Tory plan would empower natives says columnist 0
The plight of residents living on the Attawapiskat reserve began long before news broke last year that some band members were living in conditions resembling a war zone.
Between the chief, her council (the band has received more than $90 million since 2006) and the federal government, which handled the crisis poorly from the beginning, there's plenty of blame to go around for this unacceptable situation.
But the root of the problem, an all-too-familiar one on reserves across Canada, begins and ends with the Indian Act.
It's a paternalistic document and an abject failure that denies natives basic property rights, thereby keeping them in a cycle of poverty.
In 1969, an infamous "White Paper" written by then-Indian affairs minister Jean Chretien for the Trudeau government recommended abolishing the Indian Act.
This suggestion was met with a resounding "no" from the native leadership of the time, but many present-day native leaders have made impassioned pleas for the abolition of the act.
Unfortunately, the Conservative government, like the Liberal government before it, hasn't shown a willingness to do this.
Instead, it has chosen to introduce Bill C-27, "An act to enhance the financial accountability and transparency of First Nations." Although this bill on its own won't undo the damage of the Indian Act, it helps to address one of the fundamental problems on many native reserves today --a lack of accountability for taxpayers' dollars spent.
It's worth noting this bill could also apply to every government department.
Brought forward by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, the stated purpose of the legislation, which is quietly making its way through Parliament, is to "enhance the financial accountability and transparency of First Nations by requiring the preparation and public disclosure of their audited consolidated financial statements and of the schedules of remuneration paid by a First Nation or by any entity that it controls, as the case may be, to its chief and each of its councillors, acting in their capacity as such and in any other capacity, including their personal capacity." The average on-reserve population is almost 1,200 residents.
More than $7 billion is spent annually on "transfers" to reserves across the country. While it comes as no surprise to those living on reserves, there is little or no disclosure of where this money has been spent.
Among the most egregious controversies, one chief received a salary of more than $970,000 tax-free on a reserve in Atlantic Canada where there were 304 residents.
To be sure, many reserves have done extremely well with economic development initiatives, while ensuring a decent standard of living for their residents.
This legislation is meant to deal with the worst of the worst, so individual band members can ask their leaders where the money went when the water isn't running or the school isn't being built.
It's a direct way of empowering natives to question their leaders, without fear of reprisal.
Although the Harper governm e nt won't dismantle this system entirely, it deserves credit for taking steps to making it more accountable to those who live within it.