in self-management might offer examples for other reserves to follow.
Smith says the keys to success in all these endeavours should be accountability and transparency — not to the Department of Indian Affairs, but to local band members.
Even the Assembly of First Nations, the umbrella group for Canada's native chiefs — which first greeted the salaries affair with derision — later responded at its December meeting by promising greater accountability and transparency in band government decisions.
"Accountability and openness need to be in place," says Smith, "but it's something that we need to put in place ourselves, and control and monitor ourselves. After all, isn't that what self-government is all about?"
Read more: http://www.canada.com/business/Native+communities+struggle+with+governance+accountability/4036666/story.html#ixzz19c54EfL2