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Canada's Hypocrisy on Accountability and First Nation Poverty

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reports this month that First Nations children are living in poverty at triple the national average. The report points out that poverty is measured not only by income, but also by community well-being: water quality, infant mortality, health, suicide, crowding and homelessness.

The reports note that "direct investment…is part of the answer, [but] other solutions exist," including sharing the "wealth of natural resources" and support for First Nations "in pursuing self-government, leading to better accountability."

"Accountability" has been a prominent theme of critics of First Nations governments. Canada's new law, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, requires First Nations to publish annual audited consolidated financial statements they already prepare (and many already publish), as well as a schedule of chiefs and councilors'’ salaries and expenses.

Don Lenihan, of the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa, pointed out that this law will not end the debate, since "accountability" means more than reporting where money goes: it means reporting decision-making and "outcomes"—why money was spent on one thing rather than another, and what this achieved. He adds, "When it comes to accountability for outcomes, mainstream governments are only marginally ahead of First Nations — and hardly in a position to lecture them on it."

Polls conducted by Ipsos in January 2013, during protests by Idle No More—including the fast by Attawapiskat Nation Chief Theresa Spence—showed an 81 percent national Canadian majority opinion that "no additional taxpayer money should go to any Reserve until external auditors can be put in place to ensure financial accountability." The rub is that First Nations already have external auditors, whose reports are public. Suffice it to say that poll answers demonstrate ignorance as well as opinion trends.

The polls produced other odd results: For example, 63 percent of respondents favored "resolving land claims to provide Aboriginal Peoples with the land and resources needed to become self-sufficient" and for the federal government "to act now to raise the quality of life for Aboriginal peoples." Yet, 64% agreed, "Canada’s Aboriginal peoples receive too much support from Canadian taxpayers."

Whatever else these polls show, they prove that the social environment for First Nations peoples is quite difficult: 60 percent of respondents nationally (up 25 points from 35 percent in 1989) agreed, "Most of the problems of native peoples are brought on by themselves." In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the majority was 76 percent. It's an uphill battle against ignorance, confusion, and hostility.

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For those willing to look, there is much to support First Nations in answering their critics. For example, a CBC News report on First Nations accountability quotes the former Canadian Auditor General stating that each Native Reserve is required to file 168 reports annually to just the top four federal organizations. The deputy minister of Aboriginal and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) confirmed the auditor general, saying, "First Nations… are caught in a complex web of reporting requirements, some of which are of dubious usefulness to them or to the organizations seeking the reports."

CBC found sentiment among First Nations communities in favor of better accountability, but it focuses on developing capacity and expertise for their own financial management systems. Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said, "A lot of our community people who are raising issues about accountability have a very legitimate reason to do that but with that said, it's being taken advantage of, it's being exploited by governments that want to push through their agenda."

The current paternalistic system of the 1876 Indian Act deprives First Nations of basic authority over their own affairs. Tom Flanagan, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Harper, told CBC the Indian Act turns First Nations peoples into "objects of administration." This is a situation guaranteed to breed local disengagement and political shenanigans.

Another CBC on First Nations funding provides further evidence that the path to greater self-government—becoming governments like any other government, with powers of economic development, taxation, and social services—is the viable path to real accountability. The Indian Act undermines self-government, claiming federal control of Indian lands and economies and turning Indian peoples into "wards" of the Canadian government.

The CBC points out that those First Nations that have broken out of the Indian Act have developed a wide variety of economic resources, generating their own revenue and contributing to regional economies.
In all the talk of accountability, critics often miss another key element: the need for accountability by the Canadian government for its long history of colonization and land theft. These issues drive land claim settlements, but with little public understanding of the historical and legal basis for ongoing funding.

Moreover, there is almost no accountability in AANDC administration itself. A 2008 study done for the agency showed "a lack of clarity about the overall objectives of the funding arrangements, a lack of coherence among programs and funding authorities that make up the arrangements, and no clear leadership at [AANDC] Headquarters."

The accountability debate has some real issues, but it also has the pot calling the kettle black.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002.