Millions spent on aboriginal lobby, not people

Several years back, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) released a study entitled, Federal government funding to First Nations: The fact, the myths and the way forward.

Several years back, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) released a study entitled, Federal government funding to First Nations: The fact, the myths and the way forward.

The report attempted to debunk the notion First Nation spending was being wasted. The paper asserted band governments were underfunded as federal government commitments did not keep up with inflation and population growth.

While these contentions deserve exploration, what is not debatable is that financial controls need to first be in place over Aboriginal spending. Senator Patrick Brazeau, former head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), is leading an ongoing Senate inquiry into Aboriginal accountability to just such an end.

This review is long overdue and in his recent speech, Brazeau addressed the issue of Aboriginal accountability in front of his Senate colleagues. He mentioned that in late 2008, Indian Affairs commissioned the Institute on Governance, a non-partisan think tank, to look into the issue of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) funding arrangements and accountability systems.

Among other matters, the study revealed accountability mechanisms were dysfunctional. For example, there were no serious attempts at ensuring value for dollars spent; there was also no way to impose consequences for poor performance.

In their report, the AFN correctly pointed out that, obviously, not all chiefs deserve to be painted as wasteful and corrupt, but they missed the boat when it came to accountability mechanisms.

Of INAC’s $7 billion annual allotment, about 83 per cent goes directly to band councils to distribute. In fact, federal investments in aboriginal affairs amount to over $10 billion spread out over 30 departments. While not all this money goes to band leaders, most of it does and so these leaders must demonstrate they are using the money wisely.

So, before Ottawa looks into the issue of underfunding band governments – it’s impossible to prove until you’ve got a grip on how useful existing spending is – it should seriously look at how things are being spent now. In fact, it should look at how Aboriginal political groups, such as the AFN, are funded.

One useful observation was that over the past five fiscal years, five national Aboriginal organizations – the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapirriit Kanatami, the Metis National Council, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and the Native Women’s Association of Canada – have received about $239 million in taxpayer money. Of that amount, the AFN received over $136 million.

The problem Brazeau identified was that, by and large, these organizations do not provide front-line services to Aboriginal Canadians. They all purport to speak for various constituencies; in reality, they’re lobby groups that seek to influence the direction of Canada’s policies towards Aboriginal peoples, or the specific sub-group they happen to represent. And too often, more cash, instead of more accountability, is assumed the cure.

While no one questions the need for a strong Aboriginal voice within the Canadian political system, it is not evident those voices are being represented well for the money being spent.

Most of these organizations do not provide a voice for grassroots aboriginals or even a vote. For example, organizations like the AFN are controlled by chiefs. Despite a call in 2007 from its own renewal commission for direct election of the national chief, that organization has not moved on the issue.

Often, all the national Aboriginal organizations act together in concert to prevent serious reform of band governance or aspects of aboriginal policy that need fixing, which would advance average members.

At a minimum, members of the various aboriginal communities should be able to choose how they wish to be represented, if at all.

While First Nation leaders complain about wasteful bureaucracy within INAC (and make no mistake, there is inefficiency there), aboriginal communities should look at their own costly bureaucracies first, including the many organizations that purport to represent First Nation citizens.

While these organizations raise important issues, First Nation communities must question the need of being over-represented at every level and at public expense. Moreover, recent revelations about exorbitant chief and council salaries reveals the high cost of band governance when one realizes there are over 600 First Nation governments.

In addressing the Senate, Brazeau dared to ask how many housing, education, social services, or economic development programs these same dollars would have funded, instead of funding lobby groups that often duplicate each other. These organizations are largely funded by taxpayers, so they must question if their hard-earned money is actually helping Aboriginal people get ahead. Anything less would be immoral.

Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy who focuses on aboriginal matters among many other things. He is from the Sudbury region of Northern Ontario, and has Metis ancestry from Quebec.

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