Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Mitchell was part of the plenary discussion on First Nations accountability at the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association Conference (AFOA) held in Toronto Feb. 12 to Feb. 14.
Joining him were Chief Tammy Cook Searson of the Lac La Ronge Band in Saskatchewan, Terry Goodtrack, president and CEO of AFOA, and former prime minister Paul Martin. About 800 delegates attended the plenary.
Mitchell said when he was elected in 1984, he found people in the community were behaving like “zombies”. They had lost their spirit. Indian Affairs, he said, “virtually ran our communities” and if you needed funding for anything, you had to apply. People from Ottawa would come out and file reports.
Shortly after his election, he was shocked when Indian Affairs informed him they were putting Akwesasne under third party management. There was a deficit but people in the community didn’t know about it.
The process of nation-building started then, Mitchell said. Council prepared a deficit retirement plan and took firm control of their administration and finance departments. They started keeping the community informed through annual reports that included not just how the money was spent, but also information such as how many children were graduating and how many teachers they hired.
A crucial move by the council was to separate politics and administration.
“Every chief that got elected was told to stay out of administration; stay out of finance,” Mitchell said. The other important thing they did was “to outlaw the word Band” recognizing it for the colonial term it is and changed their name to the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne.
“The accountability, I never was thinking about Indian Affairs,” Mitchell said. “The accountability I was thinking about was to our community.” All of these things combined have restored pride in their people, he said, because they’re informed and feel they have some say in their community.
As far as accountability to government, Mitchell said they prepare 72 different audit reports for various governments. When Mitchell asked the neighbouring city of Cornwall how many they prepare, he learned they prepare just one. The community of Akwesasne straddles the Canadian-US border and is situated in two provinces –Ontario and Quebec. This brings many challenges, Mitchell said.
The subject of persuading ordinary Canadians to join Aboriginal people as allies was introduced by former PM Paul Martin.
“Canadians are a fair people,” he said. “Canadians will not stand for unfairness or injustice. If they don’t have the facts… you can’t expect them to join in the battle.” Martin said the reason the Idle No More movement has been so successful is because it has reached out to Canadians; told them this is as much Canadians’ battle as it is First Nations’.
Martin spoke about the government’s concerted effort to discredit First Nations in the eyes of Canadians “who are constantly being fed with a never-ending stream of negative innuendo about the quality of Aboriginal accountability,” Martin said.
“I can tell you that, overwhelmingly, that account-ability is done with as much integrity and character as it can possibly be.” He acknowledged that while there might occasionally be a First Nation not living up to its obligations, this is a small minority.
“What this government is trying to do,” he said “is to convince Canadians that the leadership of First Nations don’t care about accountability.”
To counteract the government’s strategy, Aboriginal people need to respond quickly when information is published that is skewed or simply not true, Martin said, and gave two examples.
During the media storm about Attawapiskat’s audit, Canadians were told that funding given to that community was equivalent to each resident receiving $11,000. Two weeks later, a report was released showing that per capita spending in Toronto was $24,000, over twice as much as Attawapiskat’s residents. A press release from First Nations would have helped Canadians put the issue into context.
The other example Martin cited was about education. The minister of Aboriginal Affairs made a statement that funding for education on-reserve is comparable to what provinces provide to schools off-reserve. A reply the next day from First Nations citing the amounts actually provided— for example, that Quebec First Nations get 50 per cent of what the province provides to other communities— would show the lie and help Canadians understand and “then this would be a very different debate,” Martin said. “We have to use every means at our disposal,” he continued, “and what that means is providing the explanations and the facts for the rest of Canadians to understand what they would never stand for.”
Chief Searson said that while she gets tired of educating people, she agreed with Martin about the importance of “learning our facts, our truth and speaking it out there” to advance our cause. The racism is so entrenched, she said, and people don’t realize how deep it runs. She sees this changing, however, with increased openness, awareness and understanding about Aboriginal issues.
“When Canadians know the truth, they become our greatest allies,” Martin said.