To the average person, the list of technical reforms in the First Nations Governance Act (Bill C-7), lurching its way this week through the House of Commons, might sound mundane. But to aboriginal leaders and those worried about the future of relations between native nations and the rest of Canada, these tinkerings are anything but innocuous. Taken together, they severely limit the possibilities for self-government, a fact that has led to massive protest across the country. Tomorrow (Friday, June 13), the newly formed Aboriginal Peoples Council in Toronto buses demonstrators to the Milton office of Liberal MP Julian Reed, a member of the feds' standing committee on aboriginal affairs.
To hear Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault tell it, the bill is a way to help native communities, giving them the tools for sound government management by spelling out band bylaw-making powers. It also gives First Nations two years to create election codes (imposing a default code on those that don't) and requires bands to issue annual reports to members. Why so much opposition? Who could be against governance tools and elections? While much of the problem is in the details, the protests are also spurred by deeper concerns about process and trust. The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples said billions of dollars were needed in new funding to ease the native housing crisis, spur economic development and give native people control over education, culture and land.
But out of the blue comes a bill wildly irrelevant to these concerns. "Why are we talking about legal standing and bylaw-making when we have houses that need to be built and people who need clean drinking water?" AFN spokesperson Don Kelly asks me.
Take the question of election codes. Every First Nation in the country already hasa system for selecting its leaders. Many of the rules are written down. Some, as in the Canadian parliamentary system, have evolved over generations as unwritten traditions.
Is two years enough time to codify election processes that would govern First Nations communities for generations? First Nations don't think so. When the Crees of Quebec negotiated Canada's first self-government deal in 1984, they needed five years to hammer out election procedures for just eight communities, and that was with a decent amount of government funding. Why the rush?
But most stunning is Nault's mantra that Bill C-7 will make bands more accountable for federal spending. The line plays into anti-aboriginal rhetoric that some kind of out-of-control spigot is pouring oceans of taxpayer dollars into the laps of chiefs.
Nothing could be more unjust. Federal records show the average First Nations elected leader makes a middling $28,300 a year. And in a little-noticed report last year, Auditor General Sheila Fraser stated that bands - most of them with populations under 500 - file a whopping 168 reports on average to Ottawa every year. Most of that information is never used. Fraser said reporting requirements should be streamlined, not increased even more.
Little wonder that aboriginal rights lawyer James O'Reilly calls Nault's rhetoric "despicable." "Sure, there are (accountability) problems, but they're no greater than those at the federal government," he says. O'Reilly is especially alarmed by a clause that outlines the Indian Affairs minister's power to take over management of bands experiencing financial woes. Until now, Indian Affairs has exercised this power in an ad hoc way. O'Reilly says this and other clauses are a big blow to self-government moves. "They are hiding (attempts to undermine self-government) in technical details.'
Nault has denied that Bill C-7 infringes on aboriginal rights. But a leaked cabinet memo from 2002 suggests otherwise. The memo predicts that First Nations are likely to challenge the legislation in court as a violation of their constitutionally protected aboriginal rights.
The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations has indeed mounted a court challenge to Bill C-7, and the AFN vows to follow suit. Whether Chretien and Nault have really helped native people with Bill C-7, is now a matter for a judge to decide.