There is no question that Aboriginal youth need to access information and be exposed to a variety of views on issues that will impact their future. As tomorrow's leaders and decision makers, our youth must be given opportunities to consider different viewpoints, so that they may be better capable of making informed decisions for themselves and their communities.
Classroom Edition is now a regular part of Windspeaker now called "Canadian Classroom". Each issue of Windspeaker will dedicate two full pages without advertising to dedicate to exploring some critical issues.
The information contained in Canadian Classroom can play an instrumental role in breaking down barriers and increase understanding between individuals, communities and cultures.
Various views on a single issue are presented along with thought provoking questions to encourage dialogue and open communication. Editorial cartoons and photos will be utilized to further stimulate thought and dialogue.
"Windspeaker continues its commitment to our youth by providing them with an educational tool that explores issues relevant to our future as Aboriginal people. It is Windspeaker's vision that open dialogue and free exchange of views will empower our youth and secure our future."
Windspeaker, Canada's National Aboriginal News Source is excited to announce that it is continuing its educational initiative specifically designed for use by Canada's youth!
Each month Windspeaker will dedicate several pages to explore critical issues in education impacting Aboriginal people.
"Windspeaker's commitment to Aboriginal youth has never been greater. Our goal is to provide Canada's schools with access to a unique Aboriginal educational toolbox. Windspeaker's Classroom Edition and its many partners are playing a fundamental role in positively impacting our future as Aboriginal people. It is Windspeaker's belief that open dialogue and free exchange of views will enable greater understanding and sensitivity of Aboriginal issues, culture, and dreams." Bert Crowfoot, Windspeaker publisher.
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The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary describes the noun dispute as, "strife, or contest in words or by arguments; a difference of opinion; vigorously maintained; controversy in words; a wordy war. . . "
In Aboriginal terms a dispute can all to often mean unrest, violence, and turmoil in small, close-knit communities. Disputes can come in many forms, but many stem from the way a chief and council governs a First Nation.
Many times disputes come from within the community, others can involve the Aboriginal community and a municipality, province or nation. No matter where the battle lines are drawn, it often takes a variety of measures to quell the unrest.
Karen Trace has been dealing with dispute resolution and mediation for the last five years as a partner in the Edmonton law firm McCuaig Desrochers.
She has been called into Native communities to ease concerns over government issues, election disputes, band management, land control, environmental issues and third party agreements.
Coming into any one of these situations, Trace said a good mediator has to look past the outlying problem and into the heart of the matter, which in most cases is also the heart of the community.
"Mediators in this jurisdiction are schooled in the theory of interest-based dispute resolution," she said, explaining "interest-based" as being "focus on the needs, wants, concerns and hopes of a community, to look at what motivates them at the surface."
Once you peel the issue back to its roots, "you open up the possibility for creative solutions. . . that truly meet with what is bugging the people."
Half of the battle is getting the people to the table to discuss their concerns, said Trace, who also teaches an alternative dispute resolution class at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Law.
For Aboriginal communities in particular, the mediation process is desirable, Trace said. Getting together and talking out problems and concerns is a traditional way of life for most Native communities, she said.
"It is the best way to heal and to grow and to better the community."
She admitted that dispute resolution is not always seen in a positive light. The harsh truth is that some disputes are settled through the mediation process with lawyers only to resurface a year later. Lawyers are then painted as the only ones getting ahead in the process.
Trace said it is the attitude and care of the lawyers involved that provide the best results in mediation. The successful mediation results in no winners and no losers, but a satisfied room of people.
Trace's firm boasts an impressive 80 per cent success rate in all dispute resolution files they take - Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.
But that number could be higher. It all depends on how you define success, Trace said.
"What is success? Is it just settlement or is it successful enough when people get into a room and talk things out."
Bill Erasmus, grand chief of the Dene Nation, is another person who often tries to bring disputing parties to some sort of amicable agreement. In most of all the instances where he has mediated, the underlying factor is the same, Erasmus said.
"When there is a dispute, it's not because people want one. It's because they just developed. What they do want is to settle the dispute."
Erasmus said part of the role of any First Nation chief and council is to be there when the people need assistance. Chiefs and councils have a lot of history of their communities, he said. That background can often help cut to the core of the dispute.
"We have to be everything to everyone. We have to have counselling skills, patience, understanding, community history and family history," he said. All too often people get so swept up in the art of disputing, that they lose sight of the initial problem. They also lose sight of their roots.
"People have been arguing for so long and don't even realize they are related to each other, so that's when knowing the family history is important," he said.
Too many times the issue takes a back seat to personal feelings, Erasmus said.
"It's human relations, that is what you are dealing with," he said.
To get past that, Erasmus said mediators and go-betweens must realize that one side cannot win a dispute.
"You have to be neutral. You can't choose sides," he said. "If only one side wins then the dispute starts over again very quickly."
Instead of a victory, the end result should be a compromise. That compromise must be made by the disputing parties, not the mediator.
As the person in the middle, "you are not the one to resolve it. They do that. All you are is a go-between or a conduit."
After years of experience and countless negotiations, Erasmus said there is no secret to conflict resolution, but at the same time there is no formula either.
"You have to go with what you have. There's no book out there that tells you how to do it. You have to go by your instincts."
Erasmus said disputes have been taking place since time began, but lately the issues have been getting into the mainstream spotlight.
He isn't sure if shedding more light onto disputes can do harm or will benefit First Nations groups in Canada.
Jane Woodward with the Native Studies program at Edmonton's Grant MacEwan Community College, said the average Canadian is seeing more and more Native issues in the media these days, and part of that increase is due to disputes and troubles in the Native communities.
"We do get a lot of ink, but not a whole lot is positive," she said, adding that bad press can lead to some good exposure.
"We've always had media attention because everything we do is new, different and exotic" compared to mainstream society, she said.
Recent media coverage in Alberta regarding financial troubles at the Stoney Reserve near Calgary and conflict between the council and band members at the Samson Reserve in Hobbema, along with past disputes like the Oka crisis in Quebec, is an opening that Native communities could use to their advantage, she said.
Media attention, because of disputes, could be used to highlight other, more positive aspects of Native communities, she said.
"What people are getting now is just the tip of the iceberg," Woodward said. "Little by little we chip away at it and it's an education really."
Mel Buffalo, the president of the Indian Association of Alberta said it is either fortunate or unfortunate that Native disputes are now being "caught in the public eye."
He said the provincial office of his organization has been fielding calls from First Nation members from across the province about problems on several reserves.
Buffalo said the reason why so many disputes are now coming to the surface is not clear, but it might be due to the economy and the lack of money making it to Native communities.
Buffalo said disputes are not only taking place in Aboriginal communities, but across the board.
"It seems like its happening more," he said.
In many cases it is the accountability of leadership that is in question. More people are speaking out about their leaders, he said.
In order to work out a dispute, Buffalo said community members need to be brought into the picture.
If troubles are taking place at a band level, the band membership must be kept informed, he said.
Although there is a tendency to keep band politics and troubles a private matter, the public deserves to know what is going on. Otherwise more problems can arise.
"It's an in-house matter, but it also has to be quasi-public," he said.
David Newhouse, the chairman and associate professor at Trent University's Department of Native Studies in Peterborough, Ont., believes the best way to settle disputes is to change the system of government used by Aboriginal people on First Nations.
He said providing true self government to First Nations would solve many of the problems now being faced.
In fact, he said, the issues and concerns now occurring on First Nations across Canada are a positive step. It means that a change is needed.
Disputes now, said Newhouse, can be attributed to the inability of many First Nations to work under guidelines created by the Federal government and a European style of democracy.
A separate style of government created by Native people and for Native people could alleviate some of the current problem areas, he said.
Accountability is one of the areas that needs to be re-addressed, he said. The people have very little say about how their communities are run.
"There's very little local input into a local First Nation government," he said. That is not, however, the fault of the leadership in most First Nations, he said. Existing tribal policy, for the most part, does not allow for that kind of input.
"There are very few mechanisms in place to help [a chief and council] report to the citizens about what it is doing, so therefore you get a lot of disputes," he said.
Off reserves, the mainstream government structure allows for public input. Newhouse said there are planning groups, advocacy groups and citizens councils to help bridge the gap between the leaders and the people. The rights and formation of such groups is included in municipal government acts across Canada. Most Native communities don't have those avenues available to them.
In a 1992 report on the status of Aboriginal government, Newhouse indicates that it should be up to the people to set their own policy and provide avenues for appeal of that policy. If it all stays in-house, the Aboriginal people will have a greater sense of self-worth and be better able to deal with their own problems.
Even with these new policies in place, Newhouse said disputes would still take place. No matter what a government does, it will not please all of the people all of the time.
"There are always going to be disputes between government and policy and the people," he said. "The development of government has never been smooth. It will take a series of steps to get to self government.
But with a more open system that brings the people represented in a First Nation closer to the leadership, finding a compromise may come a little easier than holding blockades and sit-ins.
What we are seeing in First Nations across the country, he said, with the blockades and sit-ins and calls for band financial audits, is a sign that things are ready for change. They are not negative occurrences, but positive signs that things need to be altered.
"We are beginning to see the stress cracks," said Newhouse. "I'm not convinced that things coming apart is a sign of bad things. It's a start to move toward self government and that's a very healthy sign," he said.
All tobacco is a very powerful and dangerous substance. Whether it is gathered in the wild, raised by Native Americans, or purchased in the form of cigarettes, cigars and other commercial products, tobacco has the power to cause very serious illness and death. When used properly and with respect, in small amounts in traditional American Indian ceremonies, tobacco is a positive source of power. When misused, especially in the form of cigarettes, snuff, cigars and other commercial products, tobacco is a deadly killer. - Information from the Traditional Native American Tobacco Seed Bank and Education Program.
By Kenneth Williams
Windspeaker Staff Writer
Numerous health problems plague Aboriginal people: HIV and AIDS, diabetes, alcohol or other substance abuse, and suicide are just a few. The human cost is enormous as these problems do more than just claim the lives of the victims. There is often longer-term secondary damage done as a result of these illnesses. The break-up of families, the strain on health care resources, and the imperceptible cost to communities that lose productive members are all part of the fall-out.
As bad as these health problems are, they are recognized and, to a greater or lesser extent, treated. But one of the most damaging health threats is one that is the most preventable, yet plagues Aboriginal people more than any other: tobacco addiction.
Aboriginal people in North America have the highest rate of smoking than any other population. A 15-year study in the United States showed that the American Indian and Alaskan Native adult population had about 40 per cent rate of tobacco use. This is the highest percentage when compared to the African-American, Asian, Hispanic and White adult populations.
The numbers are worse in Canada. According to a recent Health Canada survey, 57 per cent of Aboriginal adults and 54 per cent of Aboriginal teenagers are smokers. Worse yet, these numbers may indeed be higher. An analysis of the data indicated that Aboriginal people under-report smoking in surveys conducted by non-Aboriginal people. Just for comparison, the national rate of smoking is 31 per cent.
The Inuit had the highest percentage of smokers of any group in Canada with 72 per cent of the adult population using the product. Inuit youth (19 years or younger) reported a 71 per cent rate of smoking.
"It's a tragedy," said Garfield Mahood, executive director of the Ottawa based Non-Smokers' Rights Association. "It's another indication of the exploitation of another population in this country. Given that one out of every two users will be killed by the product, that means a lot preventable death."
Aboriginal people, however, have had a long term relationship with tobacco. It is a plant indigenous to North and South America. The tobacco used in commercial cigarettes today is a descendent from a species that the Spaniards took from the Arawak and Carib Indians of the Caribbean. But the plant today bears little resemblance to its ancestor because it has been altered through 500 years of selective breeding to increase it's nicotine potency and leaf size.
Before the arrival of Columbus, Aboriginal people never used tobacco for recreational purposes. It was, and is, a powerful plant that was ingested - smoked or chewed - for strictly religious purposes. That quickly changed after European contact. The Spaniards saw the profitable potential of tobacco and began using the leaves and seeds for trade. Pretty soon newer strains were being created for milder flavor and bigger leaves. This was called 'trade tobacco.'
The European nations that settled eastern North America used tobacco for trading. Aboriginal people soon picked up the habit and started smoking trade tobacco recreationally. Tobacco never lost its religious significance, but the original strains used for ceremonies became rarer because they weren't traded. Inevitably, trade tobacco began to be used in religious ceremonies because it was easier to find. It is now common for commercial tobacco to be used at Aboriginal sacred ceremonies without a second thought to its lack of it spiritual significance.
The increased nicotine potency of trade tobacco also ensured that addiction the product was much easier. Nicotine can be lethal on its own, but in a commercially produced cigarette, it is but one of 4,700 chemical compounds found in the product, including 43 cancer-causing substances.
According to a Health Canada report called Eating Smoke: A Review of Non-Traditional Use of Tobacco Among Aboriginal People , smoking tobacco causes 85 per cent of all lung cancers and is linked to cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, pancreas, stomach, kidney, ureter, bladder and colon. It has also been linked to some cases of leukemia and 30 per cent of cervical cancer cases in women. In total, about 30 per cent of all cancer deaths are related to smoking cigarettes.
But that's not all. Smokers are at a higher risk of suffering cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke, sudden death, heart attack, peripheral vascular disease and aortic aneurysm. Smoking is also the leading cause of pulmonary (lung related) illnesses due to respiratory infection, pneumonia, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and influenza.
According to Health Canada, Aboriginal men living on reserves have a 40 per cent higher death rate from stroke than other Canadians. Aboriginal women on reserves have a 62 per cent higher rate of heart disease. Lung cancer is a major cause of death among Inuit people, with Inuit women having one of the highest rates in the world. All of these can be traced to smoking.
But smokers aren't the only ones who suffer.
Environmental tobacco smoke, otherwise known as second-hand smoke, is just as dangerous. The Environmental Protection Agency in the United States has declared environmental tobacco smoke a class "A" carcinogen, which means it causes cancer in humans.
Non-smokers who live with smokers have a 30 per cent higher risk of death from heart attack and lung cancer. The longer the non-smoker is exposed to smoke, the higher the risk.
A recent study indicated that Aboriginal babies died from sudden infant death syndrome at a rate three-times higher than the Canadian average. The Canadian average of sudden infant death syndrome is 0.7 per 1,000 births, whereas the Aboriginal average is 2.5 per 1,000 births. According to Dr. Michael Moffat, a pediatrician at the University of Manitoba and a researcher working on the study, smoking was a major factor in this statistic.
Lead researcher, Dr. Elske Hidles-Ripstein, found that Aboriginal mothers were more than twice as likely as non-Aboriginal mothers to smoke during their pregnancies. Her findings indicated that 53 per cent of Aboriginal mothers smoked while pregnant compared to just 26 per cent of non-Aboriginal mothers.
In the April 1996 issue of Pediatrics magazine, a study examined the relationship between women smoking during pregnancy and the rate of mental retardation in their babies. The researchers from Emory University, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and Battelle Centres for Public Health, Research and Evaluation discovered that women who smoked were 50 per cent more likely to have a child with mental retardation - an IQ of 70 or less - of an unknown medical origin than non-smoking mothers.higher rates of spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, lower birth weight babies and complications during delivery. It has also been discovered that nursing mothers can pass the harmful chemicals from tobacco to the infant even though the baby has not been directly exposed to second-hand smoke. Evidence also shows that second-hand smoke can cause developmental delays and behavioral problems in children.
Young women are picking up the smoking habit faster than any other segment of the population. This trend has meant that lung cancer is now the leading cause of cancer death for women, surpassing breast cancer. Part of the reason for young women smoking more is their mistaken belief that it can be used to control their weight.
Two studies in Canada and the United States indicated that most smokers start before the age of 20. According to a 1994 Health Canada study, smoking will be responsible for premature death (that is, death before the age of 70) in 55 per cent of young men and 51 per cent of young women now aged 15 if they continue to smoke.
"It's the number one preventable cause of morbidity and mortality in the entire population," said Mahood. "There's nothing else out there that is going to kill one out of every two users."
There is no data available on why Aboriginal people are more prone to smoking but some studies have shown a correlation between poverty, high unemployment, low income and high rates of smoking. Poverty is definitely a problem on most reserves in Canada, and is a problem for most off-reserve Aboriginal people as well.
There are several anti-smoking and non-smoking organizations and health groups that are trying to educate people about the dangers of tobacco. But it's tough convincing Aboriginal people about the dangers of tobacco when they see it as a sacred plant necessary for traditional ceremonies.
The Traditional Native American Tobacco Seed Bank and Education Program at the University of New Mexico is making an attempt to maintain the traditional-ceremonial use of tobacco while educating people about the dangers of its misuse.
Joseph Winter runs the program, cultivates seeds and plants of traditional tobacco and distributes them free to Aboriginal people, tribes and organizations that need them for sacred ceremonies. He also issues a pamphlet that outlines the proper use of tobacco. It states: Under no circumstances should you smoke, chew, or otherwise ingest tobacco, for non-traditional so-called "pleasure." This applies to Native Americans as well as non-Native Americans.
The Pauktuutit Inuit Women's Association started a non-smoking campaign called Breathing Easy. According to statistics the organization has compiled, 30 per cent of Nunavik (northern Quebec) deaths are caused by tobacco use.
Health Canada has outlined a 12-point action list to educate Aboriginal people about tobacco use, based on the World Health Organization plan for tobacco control.
There is a reason for concern. If 50 per cent of smokers die prematurely, and about 50 per cent of Aboriginal Canadians smoke, then 25 per cent of the total Aboriginal population is destined to die prematurely. But what does that mean in real numbers? The First Nations population in Canada is about 600,000. According to the statistics, about one-quarter of them, or 150,000 First Nations people, will die prematurely because of tobacco-related illnesses. The economic, social, cultural, political and health care consequences are staggering.
If you're a careful reader of the mainstream press, you can stitch together the types of stories that get national front page exposure and from them get an idea of what a typical daily newspaper editor believes are the essential issues in Aboriginal communities.
Stories about corruption, incompetence, secrecy and other equally unflattering scenarios on reserves or in Aboriginal organizations will always make their way into the newspapers.
Most people will tell you that those stories should get attention.
But what seems to be missing, many band council or tribal council officials will tell you, is any attempt to understand what's really going on beyond the initial sensation.
In Indian country there does seem to be an impression that the journalists have already made up their minds about Aboriginal people and their institutions. The way the mainstream press zeroes in on stories about financial mismanagement, alcoholism, family violence, nepotism, or welfare dependency indicates they've decided that Aboriginal people and their institutions are primitive and unsophisticated and in need of some help from the 'more advanced' majority.
Why else is it that every time there's a report of a band operating in a deficit or encountering budget problems that Reform Party members or prominent business-oriented think-tanks or other conservative establishment groups immediately pronounce that Aboriginal people are not ready for self government? And, more importantly, why would the mainstream press think nothing of reporting those people saying such things without examining what those comments represent?
Several years ago, when former CBS sports analyst Jimmy "the Greek" Snider decided to tell his large, national viewing audience that Black people weren't suited for a particular sport because of their genetic make-up, his broadcasting career ended soon afterwards. That's because he was spouting the kind of pure bigoted ignorance that forever labeled him as undeserving of a national audience. Is there any difference between Jimmy the Greek's comments and those of a government bureaucrat or politician who concludes that an entire race of people are not ready to govern themselves because of a few problems?
Aboriginal leaders say "no." They say similar problems exist in Ottawa or in provincial or local governments. They wonder why reporters aren't writing that people involved in non-Aboriginal governments aren't ready to govern themselves. Their budgets aren't balanced. There's evidence of corruption with the awarding of government contracts in their departments. Shouldn't their race be labeled as deficient as well?
Is there any difference between Jimmy the Greek's comments and Canadian news organizations repeating the comments about Aboriginal people not being ready for self government? Only the difference between black and white, Aboriginal people would say.
By reporting such stories without diving into investigating and exposing the racism inherent in the comments is to contribute to the racism and perpetuate it. When this is seen to be happening on a fairly regular basis, it creates a very high level of mistrust about the mainstream press for First Nations people.
As a result, when mainstream reporters come to call they are treated with suspicion and rarely given much co-operation. The reporters are only human. They resent the antagonism they're greeted with. This affects the approach they take to the story. The story is written in an antagonistic mood. That makes the relationship between the First Nation in question and the press just that much worse.
It becomes a counter-productive, even destructive cycle: the story creates more distrust which creates more antagonism which creates more negative coverage and even more resentment in the Aboriginal community.
So what's the answer? The press isn't going to go away.
There are actually a couple of possible answers. First, somebody has to point out the mainstream's mistakes and try to educate people to be more understanding of what it is like to be a member of a minority group in Canadian society. Second, more Aboriginal people have to be become participants in the communications media so that the mistakes are spotted before the stories make it to print or onto the airwaves. To this end, more Aboriginal people are working in the mainstream press and, at the same time, the Aboriginal press is growing and gaining credibility.
But as the Aboriginal press grows there are more problems to solve. Reserve communities are typically small and rural; the most populous reserve in the country has, at most ,9,000 residents. Newspapers and electronic media outlets operate on the same basis: the more people they reach the more advertising revenue they generate and the better the job they can afford to do and still be profitable.
Doing business in a small community means relatively low revenue and unsophisticated operations. The typical reserve newspaper is a weekly with a small staff. That staff is usually made up of inexperienced, entry level journalists who work with few of the advantages that daily papers have - things like libraries, electronic data bases, expensive resource material, even the time it takes to allow a reporter to spend a couple of days on one story and really explore it in depth. And reserve newspapers are still a relatively new phenomenon, especially independent papers that aren't propped up with band council funding.
The current generation of Aboriginal politicians can remember the days when their every move wasn't scrutinized by a critical press. That makes them resentful. Many still haven't adjusted.
Because regular reporting on band councils is a relatively new thing, media relations skills have only recently become important tools for a chief or band councillor. Some are better than others at handling the media or, to put it in a way that has a more positive connotation, some are more able to interact with the media without creating damaging misunderstandings. It's a skill to be able to tell a reporter your story without being misunderstood on some points. It takes very strong communication skills, especially when there is a cultural barrier between the reporter and the subject of the interview.
If both parties - the newsmakers and the reporters - want to overcome the cultural barrier and get accurate information out to the people, then both sides should be ready to work at it. Many Aboriginal politicians resent the time they have to spend with the media. Many just don't bother returning phone calls or providing the information that reporters request.
In the mainstream, politicians have been dealing with the press for a long time and there are long-standing traditions and protocols that govern the way the two work together. Thoughtless mainstream reporters assume that Aboriginal politicians know these unwritten rules and have agreed to follow them as a condition of running for office. Therefore, a call not returned or an information request denied, in the reporter's mind, automatically signals a cover-up or an intentional evasion. A simple unreturned phone call can cause suspicion and antagonism.
Mainstream reporters and editors like to talk about fairness. To them, fairness is about treating everybody the same. However, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the law of the land guarantees a special status for Aboriginal people. As many judges have written in the last several years, Aboriginal people were here first, they have special rights. That bothers some decision-makers in newsrooms in this country.
For example, during a conference at Montreal's McGill University earlier this year, Andrew Coyne, one of the most respected columnists in Canada, became embroiled in a now famous battle with former national chief Ovide Mercredi over just that subject and it was clear that Coyne, an intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed voice for the establishment, was never going to see why it has to be that way for Aboriginal people.
Coyne argued that it was time for Aboriginal people to give up their special rights and become nothing more or less than regular everyday Canadians. He argued that basic human rights are universal and should apply to everyone equally. Mercredi angrily countered that Coyne was asking for assimilation. He was asking Aboriginal people to forget about the past, forget about that world that was theirs in the days before European contact.
Mercredi said it was sheer arrogance for a white European to say 'All people should be the same and they should all be like me.'
Boiled down to its crudest form, Coyne was saying 'Why can't you Indians act like regular people?'
Mercredi's answer was: 'As far as we're concerned we do and we're NOT going to change. If we haven't given up our culture and heritage despite all you've done to wipe us off the face of the earth, do you really think we ever will?'
Aboriginal people and those of European descent each have a fundamentally different way of looking at the world. The mainstream would like everybody to be the same and Aboriginal people are saying 'no way!'
Understanding that fundamental difference is the biggest gap that needs to be crossed to ensure good press relations for First Nations people. Some First Nations have decided to tackle that chore, to meet the press half-way and give themselves a sporting chance at having their point of view relayed to the average Canadian who reads the paper and watches television news.
In particular, several British Columbia First Nations have distinguished themselves for their media savvy. The Cheslatta have waged a long and determined fight to gain compensation for lands that were flooded in the 1950s to make way for Alcan Aluminum's Kemano Project. They've had a long time to learn how to avoid the pitfalls of the public eye and they've had some notable victories.
When there's an important bargaining session of the Nisga'a agreement-in-principle coming up, the Nisga'a public relations people get into gear. The press is informed before the fact, the background is provided, access to knowledgeable spokespeople is facilitated. Likewise with the Wet'suwet'en and Gitxsan people. During the long years when their Delgamuuk land claim case has slowly climbed the judicial ladder the First Nations have learned how to make their point with the press.
At the same time, there are occasional cases where a band council tries to ban the press. The Consolidated Regulations of Canada say that regular band council meetings must be open to the public. Some councils have decided that only general meetings are 'regular' meetings, and committee meetings can be closed. That gives councils the option to do a majority of their business in closed session, something that the membership and the press feel can lead to corruption.
In late summer of 1997, beginning at the Stoney Reserve in Alberta and spreading to other communities in the province, dissident groups began to demand more accountability from their chiefs and councils. The Stoney case began when a provincial court judge ordered an inquiry into the band's finances. The province and Indian Affairs both objected to the judge's decision. But members say that only the band council establishment is benefiting from the band's oil wealth.
Close observers of band council politics have long noted that nepotism and political influence in the awarding of government contracts at the local level are rampant in many First Nations. Most observers, not just journalists, believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant, that openness is the only way to avoid these pitfalls.
When a group of people who had been central in the call for more accountability on the Stoney Reserve travelled to Ottawa they were not welcomed by government officials who, one might think, would be anxious to address their concerns. Instead, they complained that they were given the 'run-around.'
Many Aboriginal observers, who have lived their entire lives under the Indian Act, and have learned how the system really works, believe the federal government doesn't want the true extent of band council mismanagement and lack of accountability to ever be exposed. The observers say that Indian Affairs has created the mess and it's not in their best interest to ever find out just how extensive that mess might be or who's really responsible. They say the band council system is not all that different from the Canadian system, a system which is not nearly as open as the average Canadian believes.
Any journalist who has ever tried to discover what the Cabinet is doing during their meetings or what transpires when the powerful Bureau of Internal Economy (the all-party committee which sets the working budget for the House of Commons) meets, will agree - some of the most important work done by the people's representatives in Canada is never revealed to the people.
The press has a huge responsibility. Reporters must keep shining the light on those who do the people's work to ensure that all the people are represented. Politicians and bureaucrats frequently feel that the press makes their job harder. That might be true but the unrest and controversy that continues to haunt band politics is a sure sign that only openness will leave the people feeling secure they are being treated fairly.
That's a lesson that all public servants - Aboriginal or otherwise - will learn as they continue in their careers. If they're smart they'll choose to learn it the easy way.
Compared to timeless works like the Magna Carta, the United States Constitution or the Iroquois Confederacy's Great Law of Peace, the Indian Act isn't much. But for the 600-odd band councils in Canada, it's the alpha and omega of day-to-day life.
The original Indian Act was written in the last century at a time when Aboriginal people were still being hunted for sport by colonial powers. That's not news, it's documented fact. European settlers found the Indigenous peoples' presence and claim on the lands and resources of the New World to be a problem that could be treated like a gopher infestation. That attitude is clearly present, especially in the earliest versions of the act.
The Indian Act was last given a major overhaul in the 1950s. In those days, Aboriginal people in Canada were risking criminal conviction if they attempted to hire lawyers to represent their interests; Aboriginal veterans were fine enough to serve in the Canadian army during the Second World War, but they couldn't have a drink with their comrades when they returned home because of race barriers that rivaled anything that the southern United States of South Africa had on offer. The act was modernized to reflect an only slightly more benevolent approach than the one of 'Great White Father' paternalism or the ruthless Conquistador mentality of the original framers. Yet the aim of the legislators in the 1950s still appeared to be condescendingly geared toward ending all cultural, legal and political distinctions between themselves and Aboriginal people.
If you read between the lines, it's very easy to see that the Indian Act was passed and amended by the Parliament of Canada to serve as an interim law that would deal with the 'Indian problem' for the time it took the government and its bureaucracy to find a permanent solution to that problem - total assimilation.
Assimilation has always been on the table. Traditional people say that band councils were established (frequently at the point of a gun) to let Aboriginal people preside over their own destruction. When you look at it from that point of view, it appears to be a chillingly malevolent move for a government to make, especially one for a country with a reputation as a liberal democracy that values human rights.
In many First Nation communities there is a serious split between those who have embraced the Indian Act system and those who have not. That is a very painful division that does great harm to these communities. It doesn't get as much attention as the harm done by the residential school system and other attempts by the churches and governments to convert Aboriginal people into Euro-Canadians, but the harm done by the loss of traditional Aboriginal self government systems is every bit as harmful. Bitterness and suspicion poison all dealings between the two sides. The traditional people call the band council supporters sell-outs and traitors. The band council supporters are outraged by such serious attacks. They are frozen between where they'd like to be (serving their people with honor in the traditional way as they believe their pre-contact leaders did) and where they feel they must be (functioning in a modern world in the best possible way.)
The average reserve community has a population of a few hundred people. The band council performs a similar function to that of a municipal government for those people but there are crucial differences between the two political systems.
Because band councils don't rely on the taxation of their people to pay for services, the money comes from the federal treasury. The tax-exempt status of Aboriginal people has its roots in agreements between the European settlers and the original inhabitants of what is now Canada. Land was made available to the newcomers in exchange for a guarantee that Indigenous people would never have to submit to the Crown's taxation. In most cases, the Aboriginal leaders of the time saw themselves to be representing separate nations; they were allies, not subjects, of the Crown. Somehow, through the course of westward expansion and settlement, the settlers assumed political control over all the lands and people. That control was frequently obtained by force.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 spelled out exactly how land could be acquired from the Indigenous population in British North America. The British king wanted his representatives in North America to uphold the honor of the Crown by dealing fairly and openly with the Indigenous peoples. That high water mark in the behavior of the colonizing powers has left an expensive legacy for modern governments.
One of the biggest, if not the most obvious, sub-texts of life in Indian country - especially in the deficit cutting mania of the 1990s - has been the federal government's attempts to minimize the cost of keeping legitimate and legally binding promises made by their predecessors to the ancestors of Aboriginal people.
In the federal election of 1994, the soon-to-be-elected Liberal Party of Canada pledged to support the inherent right of Aboriginal people to govern themselves. It looked like a huge stride forward. It appeared that the federal government was prepared to make a radical departure from the assimilation policies of previous administrations. Subsequently, when then-Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin introduced his department's plan to implement self government, the plan was not particularly well-received by Aboriginal leaders. The self government plan put forward by the federal government did not recognize the power to govern was inherent. It delegated power from Ottawa to the First Nations and it was a very subordinate power, certainly not a recognition of sovereign First Nation governments. The federal government, even under a minister as progressive as Irwin, showed the world that it had no intention of sharing any of the real power that it possesses.
The philisophical problems of the Indian Act are only the beginning of the many problems facing Aboriginal governments. A band council or tribal council with an annual budget of $40 to 50 million dollars (Saskatchewan's Meadow Lake Tribal Council and Ontario's Six Nations are both in that range) has a complex job to do as it goes about providing services for its membership. It's a job that is on the same scale as that faced by a good-sized town council.
But unlike in a municipal government's budget, there is no money in the Indian Affairs budget for a full-time planner or legal department or other professional supports. As the population in First Nations grows (and the Aboriginal population is growing at a faster rate than the overall population) the pressures on band councils will grow accordingly.
Robert Manuel, a former chief of British Columbia's Neskonlith band who ran unsuccessfully for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has seen the pressure and complexity of the job of chief or councillor grow during his quarter-century in politics. He believes the Assembly of First Nations must become a counter-bureaucracy that can handle the complex political manouvering that is required so bands can hold their own when faced with government policies that are contrary to the best interests of band members. That's only because there is no money for each band council government to set up their own collection of skilled help.
Aboriginal people in Canada watched closely as the United States handed over authority to American tribes many years ago. The Aboriginal people south of the border took over budgets and authority for many things that the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs had looked after for many years. The mistake that the American tribes made was in not figuring in the cost of legal and professional services that were provided to the bureau by other branches of the government. Those support systems were expensive and were not part of the budgets the tribes took control of. The extra cost soon had the tribal governments in over their heads. In many cases they were forced to sell off their precious land base to survive. This led to the infamous checker-board reservations where land reserved for the tribe was dotted with plots that had been sold off to non-Aboriginal owners in order to raise money.
Traditional leaders believe it was yet another attempt to finish them off. First Nations began with the entire North American continent. Within a couple of hundred years, their population decimated by disease and the Indian wars, they were reduced to living on tiny patches of land, land that was almost always the least valuable, least attractive real estate. It seems quite reasonable that some Aboriginal people are suspicious of every move that the non-Aboriginal governments make.
History suggests they'd be fools not to be.
But the continued growth of the Aboriginal community and its unwavering determination to preserve its culture and traditions, no matter what, suggests that there's going to have to be a major change in the way the game is played.
That change will take one of two forms: a mutually acceptable replacement for the Indian Act that includes a reasonable settlement of land claims; or Canada will have to finally give up all pretense of trying to deal fairly with Indigenous people.
Museums and cultural centres preserve a people's history. The artifacts and memories can be seen through display cases or in photographs, but what about a language?
Who preserves a culture's language?
Historically, Aboriginal language has been passed down from one generation to the next. It is an oral relay from a community's Elders to the youth. So what happens if the flow is disturbed? What happens if a single generation fails to pass on the wisdom of the Elders?
According to a report compiled in 1990 by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Aboriginal People, 43 of Canada's 53 Native languages are "on the verge of extinction." Ten more are described as threatened. Only three: Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut were believed to be strong enough to survive.
Joe Chosa, an Elder with the Lac du Flambeau Ojibway Tribe in Wisconsin, is one of three people taking on the task of teaching the local dialect of the Ojibway language to the people there.
Chosa said teaching a language is more than just words.
"We are trying to teach them to be proud of who they are and proud of their heritage, proud of the things that we do."
He said it is a slow process for several reasons. The Ojibway language is complex, consisting of a number of words that are very similar, but mean very different things. Another reason is that the language has been nearly wiped out after years of attempted assimilation.
"The culture was taken away from us during the boarding school days and from. . . religion. We'd like to bring the language back to our people," Chosa said.
The language classes are getting a good reception from the community, Chosa said, but more can be done.
Local schools are now offering Ojibway language classes. Grade 1 to 8 students in the Lac du Flambeau area are now being taught the language.
Gregg Guthrie, the acting director at the George W. Brown Jr. Ojibway Museum and Cultural Centre in Lac du Flambeau is one of the big supporters of the language revitalization.
Although the Ojibway language is one of the stronger Aboriginal languages, the local dialect is in danger of disappearing, said Guthrie.
He compared the threat to that of endangered animals and birds.
"When its gone, its gone for ever."
He said the three Elders teaching now are just about the last of the 3,000 tribal members who still know the language and the customs of their people.
In order to boost the number of people speaking their language, Guthrie said the Elders have recorded audio tapes. The tapes and classroom lessons are available to anyone who is interested, he said.
The tapes will help to spread the teachings on a wider scale.
"Before that there were only individuals talking in the homes. Now it's a matter of public access," he said.
Aboriginal language classes are becoming more and more of a common site across the continent.
In Canada, public school boards are now offering Native language classes in many schools. First Nation schools are also realizing the need to begin traditional language instruction.
The Chief Taylor Elementary School in Onion Lake, Sask., is taking the learning a step further. The school is teaching Cree immersion. Songs, books, pictures and lessons are all taught in the Plains Cree dialect. The students stay in the immersion program from nursery school to Grade 3. They then switch to a combination of Cree and English instruction.
"If the teachers can talk to them in Cree and the parents reinforce it at home, then the language becomes a natural, living part of their lives," said Brian MacDonald, head of the Cree curriculum development team at Onion Lake's Saskatchewan Learning Centre.
Keeping a language alive and useful is paramount to its survival. One language that has survived and is expected to remain strong is Inuktitut.
Part of the reason for that is that the language has not been allowed to fade away. It is estimated that there are at least 60,000 Inuktitut speakers in Canada.
As Aboriginal immersion schools are not yet common across the country, neither are newspapers written in Native text.
Nunatsiaq News is the exception. The paper has been serving the eastern Arctic region of the country for over 20 years and prints stories in both English and Inuktitut.
In the mainstream papers, said Nunatsiaq News editor Dwane Wilkin, there are a few more which are bilingual with French and English printing, but none with Aboriginal and English words.
"For us it is the ability to reach readers who are uni-lingual - Inuktitut readers who only know Inuktitut."
Wilkin said he hopes the paper is helping to keep the language alive.
"It's a working language and if people don't use it, then it becomes a dead language."
The paper is helping to keep the language "vibrant and useful," he said.
Relying on the written words or recorded words instead of direct relay of a language from one generation to the next may be a benefit in the survival of a language. It is also opening up some economic benefits for Aboriginal people.
Joe Chalifoux is with the marketing wing of Duval House Publishing Inc. in Edmonton. Duval House has created a First Nation's language learning series made up of books, tapes and now CD's for school-aged children across the country.
"The response has been great, phenomenal," said Chalifoux. "We've been getting orders from across the country."
Duval House offers starter courses and intermediate courses in Cree, and starter courses in Ojibway, Dene and Swampy Cree, just to name a few.
The use of written and recorded teachings is very important in keeping a language alive, said Chalifoux.
"It is teaching more and preserving [the languages]," he said.
Alberta's Treaty 6, and in particular the Saddle Lake First Nation, helped to get the Cree learning series going, and the Samson Cree are currently working on getting a course ready for the publishing company to market.
Chalifoux said it is important for all First Nations to work together to help preserve the language and cultures of all Aboriginal people.
"We work with the Elders all the time. We make sure the Elders and the nations are involved."
Donna Peskemin is the new Cree language instructor at the University of Alberta Native Studies program. She sees the economic spin-off that the resurgence in the Aboriginal language is producing, and she also sees the need to keep the learning curve growing.
"We have to see our language not as a problem any more, but as a resource. I'm making a career out of my language."
Peskemin said to relearn your own language is a step toward the future that needs the lessons of the past to succeed.
"Now we have to return to the wisdom of our Elders to return to the language," she said.
She said all Aboriginal people need to work together to help the cause.
"We need to expand. We need to work together to promote our languages. . . We all need to come together and revive it and educate our Native youth."
Languages like Cree are moving in the right direction because most of the words are already in written form, she said.
"But a lot of other languages are disappearing. Elders who do have the wisdom are passing on so fast. We need to make the commitment and recognize the need now."
If nothing is done, it won't take long before even the Cree language will be gone, except for a few people who learned it.
"I don't want to be lonely in 15 years," she said.
Basil Johnston, a language instructor living in the Chippewas of Nawash [Cape Croker] First Nation, near Wiarton, Ont., said he has been trying to increase the use of Aboriginal language for 30 years.
Johnston, who has published several teaching guides on Native languages along with a thesaurus for schools, said teaching an Aboriginal language has to be handled very delicately.
"There are all sorts of new things being taught, but they aren't getting down and doing something that will re-kindle the language."
He said the language needs to be learned as it was spoken by traditional ancestors of the community.
Teaching needs to be more than just linguistics, he said. It has to include the spirit and heart of the words.
"Students would learn to speak the language rather than just memorize lists of words and their genders."
He recommended that people first get the truth about the heritage and history of the Aboriginal people, then attempt to learn the language.
Johnston, who's mother tongue is Anishinabe, said teachers must also learn the language they are teaching, and learn it well.
"It is not just the grammar, not just the basic words. You need to know the meaning of words and their history and you need to know all that if you are going to be an effective teacher," he said.
After 30 years of teaching and researching, Johnston said he does not feel that he has succeeded and to him, that is a disappointment.
Johnston said what is left is hope.
"The only thing we can do is to do the best we can and be satisfied with that. We have to hope that there are people out there who will learn the language."
It is up to the strength, power and determination of individuals to keep languages alive, he said.
"When it's gone, that's it. No more Indians," he said.
Plans are being developed
If changes are to come, action needs to take place. Relying on the people is one thing, but giving them a way to deal with the situation is another.
Heather Blair, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta Faculty of Education, said steps need to be taken on three levels to make sure a language will survive.
The community, schools and Elders need to promote the use of the mother language. On a larger scale, more support for Aboriginal languages needs to come from provincial and federal levels.
People, including non- Native people, also need to place more value on Aboriginal languages, she said.
Blair helped to spearhead a study in Saskatchewan this past May on the importance of keeping language strong.
Blair said it is difficult to determine when a language is in danger of being lost. It can sometimes just be in a state of change, but when a language is on the verge of disappearing, it happens all too quickly, she said. It is hoped the study she and a number of researchers conducted will wake up many communities to the importance of preserving their languages, and to show others the importance of Aboriginal languages in any society.
The intensive study, Indian Languages Policy and Planning in Saskatchewan: Research Report, looked at language and language education in six northern Saskatchewan communities. Within the 127-page document, there is a quote from the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations which reads:
We, the Indian people of Saskatchewan, are determined to retain our languages. We are oral people. The spoken word holds the key to our reality. Our Elders are the trustees, teachers, and interpreters of our complex heritage. We are determined to return to the source of our wisdom and to learn anew. We hear the Elder's words and are striving to understand. We are determined to give our children the opportunity to be involved in our unique world views, histories, legends, stories, humor, social rules, morality, and ways of seeing and describing our worlds. Our languages teach us these things. We cannot afford to lose them.
The study, available from Saskatchewan Education, contains action steps and recommendations for communities to follow as a way to preserve their languages.
A main goal noted in the study is for communities to organize action plans to keep language and language education strong. People can't just hope for change, we have to provide the means for change to happen.
"It is going to take time, effort and money. The task is enormous and urgent, but with comprehensive planning, commitment and serious work, some of these languages can be saved," noted Blair.
Pop up residential schools
I must apologize for being Indian
The Band Administrator
The more things change...
Interprovincial Pipe Line Inc.
Cree School Board
No End of Grief: Indian Residential Schools in Canada
Dr. Agnes Grant
Pemmican Publications Inc.
The book documents with disarming intensity the incredible betrayal of the Aboriginal people in this country, who had trusted the Canadian government to deliver the quality education promised in treaties.
The head-on collision between the civilizing forces of Christianity and the natural, holistic and established ways of ancient and complex cultures was to have devastating and long-term effects which are still felt today.
The suffering caused by the separation from parents, loss of language and repression of traditional ways and beliefs left several generations of Aboriginal children lost in a land of humiliation, bewilderment and alienation.
One of the most poignant and symbolic memories described by some of the survivors was the devastating loss of their long hair and braids, an important part of the ritual imposed by the nuns and priests to strip "the pagan and savage" identities from their little charges. Cutting off hair, explains Grant, is a key part of cross-cultural domination around the world.
Grant provides an honest and credible account of an era that many would probably like to forget or see swept under the carpet. But healing, she said, must begin with acknowledgment, not denial.
Generations of Aboriginal people still live with painful memories of residential schools. They are trying to deal with these memories and forgive the perpetrators, but are unable to forget.
"They ask only," writes Grant, "that justice be done in our time as they seek resources to restore the balance that was forcibly shattered by ruthless domination, human incompetence, Christian over-zealousness and government indifference."
Douglas & McIntyre
Stolen From Our Embrace is a joint effort by journalist Suzanne Fournier and Native activist and Sto:lo Fisheries manager Ernie Crey.
Through first-person accounts, they examine how First Nations children were forced into residential schools, foster homes and non-Native adoptions in foreign countries.
Fournier examines the causes of some of the most prevalent problems facing today's First Nations children and their communities, tracing drug, alcohol and sexual abuse back to the government imposed systems that led to the loss of culture, family and self.
"As a child, I was forcibly removed from Sto:lo culture by social welfare authorities," wrote Ernie Crey. "Our family life was shattered after seven of my eight siblings and I were split apart into separate foster homes. We were never again to be reunited as a family," writes Crey.
Crey tells of being bounced around to various non-Native foster homes, many of which were operated by pedophiles and overzealous disciplinarians.
"I had seen my father's spirit dimmed by the residential school where his culture was choked out of him, so that all his life he held his Halq'emeylem language and spiritual knowledge in check, depriving us, his children, of our most precious birthright," he said.
Stolen From Our Embrace is a eye-opening book for non-Native people who wish to learn more about their government's attempts at cultural genocide, or for Native people who wish to compare their own stories with the stories of others.
A History of Native Residential Schools
By James R. Miller
University of Toronto Press
Ojibwa Chief Shingwauk of the Garden River community near Sault Ste. Marie sought academic learning and instruction in skills that young people could use to maintain themselves and future generations. Shingwauk traveled to see the King's representative and extended an invitation that would prove to have a profound and unseen effect on Native people for generations to follow.
Native people quickly became disillusioned with the teaching practices of the European world. Very quickly, Aboriginal leaders found that residential schools were not what they had sought. Their attempts to stop the oppression of their culture would have little effect for more than a century.
Shingwauk's Vision provides a historical overview of the residential schools to which status Indian children were sent. Residential schools, which were authorized by the federal government and operated by several Christian missionary bodies, were designed to Christianize, assimilate and train Native children for economic self sufficiency. Their failure to provide successful academic and vocational training, in addition to their mistreatment of children, provoked opposition that contributed to their ultimate demise in the 1960s.
Shingwauk's Vision provides the first comprehensive historical treatment of this exercise in attempted social engineering.
James R. Miller's findings are based on more than a decade's research of government, denominational and Native sources. Of particular importance to the book are the interviews and personal testimonies of survivors.
The Band administrator: A one person bureaucracy
By Paul Barnsley
Windspeaker Staff Writer
Politicians get a lot of attention in the press. But the task of making a government function after the politicians have made the decisions is left to the bureaucracy.
#In Ottawa, as in all seats of federal power, tens of thousands of people conduct the business of government, each performing a carefully defined duty with a carefully defined reporting routine. Each is highly-trained to perform the assigned function. Likewise, provincial and municipal governments are big employers.
But in First Nations, where populations range from a couple of hundred people to several thousand, it's different.
There are no budgets, or enabling clauses that would allow the creation of budgets, provided in the federal legislation - the Indian Act - which would pay for an army of administrators and functionaries who could work in support of a First Nation government. You won't see a legal department or a planning department or a public relations department on a reserve, because there is no established annual budget for such fundamentally important parts of a legitimate government's job.
Without money to hire trained people to fulfill such difficult but important functions, the complicated task of over-seeing the various programs and departments falls on one person - the band administrator.
The band administrator has to be fully fluent in all provincial and federal legislation which affects funding sources for First Nations. He or she has to keep the band council from getting itself into legal or financial hot water. His or her job is to know the pitfalls of several very complicated and varied bureaucratic systems and be able to instantly spot a serious flaw in a council's decision. Whether it be federal housing or provincial social services legislation and policy, or any other of an astonishing number of areas of responsibility, the band administrator must be able to advise the elected council so they can make the right decisions. And, of course, the administrator is the natural scape-goat if things go wrong.
Relying on one person to juggle so much important information and to be responsible for so much can create its own set of problems for a chief and band council. Because the administrator is usually more educated than his or her political masters, (they hire an administrator for his or her expertise because they need it) it's not uncommon for the chief to become little more than a figurehead. The bureaucrat, the person with the knowledge, gets the power that was given by the voters to the politician. Although more and more Aboriginal people are getting into the field, it's frequently non-Aboriginal people who end up as band administrators.
Bill Wilson, a veteran British Columbia Aboriginal politician and traditional chief, believes it's not good for non-Aboriginal people to be in such powerful positions in First Nations governments, because European and Aboriginal cultures are so foreign to each other. But Wilson also sees it as inevitable because the band council system is a creation of the Indian Act which is a non-Aboriginal creation.
"Indian Affairs sets it up for failure," Wilson said. "There's no support system provided and no money to create your own."
Wilson believes that the answer is to get back to traditional methods of governance. In the traditional systems, he said, positions of political leadership were seen as an awesome responsibility. Leaders, although their positions were (and are) hereditary, had to spend the first 30 years or more of their lives proving to their community that they were fit to lead. That system is far superior to a democratic vote, Wilson said, because the process of choosing a leader does not degenerate into a popularity contest.
In the political system imposed under the Indian Act, (many First Nations people believe) positions of political leadership are seen as positions of power and personal prestige, not necessarily as responsibilities. They see their chiefs and councillors wielding authority without much attempt at - or taste for - accountability. Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart recently told reporters she spent a good part of the month of October 1997 telling chiefs that accountability and transparency is now a must. She also revealed that many chiefs vehemently protested her department's new accountability procedures. That suggests accountability and transparency have been sadly lacking in First Nation governments up to now, that in many cases the people who protested against the common practices of their band councils had legitimate grievances.
In early April of this year, the Assembly of First Nations seems to have admitted as much by reaching out to the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada for assistance in developing First Nation-specific accounting practices.
Reform Party Indian Affairs critic, Mike Scott, says he has 50 files, each involving a First Nation whose members have complaints about their council's accountability, files that he is actively following. He blames the system and the federal government for a lot of the problems.
Westbank Indian Band member Ray Derrickson said that the lack of a funded official Opposition in First Nations leads to abuses. He closely follows developments in his own British Columbia interior community, and he bemoans the lack of financial resources available to make his job easier.
"There's no opposition that's paid for," he said. "How do I go to work on this and put food on the table for my family when there's no money? That lack of funding within the system effectively controls any opposition."
Many people with an intimate knowledge of band politics and operations say the lack of accountability comes as much from fuzzy lines of communication and organization - things that aren't spelled out in any detail in the Indian Act - as it does from any overt act of corruption. Without well defined rules of behavior and universally understood and accepted methods of communication, mistakes are bound to happen.
Those mistakes can be costly and embarrassing. The stereotype of the Aboriginal person who is too simple, unsophisticated and lacking in the complex skills needed to run a government is fed by the inadequate system, some band councillors say. But when those mistakes in communication occur, the stereotype is also ina the minds of the councillors involved and the fear of embarrassment often causes cover-ups. Aboriginal people involved might even buy into the stereotype and believe they aren't as capable as white bureaucrats, Bill Wilson said.
Former Six Nations of the Grand River band councillor Dave Johns was elected to a two year term in late 1993, despite the fact he is a Mohawk nat- ionalist with no sympathy for the band council system.
He immediately became a thorn in the side of elected Chief Steve Williams and his council. Johns insisted on a level of openness and accountability that was unprecedented in his community.
His close-up look at the system has left him with the impression that the shallowness and unsophisticated nature of the governments created by the Indian Act was no accident.
"I don't think the plan was for us to be around in the 21st century or even the middle of this century," he said. "We were all supposed to be assimilated by then. I've read Indian Affairs documents that talked about the Indian problem in the body politic and what could be done to eliminate it. That Indian Act was supposed to be a temporary thing that would only be around long enough for them to get rid of us."
In any band council or tribal council of any size, Saskatchewan's Meadow Lake Tribal Council or the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation in Ontario have total annual budgets that are close to $50 million, the job of the band administrator is immense. In a typical band administration there are between 10 and 20 departments.
Unlike a municipal government, which is similar in size and in scope of responsibility, the program dollars are budgeted to cover the program only. Also unlike a municipal government, a band council can't raise its own revenue through taxation. That means control of the cash flow is exercised by the funding sources.
That has meant that the administrators who actually do the work may be able to see where it would be wise to deviate from a program, but they don't have the authority to do so. That can be extremely stressful; if you have to tell people that you can't help them when your job is to help them, you can be sure that each workday will be long and unpleasant. Burn-out and other long-term disabilities are not uncommon among band council employees, something that drives up the cost of administering the programs and further erodes the amount of money that actually gets used to help the people the program was intended to help.
Once the cash arrives at the First Nation, it makes its way to the department which is responsible for seeing that it is used as the funder intended (In theory, anyway. Councils frequently use money destined for one purpose for another purpose either out of necessity or as a gesture of independence.) Each department head looks after his or her department and then reports to the band administrator, the one person who must monitor the performance of the department heads and make sure they are keeping their staff members in line and providing an acceptable level of productivity in exchange for their wages.
One would think the administrator would always be a powerful person able to command the respect and obedience of the senior managers - he or she is their boss, after all. But the reality is the politicians are the bosses and their most important consideration is to get re-elected. They hate saying "no" to anyone because that costs votes. Council jobs and contracts are used as political capital on reserves. Politicians create support by handing out jobs and other favors to those who supported them in the last election. Just as in one common scenario is that the administrator assumes too much power because he or she has control of all the important information, in another scenario, it's not unusual for a capable administrator to be handcuffed by the politicians.
Indian Affairs Minister Stewart said she is willing to work in partnership with First Nations, but the federal government is only willing to deal with and recognize band councils. Across Canada, the push for a return to traditional government forms may create problems for the federal government even as it attempts to modify the existing band council system. Recognition of the inherent right to self government and a more respectful approach to First Nations by the federal government may be coming too little, too late to save the Indian Act system.
Can a nation govern itself without taxation? How?
Can Canada exist with sovereign First Nations located within its borders?
Is the Department of Indian Affairs ultimately to blame for corruption on reserves?
What ideas can you come up with to improve First Nations governments?
The more things change. . .
According to Canada's most recent statistics, the mean income of Aboriginal people aged 15 and above was just $14,700, or 61 per cent of the non-Aboriginal average.
Aboriginal unemployment was 24.6 per cent, as compared to a Canadian average of about 10 per cent. The unemployment gap continues to broaden over time.
Aboriginal people 15 years of age and over continue to have much lower levels of schooling than the non-Aboriginal populations, regardless of age group. More than one-half (54 per cent) of the Aboriginal population 15 and over had not received a high school diploma, compared with 35 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population.
Beginning in late November 1997, and continuing into early February, 63 Quesnel area children were taken from their families and placed in the care of social services. As many as 23 of those children were Aboriginal.
An Aboriginal woman and her eight year old son residing at the Tsuu T'ina First Nation near Calgary were shot dead by RCMP who were assisting a social worker who was trying to take the woman's children. The woman armed herself with a rifle, fired at authorities, and one constable fired back. The bullet went through the woman, killing the son who was standing behind her. People close to the slain woman said a family member should have been called in to intercede.
It will be late summer before the Supreme Court of Canada decides if goods purchased off reserve but intended for consumption on reserve are subject to provincial sales tax.
The federal government, in a move that law professors all over the country say is a violation of its fiduciary obligation to protect Aboriginal rights, argued that such purchases should be subject to taxation, despite the provisions of Section 87 of the Indian Act. Should the court decide the purchases are taxable, some Aboriginal leaders are contemplating asking the court to rehear the case because the issue of the federal government's fiduciary obligation was not raised during the appeal.
Many say political considerations lead the government to ignore its legal obligation.