Chief Theresa Spence, the unofficial face of the Idle No More Movement, has brought unprecedented national attention to aboriginal issues. But what issues exactly? Chief Spence’s own inarticulate answers to inquiries as to allocation of funds, and the generally vague statements by protesters and representatives alike (official and unofficial), has hindered rather than helped any distinguishable cause, which after sifting through many statements can be anything from enforcing or changing treaty rights, increasing funding, or Bill C-45 (whose putative negative effects on reserves are debatable).
There are many fundamental problems at the root of Idle No More, least of all the romantic notion of the hunters and trappers robbed of their traditional way of life by oppressive European conquerors. To focus around one aspect that seems to be the root of many issues, Idle No More is a mess of accountability. The most apparent accountability issue is the embarrassing lack of documentation for millions of dollars (reportedly over $120 million over the past six years) to Theresa Spence’s reserve of Attawapiskat, the publicity of which has certainly been to the detriment of other well-organized reserves. This is at best incompetence and at worst corruption, keeping in mind that whether or not there was proper bookkeeping on the reserve, any consultants, lawyers or contractors would have issued receipts for their work. Anyone can sympathise with demands for clean water, safe housing, and proper schools in any Canadian community. But when millions of taxpayer dollars directed to these needs evaporate unaccounted for, the Canadian government must examine fundamental problems before giving into threats and providing more money to perpetuate unsustainable environments.
There is a lack of accountability as to who has responsibility for what. Specific problems have been highlighted in education, healthcare, and infrastructure on reserves. Nationally, these are under provincial jurisdiction. But the funding of reserves is under federal jurisdiction, and the reserves are given the right to operate fully independently by the Indian Act. The funding comes from the federal government and is controlled by the band leaders and councils. Thus the reserves have control over standards in the sectors mentioned and the funds to facilitate them (Canada provides about $11billion to reserves annually, according to Aboriginal Affairs Canada). As a result, standards concerning financial reporting and auditing vary widely. Here there is a lack of transparency that can facilitate the unethical behaviour of authorities, allowing chiefs and band leaders to pay themselves inordinate salaries and allocate funds inefficiently and irresponsibly. Again, this is not the case on all reserves. The media attention to this is to the detriment of well-organised reserves using their funding more efficiently, as well as those who have engaged with other Canadian communities to their economic benefit, especially in the field of resource development.
There is an accountability issue with housing specifically. Reports of decrepit low-quality housing on reserves are rampant. On the reserves themselves, the communal land ownership model means that no individual owns their house. This means that they do not have responsibility for it, nor can they benefit from it by selling or leveraging equity. Here there is a contradiction between community rights under section 35 of the Indian Act, and individual rights and responsibilities in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Many, including the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation, advocate giving reserves full control over their land, and provide other recommendations to increase prosperity among Aboriginal people.
But perhaps most basically, native reserves, especially remote reserves, are communities without an economy. Not economically viable, they cannot function like sovereign nations, which they hold ideal, as they are dependent on government funds to survive. Misdirected handouts have not helped anyone rise quickly out of poverty. Others may be at fault for poor conditions on reserves, but projecting blame and perpetuating victim rhetoric does not directly address key issues that need to be surmounted. Dependency and autonomy cannot exist together. Accountability and self-sufficiency are all that can lead to success.