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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  1. says


    Lovely piece. It may surprise you, but I find myself agreeing with 90% of it.

    My only beef is this – why is it up to the government to solve a particular problem such as this? Why can’t it be up to the various independent citizens who recognize the problem and are convicted that they should do something about it? Why should those citizens, through the government, force others to fund causes that they don’t necessarily support?

    For example, it was an independent, citizen-supported organization (the CTF) that brought the salary issue to light to begin with – it was in the government’s interest to hide that particular problem.

    With all the politics involved, I don’t believe there is such thing as a “deft touch” from the government. I don’t see it so much as a government “sitting back”, but rather getting itself – and its attendant vote-scrounging, corporate influence, and public sector union interests – out of the way.

  2. says

    I think perhaps I failed to articulate my point sufficiently. I don’t think it’s up to the government to solve it. I think that the government has a vested interest in creating the type of climate in which solutions are possible. I’m sure you’re familiar with catalyst chemistry – the government has the resources (and, arguably, the mandate) to facilitate the problem-solving at a much faster rate than would happen if the problem were left on its own. I too would be concerned if the government were trying to solve the problem (especially given the history that the government has with the particular group in question), but there is a role to be played that goes beyond “getting out of the way”. I am not sure what the difference is between “getting out of the way” and “sitting back”. Maybe you’d care to elaborate on that point?

    If I, and a group of fellow citizens, are convinced that our streets need to be improved (for example), the government could “solve” the problem by rebuilding the road themselves, but if we are not satisfied with their work then that’s not much of a solution. Alternatively, they could “get out of the way” by allowing us to dig up the road and build our own improvement, but if we lack the requisite knowledge, resources and skills required, we may end up making a bigger hash of it than they would. What I propose is that above and beyond “getting out of the way”, they make available a subsidy (again, for the sake of example) that would allow me or my neighbours to learn civil engineering and construction skills, send us a construction team that we can direct, and consult with us on the best way to make improvements in the future.

    The people on the next street may not appreciate their tax dollars going to our street improvement, but now we are in a position to either instruct or provide the services ourselves if need be. Just as I don’t appreciate “my” tax dollars going to pay for your kids’ schooling or your political party’s campaigning – two services I don’t see myself ever using – I recognize that such things are necessary for the good function of a society, and that “your” taxes pay a portion of my salary, as well as services that I, but not you, consume regularly.

    This is neither “solving” nor “getting out of the way” – it is an active engagement role in which government resources (although those are simply tax dollars stolen from innocent citizens at gunpoint by brownshirt government thugs, I hope you will allow me to get by with using the phrase) are mobilized to address the problem. While this is a cumbersome method for something as mundane as street repair, it is the approach I see as necessary when we are talking about something as multifaceted and urgent as the need for self-government and reduction in corruption.

    In one sense you are correct that it was “in the government’s interest” to conceal the problem. In the ideal case in which the government is working to improve the quality of life for its citizens (which, under Rousseau’s framework, it is), then it is “in the government interest” that First Nations communities have the wherewithal and capacity to self-govern, and the government can be actively engaged in that process without having to be the solution.

  3. eclectic squire says

    I was delighted to finally hear of a native person speaking up about the abuse of Band finances by their elected Chief and Councillors. As anyone travelling through North Vancouver must notice the Squamish Band’s residential area is run down and does not appear to reflect the wealth of the Squamish Nation. The Government of Canada has poured huge amounts of tax dollars into Native Communities, yet poverty and poor health are rife. As SF says the best thing is for Government to get out of the way; I would add quit shovelling our dollars indiscriminately at all kinds of social problems and enable people to find solutions themselves. A start would be allowing folks on welfare to earn up to at least the poverty level for 6 months before deducting from their check. This way they could get back on their feet to some degree especially in the current uncertain job market.

  4. says

    Thanks for your comment, Angela.

    I think we often confuse money with help. It takes nothing more than a few pen strokes to send millions of dollars to a community, but if that community lacks the clarity of vision and the wherewithal to actually do something to solve the problem, then it is simply good money thrown after bad. It is the same problem the developed world is facing with regard to Africa.

    I don’t think that “getting out of the way” addresses that problem at all. How much more “not in the way” could you be than to send money but not do anything with it? If the blueprint isn’t there, you can send all the building materials you want – ain’t nothin’ gonna happen.

    Your idea is interesting. I know that welfare tends to be a trap from which escape is nigh-insurmountably different. I’d be interested to see how such a solution would work in practice, but I don’t think that it is sufficient on its own.

  5. eclectic squire says

    “…I would add quit shovelling our dollars indiscriminately at all kinds of social problems and enable people to find solutions themselves”.
    By ‘getting out of the way’ I meant enabling people to solve their own problems, such as teaching a person to fish rather than just giving them food.
    The welfare idea has been successful elsewhere I’m told, I believe in Scandinavia but need to research it. Having been on assistance because of sickness and underemployment I know of what I speak. The rates are so low that people have to get extra money to survive, in effect many earn under the table; my idea would allow them to work openly and possibly lead to a full time liveable wage. Many people have no idea of the barriers some face to obtaining full-time work, nor how easily it can be taken away by strikes for example. Part-time instructors and other non-union workers at Community and Continuing Education Centres can be locked out by union action. Far fewer workers today are protected by collective agreements or the employment standards act; many are self-employed with no protection at all. You are very lucky to have the job you do.

  6. says

    Nobody considers me luckier to have this job than I do.

    I guess I can’t reconcile the idea of “teaching a man to fish” with “getting out of his way”. Those two don’t seem to be products of the same idea. The first is an actively engaged role (the kind that I am talking about, and I suspect you are too) and the other is simply not preventing him from getting to the water.

    I think the way we do welfare is pretty bad, considering that it disincentivizes someone from becoming self-sufficient (not because it’s a “handout”, but because if you use it to make money, you get punished). I think we are in lockstep as far as that is concerned. WRT unions, I will have to plead ignorance and just take your word for it. The only union I’ve ever been involved in is the Kingston’s musician’s union, and that was pretty tangential to my life.

  7. says

    For the record, I likely won’t be using tax dollars for my children’s schooling, and I’m on record opposing tax breaks to political parties, churches, and charities in general. I don’t understand why you should have to subsidize my ideas or ventures, or vice versa.

    To repeat myself, I don’t think we are far apart on this issue. The only problem is your insistence upon resource allocation, which I still feel is getting in the way.

    Brownshirts aside, I would even question the motive of charities that felt it best to impersonally place liquid resources directly in the hands of those facing these types of problems with no strings attached.

    If I might use your example, a dirt road built by residents on their own will be better cared for, and instill more pride, than a curbed asphalt street built with outside help. There’s no way to get around it – the intervention of any outside resources by an impersonal government will stunt the growth of positive values in the community, no matter what form that intervention takes.

    Diverting for a moment from the idealistic (and often misunderstood) Rousseau into the more mundane Machiavelli, it is in any government’s interest to be a) perceived as correcting a problem, and b) greasing the squeaky wheels. Therefore, quick fixes with dramatic eye-catching results, not to mention greasing the palms of those who are most able to cause political trouble, are favored. It is also in the government’s interest to conceal the collateral damage of these strategies, as you saw with the chiefs’ salary scandal. What is more, once the problem vanishes, so does the opportunity to fix something; this provides incentive for the government to to exaggerate, prolong, or even create problems.

    Individuals are therefore much more effective at steering their own hard-earned resources towards ends that they truly value.

  8. says

    I think we’re having two different debates, which is a sure sign that we agree on most of the substantive details. You’re absolutely correct that a dirt road built without interference will be more valued, and I have no quarrel with that statement. What I am saying is that if a well-intentioned third party were to provide the necessary instruction and resources to build an asphalt one, then the community would benefit more than if left to built the best dirt road they knew how. I say that this is a useful role for government to take that would be more useful than simply doing nothing, and would certainly be a selling point that could be used for political capital.

    Obviously this is not the default for government intervention, and that’s where the debate becomes about good governance vs. what we currently have. I am not advocating that we expect the government to solve problems; quite the opposite – I am calling for a change in how the government intervenes, since the old method clearly does not work and is not welcome.

    While individuals are better suited to steer their own resources, in circumstances where they lack the sufficient capacity to do so, non-intervention is not a step toward problem solving.

    I’m not sure where “plac(ing) liquid resources with no strings attached” came into the argument, but since I didn’t suggest that as a desirable option, I will join you in opposing it.

  9. says

    A sure sign of two worthy debate partners is that we can quickly distill where we must agree to disagree. I remain convinced that the dirt road will be more beneficial to the community because of the values and character that are built.

    I am also committed to a strict preservation of the Rule of Law (as preserved by Rosseau in his term General Will) – that positive government intervention of this sort necessarily results in inequality of treatment under the law.

    While individuals are better suited to steer their own resources, in circumstances where they lack the sufficient capacity to do so, I disagree with both non-intervention and government intervention. The point that I’m trying to make is that other individuals who recognize a problem with their neighbor are best suited (and morally obligated, in my belief) to intervene with their own resources. And the party with the problem is under no compulsion to accept the intervention.

    See? No brownshirts or thugs required.

  10. says

    Either that, or we just know better than to try and convince each other of anything.

    I am baffled by your either/or approach to things. Either the road must be COMPLETELY FREE of outside interference, or it must be ABSOLUTELY CONTROLLED by the government. Only the Sith deal in absolutes, young Scary-walker.

    Individuals are not currently barred from aiding their neighbours. They simply choose not to. I am not satisfied with leaving the entirety of society up to the magnanimity of individuals. You seem to think that it is better to suffer as a completely liberated individual than to prosper with any sort of interference from outside forces, a stance I find confusing and ultimately doomed for anyone who isn’t born into a position of advantage (not to mention society at large).

  11. says

    I can understand why you find my stance confusing. You have a natural aversion to the decentralization of societal institutions, which among other things would transfer power over them from the experts (I resisted the urge to use quote marks) to the individuals that fund and use them. You have a preference for the faster and more effective use of compulsion, under control of the intelligentsia, to enact fixes and enhancements that you feel are too pressing to bother with convincing the masses of their utility.

    Your stance is common among public intellectuals – and I mean that both as a complement and a pejorative. You are smart enough to see some of the major drawbacks of centralized control, but believe that the positive effects of your ideas outweigh the negative consequences of state control. Only when you are faced with clear evidence of the negative effects of central control (as you have in this post) are you willing to dial it back, but not eliminate it.

    As long as we are speaking about the Sith, young Crommi-Wan Kenobi, see it as the Light and the Dark side of the force. The Light side is used for knowledge and defence, never for attack. It does not impose its will on others, but seeks to protect the freedom of each person to do the maximum good in their own eyes. The Dark Side is easier, more seductive. It places the wielder as a surrogate decision-maker for others, allowing him to achieve his goals faster and more effectively. Following Lord Acton’s principle, corruption of those on the Dark Side is inevitable despite their best intentions. In addition, the population at large are conditioned to abdicate their moral responsibilities to others.

    So yes, I am an absolutist. Any discretionary positive control/interference by government whatsoever not only robs the piper of his choice of tune, but also infringes on the property rights and moral responsibilities of those from whom the resources were originally derived from. That is why I oppose government tax breaks for churches and charities, despite my personal benefit from them.

  12. says

    I should probably qualify my absolutist stance: I am talking about federal government, in which membership is completely compulsory. I would probably also include provincial government, but when it comes to local/municipal governments, I could be persuaded that there is enough freedom of mobility, and that these corporations are responsive enough to the needs of individuals to legitimate some positive interventions.

    I’m sure you know that Rosseau believed the best form of government was the city-state republic.

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