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Canadian Native communities face a new kind of challenge

There was once a time when I called myself a libertarian. After all, I believe that people should be allowed to do what they like, as long as it hurts nobody besides themselves (Scary Fundamentalist is going to poke me for this statement, too). I think that innovation happens when people are allowed to address challenges in whatever creative ways, rather than when they are forced to abide by a strict set of rules. I think that the more free a society is, the better off its citizens are. However, these are principles that have caveats: external regulation is necessary to prevent exploitation and fraud; liberty is not absolute, particularly when one person’s liberty infringes on another’s; it is sometimes justifiable to curtail the actions of a few to benefit the many in the long term. As such, I am not well-described by the term libertarian, and unlike CLS, I am not attached enough to the term to try and reclaim it.

However, the ghosts of my long-dead love affair with Ayn Rand were momentarily stirred when I read this story:

[Brian] Smith had made headlines for leading a grassroots uprising against the elected leaders of the Glooscap First Nation, after learning that his chief and councillors were each collecting more than $200,000 in salary and other payments — for running a community of 87 people.  He organized a petition demanding a community meeting, where Glooscap leaders were made to account for their extraordinary pay and promise more transparency in the future.

“You’re changing the way things are done,” said one email to Smith from an Ojibway supporter in Central Canada, whose sentiments were typical of the messages Smith received after the Glooscap details broke.  “I’m really, really, really happy you are standing firm on this and giving voice to us First Nations people who want better governance. I’m (also) proud that change is going to come from the community level, and from a First Nation person.”

It is a well-understood fact in sociology circles that if you want to engender lasting and meaningful change in a community, the solutions must come from the community itself. As well-intentioned as outside help might be, it stands the risk of being resented or worse, mischaracterizing the problem and failing to take salient details into account. Friends of mine went on a humanitarian aid trip to Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario a few years ago, to conduct what is known as a Needs Assessment – determining what problems face a community and what resources are needed to address them through dialogue with members of the community. The community expressed a strong desire to have public health education and resources made available. When the team pointed out that there was a federal building staffed with 2 public health nurses and the resources they had asked for, the community pointed out that it was “the government’s building”. Branded as it was with the federal logo and built without consultation from the community leaders, members of the public distrusted the service and assumed it was for the government’s use.

It has been a common practice to see a problem and swoop in to try and solve it. However, as anyone who has been on the receiving end of such an effort knows, this approach is rarely helpful. What is needed is direction from within the community, which fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility for solving the issues. To make it fully effective, such an effort should be supported by resource allocation (from the government or the NGO or whatever external parter is present), but their use must be determined by those stakeholders who use the service, not by those providing it. It seems perverse and exclusionary, but it is the only way to sufficiently address the problem.

With issues of good governance, it seems that members of First Nations communities are realizing this for themselves:

“I don’t have any desire for the federal government to come in and solve our problems,” says Cherie Francis, another Glooscap member angered by what her chief and councillors were being paid. “We elected these people. At some point, we have to step up in our own community and be responsible for our own actions, and our own leaders.”

“I’m glad Indian Affairs is staying out of this,” says Smith, who works as director of operations for the Vancouver-based National Centre for First Nations Governance, an independent group that promotes good leadership in native communities. “In the past, Indian Affairs would have jumped right in. That has changed in recent years. I think the message First Nations people are giving to the federal government is, at the end of the day we want to be more responsible for ourselves. And sometimes you’ve got to learn the hard way what is the right and wrong way of doing things.”

Ronald Reagan lampooned this (perhaps) well-intentioned bungling and over-reaching with his immortal line about the nine scariest words you’ll ever hear: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. Of course, as with most conservative calling cards, this drastically over-simplifies the issue. There is absolutely a way for government to help, and sometimes it is necessary for it to do so. However, when it overasserts its role and tries to solve the problem rather than making available the resources required for an organic solution, problems inevitably arise. The opposite approach, a sort of laissez-faire approach where government sits back, does nothing, and waits for problems to solve themselves, does nothing other than allowing the current conditions to continue unabated. A deft touch is required – one that is sensitive to the contemporary and historical forces at work in the situation and navigates the waters accordingly. This deft touch involves active engagement, and exists somewhere between the authoritarian “we fix it” and the libertarian “you fix it”.

This is fertile ground for a much longer discussion, but suffice it to say that the racial barriers, stigma, and long cultural history of betrayal and oppression facing First Nations people in Canada can be addressed, and self-government goes a long way toward starting that process. There is a role for all Canadians to play in this fight, and a role for government as well; provided it stays its hand and acts according to the will of the people rather than its own ideas of how to “fix” the Native “problem”.

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